AOL Time Warner Merger Enables Isaacson’s Media Leap

The ostensible purpose of Norman Pearlstine’s July 10 staff memo was to announce the appointment of Fortune editor John Huey

The ostensible purpose of Norman Pearlstine’s July 10 staff memo was to announce the appointment of Fortune editor John Huey to the No. 2 editorial post at Time Inc. But the first name the Time Inc. editor in chief mentioned was Walter Isaacson. “We should consider Walter Isaacson’s appointment yesterday as Chairman and CEO of the CNN News Group, for example, as high tribute to the kind of leadership our culture produces,” Mr. Pearlstine wrote.

With the surprising announcement the day before that Mr. Isaacson was off to CNN, Time Inc. is receiving a lesson on how it fits into the scheme of things in the still-congealing world of AOL Time Warner. While Time Inc. had survived mergers with Warner Bros. and Turner Broadcasting System as a relatively hermetically sealed institution, Mr. Isaacson’s jump to a new medium and a new division–an unprecedented move–shows that ambition can and will lead to places beyond the confines of the Time-Life Building on Sixth Avenue.

It’s a lesson that Mr. Isaacson–who, as editorial director, acted as the liaison with the rest of the corporation–has learned well.

“Especially in journalism, there are broader opportunities at AOL Time Warner than there were before,” Mr. Isaacson said. “And who knows? People could end up at the online division, they can end up in the television division, they can end up in the print division.”

Though Mr. Isaacson has barely started at CNN, his move into television has already inspired visions of an AOL Time Warner über -editor who would oversee all journalism, whether it be in print, on TV or online, with Mr. Isaacson–assuming his CNN stint goes well–as the leading candidate for the as-yet-nonexistent job.

His old boss, Mr. Pearlstine, reiterated that he’s never heard of formal or informal conversations about the creation of such a post. Nonetheless, he added, “If you have someone who’s been successful in print, successful in new media and successful in television, and you decide that’s what you want to do, that’s the kind of person you’d look to.”

And now it’s a lesson that Mr. Pearlstine has learned. In conversations with Off the Record, Mr. Pearlstine used the word “division” a lot to refer to Time Inc.–and when he mentioned “the company,” he always meant AOL Time Warner.

Mr. Pearlstine, who came to Time Inc. in 1995 to help usher the magazine publisher into the multimedia age, announced on July 10 a wholesale restructuring at the top of Time Inc. Part of that restructuring involves taking over Mr. Isaacson’s old liaison duties with other AOL Time Warner properties. “Unlike the merger with Warner or even the merger with Turner, this merger would really be encouraging us to look for synergies and ways to do things across divisions,” he said.

To that end, Mr. Pearlstine also redrew the Time Inc. organization chart, with all the managing editors of all the weekly magazines– Fortune, Time, People, Sports Illustrated and Entertainment Weekly –now reporting to Mr. Huey.

Mr. Pearlstine said that he’d offered Mr. Huey a promotion at the end of last year. “I tried to reorganize last year and asked both Isaacson and Huey to come up to [the 34th floor of the Time-Life Building, home of Time Inc.’s corporate offices],” he said. “John at that point felt that he was happier, frankly, focusing on the business titles and having a clearly defined area of responsibility, as opposed to something that was going to be by definition a whole lot more amorphous.”

For his part, Mr. Huey said that Mr. Pearlstine’s previous proposal “just wasn’t a compelling offer.”

News of Mr. Isaacson’s departure, which caused the rejiggering of Time Inc.’s editorial structure, came–of all places–from Fortune ‘s media and entertainment reporter, Marc Gunther. Tucked into a package on parent company AOL Time Warner that closed on Friday, July 6, was a line casually mentioning that AOL Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin had been “trying to persuade Walter Isaacson, editorial director of Time Inc., to take the reins of troubled CNN.”

“I knew about it when the reporter uncovered it late last week,” Mr. Huey said. Mr. Pearlstine, who famously reads the bulk of Time Inc. magazines before they publish–especially when they concern Time Inc.–thus learned there was a chance he would lose Mr. Isaacson to CNN from a Fortune page proof.

“I read everything in all of our magazines about AOL Time Warner and its competitors,” Mr. Pearlstine said. Time Inc. journalists aren’t supposed to get special access to AOL Time Warner executives, but Mr. Pearlstine said he is concerned that what his magazines print will be treated as official releases nonetheless. “The price is higher when we’re wrong,” he said.

In this instance, Fortune was not wrong. Over the weekend, Mr. Pearlstine put together his post-Isaacson plans.

–Gabriel Snyder

You may have noticed that New York Times N.B.A. beat writer Mike Wise wrote quite a lot about the Los Angeles Lakers this past season. It was Mr. Wise, remember, who broke national news in The Times about the simmering feud between the Lakers’ star center, Shaquille O’Neal, and their brilliant but petulant guard, Kobe Bryant. He meticulously chronicled Laker coach Phil Jackson’s efforts to improve team morale; he noted the emergence of bit-player guard Derek Fisher as a feared pro; and he was all over their purple-and-gold case when the Lakers rediscovered their harmony en route to a second straight N.B.A. championship.

No doubt, the Lakers were a great drama and success this season, and Mr. Wise sure got the inside dope. But there was one piece of inside dope he didn’t get to put his name on. Last year, Mr. Wise agreed to help Mr. O’Neal write his autobiography, Shaq Talks Back –only to have the pooh-bahs at The Times jab a big fat elbow into that potentially fruitful collaboration.

According to one Times source, Mr. Wise was selected from among four writers to co-author the book (released in March by St. Martin’s Press as Shaq Talks Back ) and spent two weeks interviewing Mr. O’Neal in Orlando, Fla., last summer. Mr. Wise had told higher-ups at The Times about the arrangement prior to his sessions with Shaq, the source said, but when the reporter was ready to sit down and write the thing last October, word came from above that he wouldn’t be allowed to do it. According to the source, The Times was possibly concerned about any conflict-of-interest issues that might come up with its N.B.A. beat writer collaborating on a business venture with the game’s biggest star.

So the task of writing the book fell to writer Charles Bock, who had been a friend of Mr. Wise for years. According to Mr. Bock, Mr. Wise had already hired him to top-edit the book when he got the understudy’s call in October. In fact, Mr. Bock says, he had already put together an outline and was in possession of all the interview transcripts from the 21 tapes Mr. Wise had produced with Mr. O’Neal last summer. Though not credited as a co-author (he’s listed in the acknowledgments), Mr. Bock spent the next five to six weeks holed up in his apartment eating takeout, poring over the transcripts and talking to Mr. O’Neal three to five times.

“Really,” Mr. Bock said, “the transcripts were the book. It’s Shaq’s life.”

Times bosses were satisfied with the arrangement. “Mike may have done some initial taping,” said Mr. Wise’s editor at The Times , Neil Amdur. “But there was no collaboration on the book. The book was done by Shaquille O’Neal.”

Mr. Wise politely declined to go into the matter but did say, “There was miscommunication on my part. I wasn’t sure whether or not I could do it. At the end of the day, I had to pull out.”

But while ghostwriting arrangements between reporters and subjects pose obvious conflict questions, such arrangements are commonplace in the comparatively fast-and-loose world of professional sports writing. The Boston Globe ‘s Bob Ryan co-authored Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive: The Story of My Life, and Sports Illustrated ‘s Rick Reilly wrote Gretzky: An Autobiography with Wayne Gretzky. Former Sport editor and ESPN commentator Dick Schapp has made something of a cottage industry of it–doing books with Jerry Kramer and Bo Jackson and a 1987 book with Phil Simms and Phil McConkey. Daily News columnist Mike Lupica worked with both Bill Parcells and Reggie Jackson on their life stories.

Mr. Wise did not go without credit for his labor, however. In his acknowledgments page to Shaq Talks Back , Mr. O’Neal gives a special shout-out to Mr. Wise, who “made me talk about some things that I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time.”

And these days, Mr. Wise sounds content with how it all played out. “If there was one thing I took away,” he said, “it’s this: You have to obliterate these lines of any potential conflicts, because people will call you on them.”

–Sridhar Pappu

Several weeks ago, a strange posting went up on the Legislative Correspondents Association bulletin board in the press room at the Capitol in Albany. Fredric Dicker, the New York Post ‘s expert on state affairs, had written an all-caps memo to his colleagues. “I plan to offer a resolution at the next LCA meeting ending the role of the ‘LCA Alumni’ in presenting an annual award for reporting excellence at the LCA show.”

Mr. Dicker was referring to the Walter T. Brown Award, the annual award given for coverage of state government at the L.C.A.’s annual lampoon show. (It’s very similar to the Inner Circle dinner held in the city.) The L.C.A. Alumni–an independent group of former state reporters, some of whom have gone into the more lucrative fields of public relations for government agencies or lobbying the legislature–decide who gets the award.

Mr. Dicker continued: “I’ll do this after concluding that the selection process for the award is unfair, arbitrary, biased, and manipulated by a small group of individuals who have direct or indirect ties to the government we all cover.”

This year Jordan Rau, the Albany bureau chief for Newsday , was the recipient of the $500 prize. And in years past, the winners included Paul Ertelt of the Watertown Daily Times , Richard Perez-Peña of The New York Times and Jon Sorensen, formerly the bureau chief for the Daily News , now the spokesman for the Consumer Protection Board.

Mr. Dicker–whose last big scoop was “Air Pataki,” a story about how the Governor has spent $136,000 of taxpayers’ money on chartering private jets–told Off the Record that he wanted to take the judging out of the hands of people who have a direct interest in what statehouse reporters write. He also hinted that the fact that he last won the award in 1987 might have something to do with his ire.

“In 14 years, I think I would have had one year where I distinguished myself enough to win,” Mr. Dicker said.

Mr. Rau, this year’s winner, said, “Fred’s got a vineyard’s worth of sour grapes. He didn’t object to accepting the award in 1982 or 1987. He’s just steamed that fewer people appreciate his brand of journalism, which chronicles back-room political bickering while ignoring the substantive impact of government on people’s lives.”

The current L.C.A. president, Matt Cox of Bloomberg News, said Mr. Dicker’s concerns would be taken up at the next L.C.A. meeting. “It’s kind of a tough thing. It’s our show as the L.C.A., and it’s their [the L.C.A. Alumni] award. My thought has always been that they’d made mistakes in the past because they haven’t given it to me.”


AOL Time Warner Merger Enables Isaacson’s Media Leap