Jim Kelly on Time Inc.’s Future (And His Own)

The Observer met up with outgoing Time Inc. managing editor Jim Kelly yesterday morning to talk about the future. We had breakfast in a second floor dining room in the Time Inc. building that overlooked Sixth Avenue. We put on our tape recorder and let Mr. Kelly, who spent 31 years at Time Inc, including five years as Time Magazine’s managing editor and the last three as Time Inc.’s managing editor, for a bit of an exit interview.

First, we brought up the question that is suddenly burning up the Web pages: should newspapers and magazines charge readers for access to content? What about micropayments–charging tiny amounts for tiny amounts of content, a la iTunes? It seems to be the approach endorsed by his predecessor as Time top editor, Walter Isaacson.

“Micro payments would not work for me,” he said over bites of oatmeal and gulps of orange juice. “As some people have pointed out, it works for iTunes because it’s something you can listen to it over and over again, and, as good Tom Friedman is, I wouldn’t want to read the same column over and over again.”

He would, however, pay to subscribe to a bundle of premium content providers.

“I would happily pay a monthly fee like a paid for premium channels on my TV that bundle together five news outlets of mine so I could get time.com, nytimes.com, wsj.com, just as right now I can get HBO, Cinemax, Stars and something else or I could get the sports channels,” he said. “I would happily do that.”

“Paid content in some fashion is just inevitable,” he continued. “The idea that the price of advertising would slowly creep up enough on the web that it would be a profitable business is obviously turning out to be not anywhere near the case. “

This sounded not unlike what his soon-to-be ex-boss has been saying lately.

“Who started this rumor that all information should be free and why didn’t we challenge this when it first came out?” said Time Inc. chief executive Ann Moore to the Telegraph last week. She said the pay model was inevitable too.

Perhaps Mr. Kelly was giving us a preview of what’s coming at Time Inc. We asked and he said he couldn’t talk about it. Retirement isn’t until the end of March, but he’s still a company man!

Anyway, what’s next for the man?

“Frankly what I do day out and day in here is basically consulting journalism–when it gets complicated or begins to go awry in some fashion,” he said, describing the managing editing duties at Time Inc. “Doing that for me for only three years was extremely educational, but I didn’t want to do it for another three years. And that’s how contracts here at Time Inc work, they tend to be three years. To some degree I’ve missed running a news operation, but I’m not so sure I’ve missed really wanting to go back and run a news operation because I’ve done it. So I figure here’s a time where I can take some time off and look at doing other things.”

“I’d say editing books, but I don’t think that industry is looking at a lot of new people,” he continued.

Nor will he go the Tina Brown route.

“Building something from scratch as Tina’s doing has tremendous appeal but in this current market, maybe it has less appeal,” he said.

He’s not exactly a fan of online-only.

“Well I just think that after a while either you’re exhausted by the constant adrenaline rush or it just begins to wear off, because you know Monday you have a great story and then Tuesday, it’s O.K, well what have you done for me lately?”

At 55, he says he’s really just done.

“My wife doesn’t believe me, but I am more content than I think she realizes to sit at home, read a book, go to a museum, go to Film Forum in the afternoon where it’s just me and five French people.”

Update, 4:25 PM, EST: Mr. Kelly writes in: “BTW, I should have added I am not necessarily leaving print. I will be a consultant to Time Inc. going forward, and I can think of ten magazines that would be great to edit. But I have no plans other than to go the West Coast for the next ten days!” Jim Kelly on Time Inc.’s Future (And His Own)