Edgy Days At The Top Of Time Inc.

"I am only here for another three years," says Time Inc. Chairman-CEO Ann Moore. "I am going to be known for transforming Time Inc. For diversifying Time Inc. And I am going to be the person who leads the transformation, to make sure we are around for another 80 years."

When Moore talks about diversifying, she's referring to the stellar growth at women's titles she oversaw during the 1990s at a company built on men's magazines. When Moore says "transformation," she means Time Inc.'s recent—some will say too recent—lunge towards the digital world. While Moore thinks about her legacy, others ponder something different: How much of Time Inc.'s current woes stem from an unforgiving business cycle and how much from Moore's management?

Since 2002, when the fiercely talented Moore started running the world's largest magazine company, the threat posed by online media has become brutally clear to even the most hard-core print supremacist. Parent Time Warner (TWX ) underwent a highly public siege from investor Carl Icahn. Time Inc. itself atypically began missing budgeted numbers and, also atypically, sold 18 magazines. (Industry wisdom long held that Time Inc. was a buyer, never a seller.) Revenues dropped in 2006. And the unit underwent a long, wrenching series of layoffs that ended only in January.

TIME INC. FACES DEMANDS, to hit parent-mandated growth numbers when, company executives concede, funds for ambitious launches are scanty and when mature magazines such as Time are eroding and People is forced to beat record years. Meanwhile, the meteoric growth of recent smashes Real Simple and InStyle has slowed. Moore says she can eke out sufficient growth without launching new titles. Hence, her tricky bet that revamped digital properties such as People.com, which not surprisingly commands a sizable audience, will carry the day. But People.com essentially had an "on" switch flipped last July. It was previously locked up in a years-long agreement with corporate sibling AOL. Moore negotiated that deal. She still defends it when asked if People.com's late entry has retarded its digital progress.

Moore made her bones in the Nineties by coaxing additional hundreds of millions in profit out of a People franchise many thought had peaked. She is the first woman to run what was long an extraordinarily old-boy company. She says her rise in the Eighties was "fun," but it couldn't have been easy. One sometimes senses the residue of old-boy resentments in private comments by other executives. She had the misfortune to follow Don Logan, likely his generation's most respected magazine executive, just before the unit hit new headwinds. (Good timing, evidently, is among Logan's many gifts.) Logan presided over layoffs after Time Warner's disastrous merger with AOL, but it's telling that, unlike today, internal grumbles back then concerned the visigoths behind a cockeyed deal and never the guy at the top. Even Moore fans wince at how she handled layoffs, wondering why there were multiple rounds—and one just before Christmas. (Moore says Time Inc.'s massive size meant a thorough review, including input from consultants McKinsey & Co., and had to be completed in stages.)

Today a straitened Time Inc. plows ahead. On the drawing board: a potential health Web portal, including content from other Time Warner properties, to compete with the likes of WebMD. The company is nearing a digital deal, which may be done by the time you read this. Some insiders say the intense pressure on Moore has moderated, but the strain shows. At last October's Magazine Publishers of America conference, her high-strung demeanor and bizarre gestures on stage—she alternated between pounding and stroking the furniture—was much remarked upon. Days later, though, she turned in a bravura performance presenting her digital strategy at a board meeting. At a January conference where she promoted Time's digital initiatives, she conceded "it will be hard work to balance print loss with online gains." Trembling on that knife edge is the fate of her career.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

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