Back in the late 1950s I worked for a long-dead tabloid called The Washington Daily News. It struggled as the smallest of the three papers in town and was being kept alive, I suspect, mainly to give the Scripps-Howard chain a right-wing voice in the capital. Its editor was John O’Rourke, a remote figure who appeared irregularly in the city room. As far as I can remember, I had never met him.
Until the paper published the first of a three-part series I had written on the crooked practices of local car dealers. Shortly after the paper hit the streets, O’Rourke showed up trailed by four other suits and disappeared into his office. A few minutes later the city editor hollered that Mr. O’Rourke wanted to see me in his office right away. “Tough luck,” the reporter at the desk next to me said. “You’ve just written the world’s first one-part three-part series.” We both knew that auto ads were a major part of the paper’s puny revenue stream.
The four suits in the editor’s office turned out to be the paper’s business manager, its advertising director, and two representatives from the auto dealers. Plainly I was toast.
“Can you back up everything in your pieces?” O’Rourke said without a word of preamble as I stood there.
“Yes, I can.”
“That’s all, then. Go on back to work.”
And so I did. That was the sum total of my first and only meeting with Mr. O’Rourke. The series ran in its entirety.
I mention this because:
Time Inc. has fallen on hard times. Would you believe that this once-proud magazine publishing empire is now explicitly rating its editorial employees based on how friendly their writing is to advertisers?
Last year — in the opposite of a vote of confidence — Time Warner announced that it would spin off Time Inc. into its own company, an act of jettisoning print publications once and for all. Earlier this year, the company laid off 500 employees (and more layoffs are coming soon). And, most dramatically of all, Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp now requires his magazine’s editors to report to the business side of the company, a move that signals the full-scale dismantling of the traditional wall between the advertising and editorial sides of the company’s magazines.
Even with all of that, though, it is still possible to imagine that Time Inc.’s 90+ publications, which include some of the most storied magazines in American history, would continue to adhere to the normal ethical rules of journalism out of simple pride. Not so!
Here you see an internal Time Inc. spreadsheet that was used to rank and evaluate “writer-editors” at SI.com. (Time Inc. provided this document to the Newspaper Guild, which represents some of their employees, and the union provided it to us.) The evaluations were done as part of the process of deciding who would be laid off. Most interesting is this ranking criteria: “Produces content that [is] beneficial to advertiser relationship.” These editorial employees were all ranked in this way, with their scores ranging from 2 to 10.