A discussion with the former CEO of Time Inc. Joe Ripp.
When Joe Ripp took up flying as a hobby twenty years ago, he found Nantucket to be a beautiful destination to soar off to with his wife. They quickly fell in love with the island and bought a summer home here. After an extraordinary career leading such companies as Time Warner, AOL and most recently Time Inc., Ripp retired last year and now serves as the Commodore of the Great Harbor Yacht Club. N Magazine recently met with Joe Ripp at Great Harbor to discuss his experiences as chairman and CEO of Time Inc., his take on the future of media, and his approach to leading and managing people.
N MAGAZINE: Can you provide us with some of the highlights of your career?
RIPP: I started out my career in public accounting and was assigned to two different accounts. My first account was the New York Association for the Blind, which has become the Lighthouse Guild, a billion-dollar charity in New York. And from my history with the charity, I’m now vice chairman for that charity. My second client that I was assigned to was Time Inc. and I’ve just retired as the chairman and CEO of Time Inc. So my career started out in public accounting and led me through to these two organizations that I’ve continued with throughout my career.
N MAGAZINE: Let’s talk about Time. Clearly one of the most influential media brands of the past. Everyone reads Time. Fast forward to today, the thickness of the magazine appears to be a fraction of what it was. Is there a future for Time in something in its current format?
RIPP: Magazines will be around for the next twenty-five to thirty years. People are always going to read magazines. It’s true that all news magazines have been shrinking, but mostly that’s from advertising. The subscription side of the business is actually quite strong. Time Inc. has about 33 million active subscriptions… Time Inc. is actually the 10th largest for internet sites now in the United States [with] about 130 million in digital audiences. People are still looking for engaging stories, they’re still looking for great reporting, they’re still looking for great photos that Time has always been famous for. They just don’t want to read it in paper all the time.
N MAGAZINE: What do you foresee coming after magazines when they’re gone in 25-30 years?
RIPP: I don’t really know. Twenty-five years ago, none of us would have predicted where we are today. The iPad wasn’t here. The Internet wasn’t here. Digital distribution didn’t exist… I’ve actually had access to some of the most state-of-the art virtual reality devices in Hollywood. It’s probably the most dangerous technology ever invented. It’s highly addictive. It’s going to transform a lot of stuff. You look at how the iPhone has transformed us and it hasn’t been around that long. It’s all moving so rapidly. I don’t think we can look forward fifteen to twenty years and understand at all where we are going to be.
N MAGAZINE: The consumer world is being reshaped by millennial preferences. How does conventional media adapt to a growing audience with a ridiculously short attention span?
RIPP: To first highlight how short it is: there was a study done that showed that the average attention span of an American adult is now one second less than that of a goldfish. It’s seven seconds and a goldfish is eight seconds. So when you’re creating media, your question is how do I capture these people? How do I capture their attention?
For instance, when Bruce Jenner transitioned, People magazine wrote a seven-page story. In the past, we would’ve taken that seven-page story and put it online and no one would’ve read it because no one wants to read seven pages on their iPhone. Now we chop that story up into small snack bites that people can digest. So the reality is that millennials are still interested in brands and they’re still interested in quality. In fact, the largest growth audience for Time itself online is millennials. Millennials are still digesting content, but you have to give it to them in the way they want to consume it.
N MAGAZINE: Let’s just talk about People magazine, which is probably one of the most profitable magazines in the world.
RIPP: People magazine is the leisure time for millions of women in America. It has a huge audience — nine million people a week read it. It is a very trusted source among its readers and also among the Hollywood community because People will not print a cheesy headline or print the unsubstantiated rumor. Its standards for journalism are very strong. It became one of the most successful magazines in the company’s history because of its editorial quality standards. If People calls an agent or calls a star in Hollywood, they’ll take that call because they know this is a good magazine and they will be treated fairly.
N MAGAZINE: The media world is in a level of flux that is more revolutionary than evolutionary. What are your biggest concerns?
RIPP: The biggest concern that I have right now is who’s going to pay for the content? Millennials are being taught that content is free; it’s being paid for with advertising. All of the television that we’ve enjoyed in this country, all of the newspapers we’ve enjoyed, all of the wonderful magazines we’ve enjoyed, have been paid for by advertising, not consumers. If the digital giants like Google and Facebook siphon away all the dollars, who’s going to pay for all that? The reaction that’s been forced upon the publishers is to cut their costs to mask their revenue declines. That lowers the quality. Part of that problem is nobody is checking anything anymore. In an instant world, reporters are writing stories that go out online to millions of people [without] fact checkers. Twenty years ago, no story ever got published without five fact checkers making sure every fact was accurate. You just don’t have that luxury anymore.
N MAGAZINE: What does that say about the future of democracy?
RIPP: There is no country in the world with a vibrant democracy that doesn’t also have a vibrant free press. And the free press is being threatened by Google, by Facebook, and the dollars that they’re siphoning off the marketplace. Government requires someone to look over its shoulder. When that doesn’t happen, it’s dangerous. I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet, but you look long term, we’ve got to make sure that we find the vehicles to encourage and engage with a healthy, free press in this country.
N MAGAZINE: Tell us your philosophy in managing and people and recognizing talent. Do you have a mantra to how you manage?
RIPP: A good manager recognizes talent and let’s them do what they do best. A good manager also understands what they’re not so good at and doesn’t let them do that. I’ve never met an employee who is good at everything. Everyone is good at certain skills and everyone is bad at certain skills. The job of every manager is to make people do more than they ordinarily would do by themselves, give them the tools to be successful, give them the encouragement to take changes and make sure they can’t fail too badly by surrounding them with people who fill in their holes. It’s about understanding where the organization is going and making sure you’ve got the right people in the right job.