A SUCCESSOR TO LUCE

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A year of stunning change in the media.

The Conde Nast shakeups, bringing Steve Florio and James Truman to the top table.

Rupert Murdoch's grab of all those network affiliates.

The QVC-CBS flirtation, with Barry Diller being taken 'round by Larry Tisch, and introduced as the new boss.

The Viacom-Paramount deal. The Madison Square Garden sale. Ron Perelman's boycott of Hearst. Color virtually throughout The New York Times. The Letterman explosion.

And now, an outsider to run all the Time Inc. magazines?

Only The Wall Street Journal gave it much of a play, and maybe that was in part a pre-emptive strike, since Norm Pearlstine had been one of their own and you don't want to get scooped on "family" matters. Then the next day the New York Post picked it up and ran.

And maybe I'm wrong. But bringing in a guy who never worked there to become editor in chief at Time Inc. replacing Jason McManus when he steps down next year? For me, that qualifies as a sea change in American journalism.

Anyway, you know what a hot reporter I am. And there I was the other day having lunch at the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan with Reg Brack of Time Inc. and Reg was telling me all about the good work being done by the Advertising Council, on which he spends a good deal of time and energy these days.

And when we'd covered that subject I asked, since the story was around that Mr. McManus would be vacating the editor's chair in '95, about the succession. I tossed out names of the usual suspects, Henry Miller, Jim Gaines, Walter Isaacson and like that, but Mr. Brack was, of course, too smart to be caught like that.

What would happen, he said, was that Time Warner chief Gerry Levin would make the decision on a new editor in chief after getting input from a small group which would include Mr. Brack.

OK. Then, almost as an afterthought, not because I believed it was possible, I said, "Would Time Inc. ever go outside for an editor?"

Said Mr. Brack, and I think these are his words, "As my father used to say, never say never."

I filed that one away as tactful dismissal of a ridiculous idea and resumed grazing on the blackened tuna and assorted greenery and knocking back the old vin blanc. That was Aug. 16. On Aug. 24 the Journal was reporting on its front page that Time Inc.'s leading candidate to succeed Mr. McManus was Norman Pearlstine, who used to be executive editor of the Journal and before leaving Dow Jones to become an entrepreneur (and rich), had overseen the launch of the very successful new mag, SmartMoney, a joint operation of Hearst and DJ.

So had Mr. Brack been merely teasing with that motto from his old dad? Or was he subtly (perhaps too subtly for me) letting me in on secrets? It is agonizing doubts like this which corrode the souls of honest journalists and send us into the night seeking out disreputable establishments, alcoholic refreshments and the company of reckless women.

Years ago, maybe '87 or '88, I once asked Malcolm Forbes over lunch what plans he had at Forbes magazine for the eventual succession to the great Jim Michaels. Well, said Malcolm, he didn't think he could get him back, but his first choice to run Forbes would be Norm Pearlstine. He had no number two.

Unlike so many Time Inc. editors, I must report Mr. Pearlstine did not attend Yale. He is instead a graduate of Haverford College in Pennsylvania (also the alma mater of Mr. Levin) with a law degree from Penn. But then again, as Mr. Brack remarked during our meal, he himself (Brack) is from Great Bend, Kansas, and graduated from Washington & Lee.

So there still is an old school tie.

Then there's the China connection. As is well known, Henry Luce was born and raised in China, son of American missionaries. At prep school he was known as "Chink" (these were politically incorrect days) and he ever after held China close to his heart, even to the extent of believing that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek was a great man instead of a tinpot warlord in over his head.

And doesn't it turn out that Norm Pearlstine served China-side as well, having been managing editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal for two years with headquarters in Hong Kong, which had been in the past a part of China and soon will be again.

So one can assume a certain beneficence shining down on Mr. Levin, Mr. Brack, and all the others, and certainly on Mr. Pearlstine, if indeed he should end up as editor in chief of Time Inc., as the sainted Luce beams on all of them from on high, blessing their works and pomps.

Harry Luce was, of course, himself once editor in chief. Though not the first such. As I recall the history when they began Time magazine he and Hadden, his founding partner, tossed for who would be the editor and who the business guy, and Luce ended up keeping the first ledgers and selling the early ads. While Hadden, also of Yale and a product of classical education (Latin and Greek and all that stuff), crafted the early editorial style as "backward ran sentences until reeled the mind."

In all of this there are so many sidebars. What of Peter Eldredge, the former Newsweek publisher and one of the harder working and most elegant people in the biz? He cast his lot with Pearlstine in their entrepreneurial efforts at Friday Holdings, and is now out of a job. Since Paramount and QVC had been the major source of capital, it's evident why Norm and fellow investor Richard Rainwater are folding the enterprise.

And what of all those Barons at Runnymede? How will they take to Pearlstine, the outsider? And does Norm own a buttondown shirt?

Best line in the whole affair goes to the Post's Martin Peers, re Jason McManus' supposed eagerness to leave. "He is spending less time in the office than he used to. He has also taken to having longer lunches."

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