Time Inc.'s Last Editor-in-Chief Sends Its 'Pope's Miter' to Editors in Pieces

'Classy Move' Symbolizing Individual Editors' Responsibility Going Forward

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Pope Benedict XVI wearing a miter in 2008
Pope Benedict XVI wearing a miter in 2008 Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Donigo

Editors at Time Inc. have received unexpected gifts from their former boss Martha Nelson: pieces of the "Pope's miter" that had previously been passed from the company's outgoing editor-in-chief to the new one.

A miter, or mitre, is traditionally the cloth hat worn by bishops, cardinals and the pope -- in which case you may have heard it called a "pope hat."

Inside Time Inc. this particular miter symbolized the importance of keeping pure the editorial content at magazines from Time and Fortune to People and InStyle, unsullied by advertisers' influence. Editors-in-chief handed down the miter to their successors, part of a tradition going back to at least Norman Pearlstine, who held the position from 1994 to 2005, according to current and former Time Inc. staffers.

But Time Inc. has just eliminated the position of editor-in-chief, reassigning the company's editors to report to business-side executives and hiring Mr. Pearlstine back for the newly created post of chief content officer.

Ms. Nelson left the company as part of the changes, but not before she cut the miter into rectangular pieces and sent them to the top editors of Time Inc.'s magazines and its major websites, according to two recipients. The pieces of cloth were framed, they said, and came with a note saying:

This fragment comes from the 'Pope's Miter,' which resided in the office of the editor in chief of Time Inc. While the miter was passed on in jest, it symbolized the earnest belief in editorial independence, truth and integrity. Now that responsibility rests in your hands.

The framed pieces of cloth arrived at the managing editors' office last week, the editors said, after Ms. Nelson's last day at the company on Nov. 8. "We were all very impressed," one editor said. "It was an incredibly classy move."

The move could lead to a new tradition at Time Inc. At least one editor plans to pass along the framed cloth piece to whomever is next to hold the job, saying, "It stays in the office."

Reached Wednesday for comment, Ms. Nelson said the miter was a humorous acknowledgement of the best of Time Inc.'s journalistic tradition. "But I always felt that it was never the job of one person to maintain the journalistic traditions of excellence," she said. "It always rested in the hands of everyone at the company."

Instead of discarding the miter, Ms. Nelson said, she decided to continue "both the joke and the symbolism." They were sent to people actively engaged in running the magazines and their websites, Ms. Nelson added. Mr. Pearlstine was not among the recipients.

Mr. Pearlstine reportedly called the symbolic hat "more of a yoke than a miter" at a conference last week because the symbol prevented editors from thinking like marketers. A Time Inc. spokeswoman declined to comment on the miter. The company has previously said Mr. Pearlstine's return guarantees that editorial integrity will remain a cornerstone at Time Inc.

Time Inc. shocked its editors on Oct. 31 by announcing the departure of Ms. Nelson, a well-regarded veteran of Time Inc. who became its first female editor-in-chief just this January. Under the restructuring, managing editors now report to group presidents with "dotted lines" to the chief content officer, meaning that Mr. Pearlstine and a group president need to agree on top editorial hires but that either Mr. Pearlstine or a group president alone can fire an editor.

Mr. Pearlstine will work alongside CEO Joe Ripp on broader strategic issues and resolve disputes, the company has said.

Parent company Time Warner plans to spin off Time Inc. in the second quarter of next year. Third-quarter revenues at Time Inc. decreased 2% to $818 million, fueled by a 4% decline in subscription revenues and 2% drop in ad revenue.

"It was an appropriate and fitting end to a great tradition and really the best values of the company," Ms. Nelson said of her gesture. "I leave Time Inc. with many great memories, lots of proud achievements and no regrets," she added.

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