John Huey's ascension to the editor in chief's throne at Time Inc. was finally made official last week, when America's largest publisher announced that Norm Pearlstine, who has long held the role, would step aside on Dec. 31. In his first interview since the announcement, Mr. Huey-currently Time Inc.'s editorial director, formerly managing editor of Fortune-talks, and lunches, with James Brady. Subjects on the table? His new role, his boss Ann Moore, the reinvention of the magazines in his large stable and someone's unduly hasty interest in the identity of his successor.
On the Sunday evening before he would be named to one of the great jobs in American journalism, as successor, at several removes, to Henry Luce as editor in chief of Time Inc., John Huey was at home with his wife and curious as to how The New York Times would handle his promotion the next morning.
He was impatiently trying to backdoor the Times piece via the International Herald Tribune, which prints hours earlier. "You know what they're going to say," his wife chided. "Just relax." Feigning a casual detachment, Huey cracked, "I just want to see if they spell my name right." But when the Herald Tribune piece came across, it said up top: "Matthew Huey will succeed Norman Pearlstine on Jan. 1."
Two days later when John and I lunched at the Four Seasons, he was still shaking his head. "I'm very excited about this, very excited, and that's the only point I want you to be sure to get."
Huey is a Georgian, bespectacled and tweedy, but a professionally combative fellow about 5 foot 10 inches, a newspaperman since he left the University of Georgia, first on a small town weekly, later at the Atlanta Constitution, still later at The Wall Street Journal where he teamed up with Mr. Pearlstine, now his boss, who will step aside Jan. 1 to make way for John.
Of course there'd been congratulatory calls ("and plenty of apple-polishing") but this was the first interview he'd done since a pre-announcement talk with Katharine Q. Seelye of The New York Times).
Improving the flow
"Ann Moore [chairman-CEO, Time Inc.] is my boss. She leaves her executives alone and is perhaps the single most instinctive judge I know of what readers want. My mandate is to improve the revenue flow, and to do that we will improve our magazines, make them more compelling, and create or acquire new ones. More likely creating more than acquiring."
I questioned The Times' count of 155 magazines now under his direction. "I wondered about that, too. For example, we have 80 magazines in the U.K., under IPC. We just bought some in Mexico. The magazines I'm running are the ones you know. The others, the golf magazines and so on, I'm more of a consultant."
Ms. Moore was quoted in the Times as saying some magazines needed "reinventing and redesigning" and John said, "Yeah, that created a stir. But change always does."
As to Ms. Seelye's grilling him about whether Martha Nelson (of People, Ad Age's magazine of the year) would succeed him, Huey showed his edge: "She kept pushing her as my successor on the day I got the job. Was I just supposed to go away?"
But Martha was one of the managing editors (with Jim Kelly of Time and Terry McDonnel of Sports Illustrated) he cited for their performance.
An old GQ "hatchet job" still rankled. "That was [Steve] Florio's revenge for what Fortune [under Huey] did to Steve." He reveled in a long feud with Jim Michaels of Forbes. "I used to drop a line in Fortune needling him and finally he struck back, called us the Vanity Fair of business papers. Recently we met and Michaels came over and threw his arms around me."
Huey said, "I leave the advertising business to the publishers." If he had a negative story to plant, he'd call Page Six of the Post ("you'll get to heaven a few days late for starting that," he assured me.)
Huey said of Life (as a Sunday mag), "We can count the ad pages so we don't kid ourselves, but Ann Moore is committed to it. It's her call." He dismissed OK and its $3 million buy of mediocre Demi and Ashton photos.
He concedes Us is gaining readers ("at the tabloids' expense, not People's") and says Us "does a good job on celebrities but that's all they do. People can take on a 9/11, a Katrina, because it has the reporters, the Washington bureau, the know-how." He's not bullish on Radar. "Who needs it?"
He was in the Navy during Vietnam, "only in the Atlantic, but the Cold War was on, and the Russians never got to Norfolk." And "took a cut from my Navy pay" when he joined the Atlanta Constitution. Back then he drank a bit, "rolled in to the job hungover, on occasion," and "cut back years ago."
He's 57, been married three times (one wife died), has two kids and flies home every week to South Carolina. He'd just seen the Ed Murrow flick, "Good Night, and Good Luck," and remarked wistfully, "you notice how they were all smoking," then asked me about Bobby Kennedy and Roy Cohn, before ambling off into old newspaper-guy stories.
There was this crime reporter he worked with, "who stacked four packs of Camels on his desk every morning, began coughing, and then hammered out a lead, `He backed up, backed up, backed up, and then he shot his wife in the belly."' John said he'd probably go up to Elaine's one night this week, "to celebrate."
As we left, Graydon Carter stood up to greet him and word came over from Henry Kissinger two tables away. Could Dr. K. say hello to Mr. Huey? Sure, said the new man at Time Inc. off-handedly and buoyant, more joyous warrior like Harold Ross of The New Yorker than dour, Bible-thumping "Old Eli" Harry Luce, the man who in 1923 started it all.