August 1998

Copyright 1998 EDUCAUSE. From Educom Review, July/August 1998, p. 14-20. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the EDUCAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of EDUCAUSE. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Jim Roche at EDUCAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0308; e-mail: [email protected]

Talking with Dan Okrent
Time Inc.'s New Media Man

Educom Review: How did your educational background and job background prepare you to be Time, Inc.'s New Media editor?

Dan Okrent: Well, my background is entirely in print, going back to when I was in junior high school, I think, starting with my school paper as the sports editor; I did the same in high school. And then I went to the University of Michigan. I have a B.A. in American Culture, which is the degree for English majors and History majors who are too lazy to be either English majors or History majors. But I spent most of my time working on the Michigan daily, the school newspaper, and spent summers as a copy boy with newspapers in the Detroit area. I also did a little free-lance writing, and went immediately into the book publishing business in 1969 when I graduated from Michigan. I was with Knopf for four and a half years, and then I went to Viking Press. I was there for three years and I concluded my book career with not quite two inglorious years as editor-in-chief of the general book division of Harcourt Brace Javonovich. Left there to write, and wrote a few books, and a lot of magazine articles.

ER: How much of a technical background did you have?


ER: And did you find that to be a problem or a glory?

OKRENT: I think it's been a little of each. My colleagues who understand the technology have to spend a little more time with me than they would probably like to, explaining to me what a CGI bin is. They still haven't done that successfully. On the other hand, I think it's been an advantage that I can approach this, not looking at technology as the answer, but at the product - for which technology is only the vehicle. The product is the editorial work. One could almost make this analogy: I need to know as much about the technology of the Internet as I needed to know about printing presses when I was a magazine editor. I needed to know a little; I didn't need to know an awful lot.

ER: How does the new media part of Time, Inc. fit in with everything else in terms of politics, in terms of money?

OKRENT: The New Media division is operated independently of the magazines; but, office politics being what they are, we work in close cooperation with the editors of the individual magazines. What comes out under the name Time Online or People Online comes out from my staff but with the sufferance and cooperation and good will of the editors of the magazines themselves.

ER: How does that work in practice?

OKRENT: For example, Peter Petre, who is the editor on the Fortune staff who is liaison between Fortune the magazine and the Time, Inc. New Media editors of Fortune Online, was in my office about half an hour ago. We will be launching in a few weeks a new product called Fortune Investor that the people on my staff have built. It's important that the editors of Fortune be happy with something that goes on under their name, and it is also important that I can raise their enthusiasm or their consciousness so that they will mention it more in the magazine and promote it and point to it and do the other things that will help create traffic. So Peter joined me for the meeting, and we talked it through together. I happen to think Peter is the smartest man at Time Inc., so even in my stubbornness to do things my own way, I listen to him when he speaks and we get along terrifically well. He made some suggestions which I incorporated and I made some comments which he persuaded me were wrong and vice versa.

ER: How many folks do you have on your staff?

OKRENT: The whole New Media organization is about 170 people. That includes marketing and technology - it's everything, including editorial people. Editorial is a little hard to say, because some of the technologists are on the editorial staff if they are doing editorial applications. It's roughly 90 editorial, I think - including the software engineers who do editorial applications.

ER: You mentioned that the New Media division has its own bottom line, but presumably you're not showing black yet, or are anywhere close to it.

OKRENT: Oh, no. Well, closer than last year - which was closer than the year before. But, no, we're losing money. However, that's the nature of the magazine business, which requires that you spend your cash for awhile before you have a magazine that hits. Sports Illustrated famously took 10 years to get to the black; Entertainment Weekly took seven years. Even People magazine, the most successful magazine we've ever launched, took three years. My goal is that this thing should be in the black before the average magazine is.

ER: Would you recommend anybody going into the magazine business?

OKRENT: Yeah. But don't expect to make any money in it. In the horse-racing business they say that the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large fortune. And it's similar in the magazine business for most magazines. A free-standing magazine, unconnected to any other magazines, cannot get any economies of scale, any purchasing power. It's almost impossible to make individual magazines profitable.

ER: Since you got involved with new media, what have you found surprising?

OKRENT: A lot of things. It surprised me to realize that people got on the Internet from the office, not from home. Most of our traffic comes during the daytime, not at night. At the moment, the primary uses of the Web are for data rather than for words. At the same time it surprises me the passion that people have for it and, among those who use it - how much they use it! It seems to be either not in your life at all, or totally in your life. And it constantly surprises me how much attention it gets, how much press attention, how much conversational attention. Because it really is at this point a very small industry.

ER: People look at your sites mostly during the day?

OKRENT: That's right. Our business is overwhelmingly during office hours, and there are three reasons for that. First, someone else is paying for the connection. Instead of your paying $19.95 or $21.95 or $24.95 a month, your boss is paying for it. Second, you are on a T1 line or an ISDN line; you don't have to drum your fingers on the table, waiting for things to download on your home 28.8 or 14.4 modem. And third, the only thing less interesting than the Internet is the work people do all day. So they get distracted and they want to do this instead.

ER: At Educom Review we have a particular interest in the relation of traditional institutions of higher education and the new media - so we're naturally interested in the analogous question of traditional publishing institutions such as Time, Inc., and the new media. How do you think they are fitting together now and how do you think they will continue to fit together over the next five, 10, 1,000 years?

OKRENT: Well, right now it's a slightly awkward embrace. You could probably make a distinction between print and broadcast, so let me just stick to print. The traditional print media know that they must be involved in this new form of communication, and those of us in this new form of communication know that we have a huge advantage if we are connected to the assets of a print media company. We don't know how to make it work yet. We don't know the answer to the question: Cui bono? Is the new media activity for the benefit of the magazines? Is it to replace the magazines? Is it simply a defensive movement or is this really amounting to something? It's very confusing at the moment, as is inevitably the case, I think, with a new industry. But, as an about-to-turn-50-year-old man, who has spent nearly 30 years professionally in the print business, I believe that new media will replace print - not in my own professional lifetime, but within the lifetimes of the younger people working for me. I believe it will totally replace print. We're not going to have books and newspapers and magazines anymore.

ER: Not at all?

OKRENT: I'm being a little bit provocative. There will be some, of course. I think books will be objets d'art for those people who fetishize the physical book rather than consume the content of the book. We'll always have books, and instead of costing $25, they will cost $100. But those who are reading the next John Grisham will get it delivered to them digitally. With newspapers and magazines it'll happen even sooner, and even more so. You have to get past a couple of technological hurdles before it is possible. But, eventually, we'll have affordable, portable, battery-powered, satellite-linkable receiving devices that we're comfortable reading and listening to and watching. And once those are available, digital communication replacing print will become an inevitability. And there's one large reason for that, which I can best illustrate with a fact: The company I work for, Time, Inc., spent last year over $900 million on paper and postage. And we are not in the paper and postage business. We are in the ideas, entertainment, photographs, words, communications business. And if I can eliminate over $900 million of my costs and take that savings and put some of it in my pocket and put some of it in the consumer's pocket, it's going to happen. That is an economic imperative that is simply too overwhelming to resist.

ER: And so you and your colleagues at Time, Inc. are not at all concerned that the New Media project is really subversive and likely to make a mess out of the print traditions?

OKRENT: I have some colleagues who would say that we ought to shut down New Media right now and do everything we can to kill it - you know, take blowtorches and hammers to every computer in the country. It ranges from a severe Luddite view - from people who start to wail and rend their garments, to people who think it's a financial distraction or who don't believe the economic model will ever work, to people like me who believe this will be the dominant form of communication some time in the 21st century. So it runs across the spectrum. I don't think it is subversive to what we're doing in print. Personally, I think it is both defensive and opportunistic. Let me add one thing: in the interim we are helping our magazines hugely in a number of ways, and a lot of the people at the magazines are extremely grateful for this - not least for the subscriptions we are selling. This is subscription sales without acquisition costs, which is a wondrous thing. We don't have to buy television time for these subs. We don't have to do direct mail. We don't have to do sweepstakes where we give a portion of the money to the sweepstakes conductor. This year, at virtually no incremental cost we will sell well over 100,000 subscriptions to our magazines. Another advantage: Time magazine comes out every Monday. News breaks on Tuesday. If it's news having to do, let us say, with the President and an intern, it's not going to hold until the following Monday. We now can provide a place for Time to publish that news when the reporters find it. That's also a great advantage. Also, some of our magazines are doing consumer research on the Net. There are many ways in which it can and does feed the magazine business.

ER: You presumably spend your time thinking about publishing and not about colleges and universities, but, even so, we'd like to ask you for some advice based on what you've learned so far of new media and its relation to traditional publishing. What advice would you give to leaders of institutions of higher education? How much should they worry about or rejoice in the new media?

OKRENT: In the long run the new media are only for the good - if you believe that easier dissemination and speedier dissemination and a wider dissemination of information is a democratic good. Now, it's down the road a bit before we all have our receiving tablets that are going to make all this possible, but even in the short term the library without walls - the Internet - gives scholars and students access to a far, far wider world of research materials than any library could assemble. And when we move to broadband, the ability to use the Internet as a broadcasting device for live performance or live lecture or live information, how can it be anything but good?

ER: Well, you are certainly a believer. Did you convert yourself or did you get seduced?

OKRENT: Well, I think my mind was open and what I saw on the Internet before I spent a lot of time working on it was seductive. "Seduced" is a good word. Here's this amazingly powerful medium, goes places and does things that have never been done before, but, I thought, it's totally out of control. It's upside down. It's an inverted model, by which I mean the following: As an editor, what I've done in my entire career - and what every editor does, whether in print or broadcast - is to take all the information in the world and throw out that which is stupid, boring, irrelevant or outdated and give the reader or the viewer only that which matters. We editors cull the crap out and provide - presumably - the value. The Internet is upside down. It's an inverted funnel. The consumer wanders out into the Internet and it's filled with this huge floating mass of flotsam and jetsam of a culture, some of which is true, some of which is not; some of which is scandalous, some of which is not; some of which is hideously out of date, some of which is not. And it is undifferentiated. So I saw that, before I moved into the business full-time, as being more of a threat - more of a problem than a solution, a world in which there's no distinction between good information and bad information. Since I've been in it, what I am trying to do with my colleagues both here and in other companies is to push the valuable information forward, to create a distinction between Joe's Anonymous News Store and Time Online. Give people value. Give that which matters. Sort out the world for them. Just deliver it through this new delivery medium.

ER: How do you feel about the rhetoric popular among many Net folks - that the Net is wonderful precisely because every man and woman is a publisher?

OKRENT: Every man having a voice is a virtue, but there's a difference between speaking and saying something worth listening to. The more voices you hear, the more it will be necessary in the cacophony for some voices to be clear, stately and reliable.

ER: Continuing to think about colleges and universities, do you think that the brand names they carry are somehow analogous to the brand names that you folks in publishing carry?

OKRENT: I hope so. I hope so. To us as a business it's really, really important that that which comes out under the name Fortune reflect well on the 67 years of credibility that Fortune has built up. We don't dare sully that. And I presume at a university if you're at Harvard Medical School and you're going to do a Harvard Medical School Health Letter on the Internet, you are extremely concerned that the information not in any way sully the meaning of the name, and are extremely determined that it be of a quality that is commensurate with the institution's reputation. Ultimately, quality and reputation are everything, whether in publishing or higher education or anywhere else.

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