Why Norm Pearlstine returned to Time Inc.

November 11, 2013, 4:57 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Veteran media executive Norm Pearlstine is back at Time Inc., eight years after stepping down as editor-in-chief. But the company he rejoins looks very different than the one he left.

Time Inc. is being spun out of Time Warner (TWX) early next year, and Pearlstine’s arrival signals the demise of the editor-in-chief role he once held. Instead, he will be “chief content officer” — a title he most recently held at Bloomberg LP — while current EIC Martha Nelson is expected to leave the company. His boss will be recently-installed CEO Joe Ripp, a former Time Inc. chief financial officer whose office was adjacent to Pearlstine’s back in the 1990s. The pair had stayed in touch over the years, with Pearlstine even recruiting Ripp to advise on Bloomberg’s 2009 acquisition of Businessweek from McGraw-Hill.

We wanted to speak to Pearlstine about why he came back to Time Inc., about his new role and the company’s future. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

FORTUNE: Why did you leave Bloomberg and return to Time?

PEARLSTINE: First of all, I had a great run at Bloomberg and loved working for Dan Doctoroff, so I had no plans to leave. But when Joe Ripp was named CEO of Time Inc. over the summer, we started talking — really more as old friends, about Time Inc. and the implications of a spinoff from Time Warner. When he and Martha decided they were going to go their separate ways he contacted me and asked if I’d have any interest in coming in as this new role. So my decision was really the combination of working with a very old friend and colleague, coupled with what I think is a very exciting time at Time Inc. Not only because it’s being spun off, but because of how quick the business is moving and changing. 

How do you define this chief content officer role, as opposed to the editor-in-chief position you once held?

The editor-in-chief role was fairly well-defined in some respects. I was the fifth — and the first to come from outside the company, as I was reminded every week I was here, and traditionally the editor-in-chief primarily interacted with the editors of the main New York titles. It was very much about the words and pictures in the magazines…

Being responsible for editorial independence and quality and standards will remain an important part of what I do as chief content officer. And I don’t take it for granted, because you are questioned about it every day. For example, I spent my first day here reading a Sports Illustrated piece where there were some questions about confidentiality of sources and so forth.

But the other part of this job is the opportunity to be a partner to the CEO and together think about everything from strategy to new products to extensions of existing brands. Particularly for a company that is about to go public in a time of extraordinary turbulence in our industry, it really called for a different kind of relationship. One symbol of that is that I’m not moving back to my old office, but have taken one in Joe’s suite. What that may not sound particularly significant, I knew from my prior 11 years up here that you can’t be a very close colleague to the CEO when you have so much physical space between you and him that you need to call to make appointments.

Time Inc. has a diverse group of titles. As print and print distribution become less important, is there a strong business case for keeping In Style, Fortune and People as part of the same company?

There are multiple answers to that. First, print is not dead. It remains important, and there are examples of publications that are growing in terms of print circulation and advertising. Our recent acquisition of the American Express magazines, for example, gives us some powerful brands in the space that they occupy. Certainly we are focused on new ways to distribute content — web, mobile, tablet, etc. — but I don’t see an early demise of printed magazines.

Second, the diversity of magazines we have enables us to serve specific audiences by responding to reader needs, interests, vocations and avocations. That also means, however, that we have opportunities to create audiences that cut across brands. For example, Fortune has these Most Powerful Women conferences and franchise, and I wonder if there is a way to somehow connect that with the 50 million readers of magazines like In Style, People and Essence. Or when Fortune does a conference in China, is there something we could do with those American Express, like Travel & Leisure.

But, to be careful here, I’m only seven days into this job and am mostly in listening mode. There may be good answers for keeping those things separate and exclusive, but certainly it’s an area of exploration.

Is there a long-term future for long-form journalism at Time Inc?

Yes, there is certainly room for long form in the digital age. Whether that is primarily in print distributed to certain geographic areas or as an e-book distributed globally or Web-based, there will be long form and we’ll be players in it. Sports Illustrated, for example, does a lot of long form. Much of it has traditionally been in print, but I can see examples where, partially with enhanced video, that there may be another way to tell that story.

Time Warner has not yet announced financial details of the spin-out, such as how much debt Time Inc. will have. Did you have some visibility into that before you took the job?

I did not. I assume that’s a conversation Joe Ripp will have with [Time Warner CEO] Jeff Bewkes. What I do know is that when companies spin out properties it is very much in their interest that the spin-out be successful.

Will you have input into acquisitions and/or divestitures?

I see part of my role as being a partner with Joe Ripp in every area of the business, but particularly in products where editorial is an important component. I would hope that I could provide some support at a strategic level but I want to be clear that I’m not the CEO. Joe is.

If there was a single property that you could acquire for Time Inc., with money and availability being no object, what would it be?

LinkedIn (LNKD).

You have a Twitter account but have never tweeted. Why?

I use Twitter (TWTR) to read what other people are thinking, because I am curious what’s in the public mind and what is the conversation du jour. I’ve been in a position where there haven’t been a lot of things I wanted to say to lots of people that I couldn’t say via other means.