Is Wall Street on Time’s side?

Time & Life building. (Josh Hallett)
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In February, Time Inc. C.E.O. Joe Ripp hosted a series of town halls to bring his several thousand employees up to speed on the state of the business. Held in the company’s eighth-floor, 300-capacity auditorium, the standing-room-only sessions were a chance for the rank-and-file of America’s largest magazine conglomerate—home of titans like Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated—to get some face-time with the boss as they brace for their ejection from parent company Time Warner, where shareholders have grown weary of the publishing industry’s dour complexion.

Ripp has an accessible, informal demeanor, which lent a bit of folksy charm to his updates about the more eye-glazing aspects of Time Inc.’s looming spinoff into a standalone, publicly-traded entity: compliance, office space, human resources, the board, etc. These granular details were overshadowed by a more profound declaration, according to several people who were present: Time Inc. is putting together a story for Wall Street, and it needs to show investors where the company is headed in the years to come.

What is that story and where is Time Inc. headed? It’s all a bit unclear, as Capital deduced from interviews with analysts and current and former employees and executives. With the spinoff right around the corner, scheduled for the second quarter of this year, these sources painted a picture of a company with legendary brand value that’s caught somewhere between being a rudderless ship full of print products and an innovator that’s well-equipped to navigate media’s digitally-oriented future (with $1.3 billion worth of debt and declining revenues in tow, no less). “They have to figure out what they are so Wall Street can figure out what the pieces are,” said Ed Atorino, who tracks publishing companies for Benchmark. “They seem to be splashing around in the water and don’t really have a direction, so it’s hard for the market to know what Time Inc.’s going to be.”

In Ripp, a company veteran and numbers guy, Time Inc. has found its fourth C.E.O. in five years. (Time Inc. declined to make him or other executives available for this story.) Those five years have been marked by relentless cost-cutting, strategy pivots and a near merger with the Meredith Corporation. The Iowa-based publisher was just about ready to absorb its competitor’s lucrative lifestyle and entertainment portfolio, including the money-makers People and Entertainment Weekly, before the deal collapsed last March, setting the spinoff in motion.

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Since Ripp re-enlisted last summer, there have been signals that Time Inc. is getting its house in order before leaving the mothership, where it generated $337 million in operating income last year on $3.4 billion in revenues, compared to more than $1 billion in profits a decade ago. (Overall revenues declined 2 percent in 2013, including an $81 million decrease in subscription revenues and $12 million on the ad side.)

There was the long-simmering purchase of American Express Publishing in September, which Ripp put the finishing touches on shortly after he started. This February, in a bloodletting that has become all too familiar for Time Inc. staffers, Ripp trimmed roughly 500 employees from the payroll, and there are murmurs that further cuts are in store.

On the hiring side, Colin Bodell was tapped from Amazon as Time Inc.’s first chief technology officer responsible for “establishing a vision and identifying and acquiring best-in-breed technology that can be leveraged across Time Inc.,” as Ripp put it in a Jan. 14 memo. Another notable poach came the following month when Time Inc. appointed Atlantic president M. Scott Havens as senior vice president of digital, suggesting the company wanted someone who knows a thing or two about transforming stodgy print brands in the Internet Age.

Ken Doctor, a media analyst for Outsell, described these moves as “down payments” on a strategy that has yet to really take shape. His advice for making Time Inc. more attractive? It wouldn’t hurt to find a logical acquisition, maybe in the content-marketing or native space (Newscred anyone?), or to diversify, perhaps by moving more deeply into events. “They’re making the right moves here, but it’s the follow-through that really counts,” he said. “Buzz is an important part of it.”

There has been at least a bit of that lately, including plans for a 24/7 live digital sports channel and the high-profile relaunch of time.com, which is seen as an ambitious gambit that will test Time Inc.’s growth potential when it comes to new innovations both in storytelling and advertising. (Web relaunches are likewise on tap at S.I. and Fortune.) “Like every other public company, Time Inc’s managers have to show they can grow sales and profits in a predictable and sustainable trajectory,” said strategic consultant Alan D. Mutter. “Given the likely long-term deterioration of print publishing, they will have to come up with a number of innovative, scalable and profitable digital publishing models.”

The sports channel and web reboots were set in motion before Ripp rejoined the company. And insiders are wondering: Where are all the big, dramatic gestures? The acquisitions? The partnerships? The investments? The sell-offs? The apparent lack of momentum in these directions has led some employees to conclude that Ripp is more focused on the logistical and financial aspects of the company as opposed to changing its appearance. That wouldn’t be anything new at Time Inc., which has been hamstrung by repeated leadership changes. According to a source familiar with the matter, it wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of going after The Huffington Post or Business Insider was floated within the company. It didn’t go anywhere, and there were never any discussions with the owners of either site. At the same time, the logistical stuff is a heavy lift. Ripp has been busy putting together a new senior team, which includes veterans of Time Inc. and News Corp. And the new company’s board is nearly in place despite several prominent figures having turned down offers for seats, according to sources familiar with the process.

It’s also possible that Time Inc. is waiting to pull out the big stops until it’s an independent company. Or that Ripp will try pulling a rabbit out of a hat either in the short window before the spinoff or in its aftermath, in which case, the story for the street might look something like this: Trust us now. Good stuff to come.

But even without a splashy narrative, Time Inc. has at least one priceless asset. “The main thing is really the brand,” said Doctor. “That’s why anybody’s looking at this company. If it were called something else, you’re not gonna have a lot of investor interest. It has the capacity for revival, and I think an investor bet on the company is a bet on a revival of the brand and its reach.”

This article originally appeared in the April issue of Capital magazine.