Norm Pearlstine lays down the law

Norm Pearlstine. (TechCrunch)
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Norm Pearlstine has laid down some ground rules for Time Inc.'s editors in a bid to govern what type of material should pass through him for pre-publication approval.

The 71-year-old executive, who returned to the magazine publisher last fall in the newly created role of chief content officer, delivered the guidelines with a gentle wrist slap on Sunday.

"There have ... been some bad decisions over the past couple months and a few examples of sloppy procedure," Pearlstine wrote to the top editors of publications including Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated in a memo obtained by Capital. "We have published some stuff I would have killed had I known about it ahead of time."

Going forward, Pearlstine continued, "I must see and sign off on anything you think might put our journalists and/or our reputation at risk, that might result in litigation or restrictions on our ability to publish, or that might offend a significant number of readers, viewers, customers, and other stakeholders." He said he was referring both to print and online content as well as any signs of "problematic advertising."

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Pearlstine also mandated that he "must see and sign off on any story about Time Inc., Time Warner Inc., or any of its subsidiaries, excluding innocuous reviews of Time Warner products."

That would, for instance, include the type of inward-looking coverage that Fortune has published in recent months, like the news about Pearlstine's homecoming. (Presumably Time Warner stories won't require Pearlstine's imprimatur once Time Inc. is spun off from its parent company later this year.)

Pearlstine's memo is the latest token of a new order at Time Inc., where some journalists have become concerned about their autonomy within an organization that recently adopted a controversial reporting structure.

Editors now answer to their business-side superiors instead of to a central editor-in-chief presiding over all the titles, which had been the hierarchy until Time Inc's latest chief executive, Joe Ripp, decided it was time to shake things up this past summer. (The last editor-in-chief, Martha Nelson, reportedly resigned because she was uncomfortable with this arrangement.)

A Time Inc. spokeswoman had no comment on Pearlstine's memo, but she confirmed that editors report to their respective group presidents "with a dotted line to Norm." Or, as Pearlstine told The New York Times a few weeks ago, he will be a "second set of eyeballs" and overall strategist as opposed to the more hands-on role that erstwhile editors-in-chief had played in day-to-day newsroom planning.

Pearlstine himself is a former Time Inc. editor-in-chief and therefore has a fair amount of goodwill stored up.

"Norm is a very familiar figure to me and my staff," Time managing editor Nancy Gibbs told Capital when we caught up with her about the changes a few months ago. "Obviously he is a great journalist and a great defender of journalism, so I'm glad to have him back in the building."

What other scenarios will editors like Gibbs need to be mindful of?

"I need to know prior to publication about any grant of confidential source status and I must know the source’s identity," Pearlstine told them. "I should see all Letters and Notes from Editors to readers prior to publication. I should also see communications from readers and other stakeholders that contain serious complaints and criticism of our work."

You can read the full memo below:

Dear Colleagues,

Several of you have asked what I do and don’t want to read and see prior to publication.

I prefer a culture of guidelines in which you decide what and when to publish and you decide when to show me something before it is published. Ideally, you would always be smart and your judgment would be perfect. You would send me everything I need to or want to see and leave everything else for me to see after publication.

There have, alas, been some bad decisions over the past couple months and a few examples of sloppy procedure. We have published some stuff I would have killed had I known about it ahead of time.

I realize some of this is tricky and that we are all on a learning curve. So here are a few rules of the road. They should be read in conjunction with other rules and guidelines we have published. Please share them with colleagues whom you think need to see them.

Specifically, I must see and sign off on anything you think might put our journalists and/or our reputation at risk, that might result in litigation or restrictions on our ability to publish, or that might offend a significant number of readers, viewers, customers, and other stakeholders. “Anything” extends beyond major stories to questionable items, pictures, captions, books, blogs, and tweets. Beyond editorial, I would hope all of you would alert me to problematic advertising as well as marketing and other corporate messages from Time Inc. and Time Warner should you and your business colleagues reach an impasse over their publication.

I must see and sign off on any story about Time Inc., Time Warner Inc., or any of its subsidiaries, excluding innocuous reviews of Time Warner products.

I need to know prior to publication about any grant of confidential source status and I must know the source’s identity. Although I need not know prior to publication about grants of anonymity to sources, I do assume that a top editor at any publication that uses anonymous sources knows the identity of the sources and has agreed that the grant of anonymity is appropriate under the circumstances.

I should see all Letters and Notes from Editors to readers prior to publication.

I should also see communications from readers and other stakeholders that contain serious complaints and criticism of our work.

If I cannot be reached and you believe you must nonetheless publish, you should consult the Time Inc. law department, and assuming our lawyers are comfortable with your desire to publish, you may do so. After publication you should send me a brief justification memo explaining your decision.

It’s not all defense. In addition to my need to see tricky stuff prior to publication, I also like to read and see work you are proud of and think is great before it is published. I love to look at magazine covers, although you shouldn’t wait to hear from me before publishing them. Send me things you think I would like to read as well as anything you think would benefit from my review. Finally, I love gossip and funny pieces. So amaze me and amuse me.

Thanks and, as always, happy to discuss further,

Norm