Wake me when I'm vested

So, do I have this right? Time Warner's old-growth deadwood mixed with AOL's deadwood.com yields -- a shiny new three-wood?


Sean Elder
January 14, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

In the press reports that followed the announcement of AOL and Time
Warner's wedding,
a few folks (including me) made much of the sartorial
relevance of TW's Gerald Levin being tieless at the press conference while
AOL's Steve Case was decked out in a pretty nice suit. Levin even made a
joke about the "suits from Virginia" -- since Case and Co. were supposed to
be the upstarts in Dockers, and TW the honchos in pinstripes, it made for
an easy lead: The tables had been turned.

Meanwhile, anyone who has ever spent time at AOL's headquarters just
outside Dulles Airport in Virginia knows that a lot of the men there still
dress like Steve from "Blue's
Clues,"
and that late in the day the Nerf balls still fly (though the
beer busts are mostly a thing of the past). Casual attire can be seen at
Time publications on days other than Friday -- though casual there still
generally means polo shirts tucked in and "be sure to iron those jeans,
mister."

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But AOL never exactly swung, mind you; they weren't some bohemian Silicon
Alley start-up with counterintuitive design and guess-what-I'm-talking
about content. For years, in fact, Case was derided as a square, the man
least likely to succeed on the bleeding edge of the World Wide Web. The
execs there were into golf, for chrissakes, as noted by Michael Wolff in
his amusing chapter on AOL in "Burn Rate": "... this game of the 1950s
corporation was the official pastime, even obsession, of this self-styled
first corporation of the twenty-first century."

Time, in magazine terms, was emblematic of that '50s corporation Wolff
invokes. If the man in the gray flannel suit had worked in magazines, it
would have been one of Time's. The "Velvet Coffin" was so called not just
because the company's perks and bennies were on a par with or better than
anyone else's but because some editors and executives actually never left.
On the 34th floor of the company's headquarters on Sixth Avenue in
Manhattan (right across the street from that other monument to unchanging
entertainment, Radio City Music Hall) were Time's famous "Aloha Suites,"
executive offices for men (always men) whose usefulness was played out
before their contracts had expired. You could glance in, see a secretary, a
sofa, maybe even a little putting green in the corner with artificial turf
-- but no executive.

"All of that started changing more than 10 years ago," according to one
Time Inc. veteran I spoke to, "even before the Warner merger in 1990. There
were more Jews in the building, for one. And years ago the very fact that
you were a senior editor automatically meant you had a liquor budget; you
had a cabinet in your office that was refilled once a month with liquor."

The influx of women (not to mention sobriety) changed that culture over the
years. "It's part of what happened in society, too," the writer continued.
"There were no longer quite as many folks who felt the need for three-martini lunches; more editors wanted to go home and see their kids."

More important, the tolerance for deadwood and coasters decreased as
well. Though there may still be a few execs with ersatz jobs on floor 34,
most everyone else is hustling to compete -- and stay afloat. "In the old
days the managing editor would change, but everyone would keep their jobs,"
said this longtimer, "while at any other magazine you would assume new
editor, new photo editor and so on. That now happens at Time Inc., too."
The free ride is becoming a thing of the past. A couple of years ago an
edict came down from on high: "No more passing the trash." Translation?
"You couldn't take the editor or writer you thought was pretty lousy and
shunt them off to another magazine."

AOL has not been around long enough to gather much moss -- though I've met
a few of its employees who've been hard pressed to tell me exactly what
they do. "Any notion of AOL as this nimble little start-up is kind of
behind the curve," said someone I spoke to who has worked for both AOL and
Time Warner. "It's been a big company for a long time and can be as stodgy
as anybody."

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This person worked at Time in the '80s "when the culture
was changing over from the good-old-boy network where they rolled out the
drink carts and you could take dial cabs to the Hamptons and they were
instituting sobriety courses for executives," and had smelled the velvet
inside the coffin. "AOL had a similar reputation," he recalled of the
'90s, "but for completely different reasons: The options were so good
and the stock was so lucrative and the brand was so established that nobody
could leave, at least for four years. It was shorter term but it had a
digital coffin reputation; if you were hired by AOL nobody could hire you
away because no one could offer you enough to leave, whether you liked your
job or not."

Workers lulled into complacency do not produce the best work, of course.
"One of the complaints you would hear at AOL was of the dead weight," he
said, "of people who had lost interest in the company but were just waiting
for their options to vest. But we're talking about four years, not 40." And
because of the company's phenomenal success in the last four years, a lot
of those employees left -- "retired" -- while in their 30s. Still, you
don't hear of many people being pushed out of AOL. "They try to take care
of people," said this dual veteran. "It's a pretty benign plutocracy. It's
not a place that's known for squeezing or crushing people, it doesn't have
a reputation like Disney."

Though no spunky start-up, AOL certainly has a more nimble reputation than
Time's magazine division. When I asked veterans of the defunct Pathfinder
what they were still doing over there, I was told they were working on the
launch of InStyle.com. It must be an idea whose time has come, since
people at Time were talking to me (and presumably others) about putting In
Style online almost three years ago.

"AOL's whole focus is to gain market share and build an audience and
deliver services that are built around a customer rather than some other
core business," said my veteran of both shops. "Time Warner's idea of using
the internet has been trying to leverage their brands into online space. No
matter how hard they push it goes back to, 'Well, how does this help what
we've got?' Instead of breaking new ground and making new ways of doing
business."

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You might say that now they don't need to break new ground: They've got AOL to
do it for them. But it will be interesting to see if the relatively
meteoric AOL can light a fire under Time's blue britches. Can this new
company add a sense of urgency to Time's almost glacial method of
developing new titles? As things stand now, magazines appear only through
sponsorship: People begets In Style and Teen People, Sports Illustrated
breeds SI for Kids and so on. "You can't just launch something
independently," as one insider put it, "you have to find a mother ship to
send out a little ship." Whereas at AOL, at least in the '90s, people
flung about ideas to see what might stick. (The chaotic process, well
limned by Wolff in his book, fostered a lot of orphans as well, bastards
that no one ever shepherded past infancy.)

It could be that the two companies will never significantly interact on a
daily basis, that the Time Warner side will just continue to produce
content that AOL will feed to its users -- at a high rate of speed, of
course, thanks to TW's growing cable-modem network. Indeed, many observers
say that this deal was all about cable, similarities (or differences)
between the companies be damned. But even if they do end up spending a lot
of face time with each other, if the Internet workers of Virginia beat a
path to the magazine mavens of Manhattan and vice versa, at least one
person who has worked for both doesn't think the cultures will clash.

"They both have a reputation for being pretty full of themselves," he said,
"of having that we-are-masters-of-the-world mentality." And the two little
dictators needn't fight it out, either; they have more than golf in common.
"Steve Case is a pretty preppy guy. We're not talking about someone who
sits cross-legged in their living room. They are both mainstream
white-bread American brands. It's a good fit culturally.

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"When I started working at AOL, it was kind of familiar," he continued.
"The organization wasn't that different than what I remember Time Inc.
being like, aside from the obvious differences." It was that recognition of
something more than success that may have brought them together, like
George Bush Sr. picking Dan Quayle out of a field of possible running
mates. What he liked in that kid was a reflection of himself.

"That's something about this meshing that almost feels inevitable," said
the media veteran. "The two companies started to resemble each other even
before the merger. I think somewhere there was a recognition -- 'Oh, yeah!'
-- sort of the prodigal son comes home. Except this time the son had the
wallet."

I'm home, Dad. Mind if I borrow your tie?

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Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

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