Tina, Arianna, AOL, Comcast: Get Ready for the New Media Culture Clash

Time Inc.’s Jack Griffin may have been the media industry’s first casualty of a quaint business concept in the throes of redefinition

Last Updated: February 25, 2011 @ 3:20 PM

It's no wonder ousted Time Inc. CEO Jack Griffin must be feeling a bit shell shocked.

But with his boss CEO Time Warner Jeff Bewkes all but calling him a corporate cultural misfit after just five months on the job, it certainly raises a critical question:

Just what is Corporate Culture 3.0 in a media industry whose business model has been rendered obsolete?

Indeed, nailing down corporate culture could emerge to be one of media’s complex challenges over the next several tumultuous months. Especially with the new pairings, from Daily Beast/Newsweek to Comcast/NBC Universal to AOL/Huffington Post.

The 20th-century business concept was nothing if not malleable to begin with. From business to business, it was a varying mix of values, traditions, customs, philosophy and other intangibles that gave each organization its own distinctive ethos.  A cottage industry of corporate-culture consultants sprouted.

Imagine the added degree of difficulty in getting a fix on corporate culture amid a tech-fueled tectonic shift.

Griffin’s mandate presumably was to morph Time Inc., the world’s No. 1 magazine giant, into a digital publishing juggernaut. (Of course, it's anybody's guess what Time Inc. imagines its corporate culture to be after rounds of cost-cutting retrenchments and restructurings.)

And while Griffin may merit distinction as the first notable casualty of a quaint business concept being reconceived, others (Arianna Huffington or AOL boss Tim Armstrong?) certainly will follow him into the headlines. In fact, the man Griffin hired as Time Inc.'s first-ever Chief Digital Officer, Randall Rothenberg, headed for the door Tuesday after only a month on the job.

Yet if the architects behind the recent media couplings have pondered the question of corporate culture, they’ve largely avoided specific mention of it while trumpeting the new combinations publicly.

Corporate culture certainly could be redefined dramatically at AOL and Huffington Post. The flailing internet giant already has repositioned itself countless times this young century while the upstart aggregation website has epitomized the power of digital media to quickly influence political discourse and industry economics.

What will be the culture to emerge with a buyer widely seen as desperate and its new partner as much a magnet for criticism — most harshly, a corporate sellout — as praise.

Meanwhile, Comcast sees itself as an amalgam of myriad corporate cultures that reflect the corporation’s expansion beyond cable systems and into high-tech, cable programming, the internet and now big-time content.

On the other hand, NBC Universal is cast as needing an overhaul to exorcise a decade of control by GE. (Though NBCU's flair for operating synergistically across corporate boundaries is pictured as a big plus.)

If nothing else, Comcast and NBCU constitute a concentration of assets that theoretically enables them to better shape, if not ensure, their destiny. The outcome substantially will depend — as the nightmarish experience of AOL and Time Warner illustrated — on the corporate culture that ultimate prevails. Or not.  

As for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, just this week, a published report suggests the corporate culture will reflect, of course, Tina Brown. But not the "old" Tina Brown. To transform the trendy website and the ailing newsweekly into a new-media model that ends the financial bleeding at both, a chastened Brown has remolded herself. No longer is she a world-class spendthrift.

At Time Inc., they claim Griffin couldn’t change his temperament and meet Time Inc.’s corporate culture halfway. We must wait and see a few of Brown’s leaked expense accounts for clues to whether she will cultivate a winning corporate culture.