Assignment Detroit: Time Inc. CEO and Her $99,000 Investment

When Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore spoke to a sold-out crowd of pumped up Inforum members last week, she said that the house that her editors persuaded her to buy last summer in Detroit’s West Village for $99,000 was probably overpriced, considering the average home value at the time was under $20,000. “Our accounting people didn’t even know how to record it,” she said with a laugh.

CEO Ann Moore makes a point while addressing a sold-out meeting of Inforum
Photo for Inforum by Larry Peplin, Peplin Photographic

The house, with its five bedrooms, is designed to act as a Detroit Bureau. “One of the most wonderful things about it,” Moore explains at a post-event news conference, “is the collaboration of the news brands. Usually, when we have a bureau, in Baghdad for example, it’s Time that runs the bureau. Here, at the house, at any given time it could be Fortune, Essence, a photographer, a Time reporter. It’s a kind of test for us: can we share reporting assets across the [Time Inc.] brand? I think we’re discovering that we can.”

Moore, an energetic “about-to-be-60-year-old” has a degree from the Harvard Business School. She explained that on graduation she took the lowest paying job offer on the table and she’s been with the same company, and same husband, for more than 30 years. She compared the Assignment Detroit project to covering the Olympics. “It’s a business person’s dream” when you blanket a story with reporters who then provide content for several Time Inc. publications. “Lower cost, better product,” she explains. “We’re finding the same situation in the Detroit house. The news brands are collaborating as never before on the hard news stories, so I’m really happy.

“In Sports Illustrated,” she continues, “there’s a profile of Mayor Dave Bing. Normally you’d find a profile of a new mayor in Time, but since he’s a former NBA player, there he is in SI. With the editor-in-chief asking every individual publication editor to think about Detroit, to pull out the Detroit stories, that’s when you’re seeing this richness. Right now there’s a profile of Detroit Schools’ special financial manager Robert Bobb in Time, there’s a profile of chief prosecutor Kym Worthy in Essence and the SI story on Mayor Bing. Pretty cool. We have two blogs going daily and the postings are so supportive. We’re seeing a level of optimism, not what we expected.”

Suggesting that perhaps Detroit is on a 12-step self-help program, she says, “You’ve got good new leadership in place, and that’s step one on the journey to recovery.”

Asked what surprises her most about Detroit, Moore answers, “the empty space. I understand it. It’s still a lot of space. It puts you in a unique position, because there are a lot of big cities in trouble but they don’t have space. That makes me think differently. That’s why I was so charmed by that crazy story about urban agriculture that we had in Fortune [Can Farming Save Detroit, Dec. 29, 2009]. I think that’s the biggest difference going for Detroit -“ the space.

“People assume the stories [we write] are negative,” Moore says indignantly. “Aren’t they reading them? Everybody take five minutes out and read what we’re writing. If you really have Detroit’s interests at heart you can’t be too upset. I’ll defend my journalists and the stories they’ve written. They’ve all been very smartly done and they’ve been done with the attitude that ‘we’re here to help, not here to criticize.’ I was interviewed on a program at Wayne State University and when they were through the cameraman came up to me and said ‘Mrs. Moore, way to go -“ buying that house on Parker Street.'”

Being a new homeowner in Detroit can have its advantages when you’re the CEO of Time Inc. “Kid Rock came over with a housewarming gift, your mayor has been to dinner, Allan Mulally was up in the attic last week taping an interview -“ in the attic!” she adds for emphasis. “I’m not seeing anything but an outpouring of support. It’s taking us by surprise.” Later she explains that not only had Kid Rock brought a case of Badass Beer, a company that he owns, but a very large old English “D” which now hangs over the fireplace and gives the house on Parker its name -“ the D House. Moore’s gift to the house was four cookbooks -“ and the promise of using them to cook dinner next time she’s in town.

Moore was asked what she sees for Detroit in two years. “I think you can make real progress by then,” she replies. “Your mayor reminds me a bit of my mayor, Michael Bloomberg. If you run this city like a business you’ll get there faster. You’ve just got to fix this city, it’s too important to the country.”

One of the objectives of Assignment: Detroit, Moore explains, is to help reframe the perspective other national media have had about Detroit. “We want to put the spotlight on you in a positive way. I’ve mentioned this to Valerie Jarrett [a senior advisor to President Obama] and I’m sure the President knows about it. I asked the Inforum women who we should bring to help, because you’re going to need help. This is a really big turnaround.”

Ann Moore laughs in response to a reporter’s comment about life in “The D House.”

In the initial explanation of the genesis of Assignment: Detroit, Executive Editor John Huey was given the credit for coming up with the idea, but it turned out he had done his homework. “He had sent some young reporters to Detroit to get their reaction to our starting a Detroit bureau,” Moore explains. “It was an internal editorial decision. I did clear it with the mayor at the time, Ken Cockerel, because we had bought a house in a residential area and I wanted to make sure we complied with zoning regulations.”

The house itself is perfect, according to Moore. “I was afraid at first it was going to be like a frat house. But a young University of Michigan alumna saw the announcement of our buying the house and said ‘you’re going to need me, you’re going to need a house manager’ so now there’s kind of a woman’s touch. All of my women’s lifestyle titles want to have a hand in the house as well.”

Earlier, Moore had said that the crew from This Old House was going to come by and take the house on as a project. Asked what she would want them to do, Moore replies, “That’s not how it works! Norm and the rest of them come in and tell you what needs to be done.”

Originally scheduled as a year-long project, with the house to be donated to a local charitable organization, Moore now is thinking longer term. It’s beating her financial expectations, even though it’s considered an “editorial expense,” and advertisers are asking to be adjacent to the editorial coverage. Maybe, just maybe, Assignment Detroit is having an attitude-changing effect after all.