The Year I Worked For Walter Isaacson

Internet Culture Personal
The distinguished biographer Walter Isaacson's new Einstein is making the rounds, and I know I'll enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed his biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger. And I'm thinking back to 1995, the year Walter Isaacson was my boss.

Or, to be exact, he was my boss's boss at Time Inc. New Media, the company that produced a website called Pathfinder. This was my first job for a media company, after five years writing financial software for the banking industry, and I had to struggle to find my footing as a middle manager in this often hyper-kinetic and illogical milieu.

Here's an example: I had joined this venture in the belief that I was being hired by Time Warner, but it quickly became clear to me that I was working for Time Inc., a venerable New York City magazine publishing company. Warner Brothers was a movie studio in Los Angeles that we didn't talk to very often.

This pointed to one of the many hidden weaknesses in the Pathfinder business plan -- most of the power players within Time Warner (or, for that matter, within Time Inc.) hated sharing their content with a free website, and were happy to sabotage the venture every chance they got. Pathfinder quickly became the laughing stock of "Silicon Alley", a bloated pile of leftover magazine content that strained (and constantly failed) to be hip or exciting like America Online.

Here's the funny part: Walter Isaacson was the head of Time Inc. New Media during Pathfinder's formative years. I was disgusted with the way our venture was managed during the Isaacson era, and yet somehow I always liked Isaacson himself. And, even more strangely, everybody I worked with felt the same way. He was a quiet and unassuming leader, with a small frame and a generally kindly expression, and he carried himself with a dignity and sophistication that made you just want to like him, even though you knew he was driving his company -- your company -- into the ground. When he walked into a meeting, you momentarily felt like Pathfinder had a touch of class.

Of course he did have too much class for us dot-com wackos, and about a year after my arrival at Pathfinder he was elevated from the lowly whirlpool of Time Inc. New Media to the top spot at Time Inc: managing editor of Time Magazine. Thankfully, this job emphasized his journalistic skills over his dot-com savvy, and he's been doing fine ever since (he also seems quite willing to forget his years at Pathfinder's helm, which are not mentioned in Einstein's "About The Author").

I had exactly one direct encounter with Walter Isaacson, and it was not a good moment. I shared a cubicle corner with a co-worker named Shad Todd who was much more of a "golden boy" than me, and one day Walter Isaacson popped into our spot, wearing a bespoke suit, a team of Japanese executives at his side. "Where's Shad?" he said, obviously looking for an impromptu demo of something "cool" we were doing.

I didn't know where Shad was, so he asked me "What are you working on right now?" and glanced at my computer screen. Unfortunately, at that particular moment I was kicking back on a USENET group -- I can't remember if it was rec.music.dylan or alt.barney.dinosaur.die.die.die -- but luckily the text was small, and I'm not exactly sure if Walter Isaacson could read it as he looked at my screen, though he did give me a funny look. "Are you sure you don't know where Shad is?" he said.

I stayed with Time Inc. New Media for four years, and in my final year I had a completely different type of run-in with Walter Isaacson. Pathfinder was now trying to emphasize its brands -- Time.com, People.com, EW.com, Fortune.com, SportsIllustrated.com -- and I was assigned to help Time Magazine write a live news data feed for their website. My co-worker on the magazine staff was a very adept techie intern named Andrew Arnold (who later went on to become Time's popular comix critic), and I always tried to schedule my meetings with Andrew for around 4 pm because that was when Walter Isaacson did a live TV broadcast -- I can't even remember what show it was for -- from the office studio.

Yes, my friends, in late 1998 and early 1999 I got to be one of those busy people you see wandering and working behind a broadcaster in a news show (here's the surprising thing: we were actually doing work). I never got to listen to the news Isaacson was delivering (it wouldn't have been very impressive if I just pulled up a chair and sat there listening as the cameras rolled), but I enjoyed being there while the show get taped, and I only hoped Isaacson didn't recognize me as the guy in the basement cube who couldn't give a demo.

Well, even if he does remember me, I've got dirt on him too. He's a distinguished biographer, and quite a storyteller (my only gripe is that his biography of the contemptible Henry Kissinger was a bit too charmed by its subject). But I remember when the distinguished biographer worked long hours to create a famous flop in a Rockefeller Center basement, and I'm here to remind the world of those uproarious days.
3 Responses to "The Year I Worked For Walter Isaacson"

by Billectric on

Fun infoI like reading about your techie experiences.

by brooklyn on

Thanks, Bill. Really, you all don't even want to get me started telling my media-business stories. I've got stories to tell, names to name ...

by Billectric on

Sounds to me like a book is called for ...