There are lots of shouldas and couldas around Time (TIME) , the once-mighty magazine company teetering on the edge of a historic sale.
Like Viacom's (VIAB - Get Report) MTV, Time's magazines -- which include People, Sports Illustrated, Essence and Fortune -- should probably be at the forefront of their respective categories. But like MTV, their corporate and executive leaders either had other priorities or just failed to leverage their well-known brands into market-leading digital and video platforms.
Time's board of directors, which met this week, is sifting through buyout offers, although Meredith (MDP - Get Report) , a rival magazine publisher that tried to buy the company, has emerged as the favorite in the event that the company does decide to sell, following reports that an investor group led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. and media executive Ynon Kreiz had dropped out of the running.
Time, which has surged 30% over the past six months on reports of a possible buyout, was little changed at $18.77 on Thursday.
But whether Time opts for a merger, sells individual titles or remains independent, its goal will be the same: to enlarge its digital and online subscription revenue to become less reliant on sales tied to its print products.
"Because they have these brand names that consumers recognize, they have a strong enough base of viewers that they can exist as an independent company," said Tim Nollen, a media analyst at Macquarie. "Whether they need to, or whether they'd do better as an independent company, I'm not so sure."
Toward that end, it's worth appreciating the transition that another legacy print publisher, Berlin-based Axel Springer when it sold a slew of regional newspapers and women's magazines.
Peter Kreisky, a New York publishing consultant and former Time executive, points out that Axel Springer, once Europe's largest newspaper publisher, began selling a slew of its print publications in 2013 to raise money to buy digital pure plays, websites and apps. Building on an investment in Airbnb, Axel Springer became the majority owner of Business Insider and industry researcher eMarketer and a stakeholder in relatively new media enterprises Mic, Ozy and NowThis, the digital video creator whose owners also include Discovery Communications (DISCA - Get Report) .
As the company looked for other digital deals, it created a joint venture with Politico for a European website and made a series of acquisitions in the U.K., including classified jobs site StepStone. The U.K. contributes about 12% of total sales.
While Axel Springer continues to draw important revenue from the print versions of the Bild tabloid and the Die Welt broadsheet, digital sales constituted 67% of revenue by the end of the third quarter, an increase from 61% during the same period a year earlier. In 2012, digital sales at Axel accounted for 35.5% of revenue, versus 8.1% in 2007.
"Axel Springer is still focused on its journalistic mission but with a very different portfolio than it had in the past," Kreisky said in a phone interview in New York. "It was a very courageous move to make, and it seems to be paying off."
Time, meanwhile, was almost entirely focused on print until the company was spun off in June 2014 by Time Warner (TWX) . Even as the media industry was fast transitioning to digital, the website for People magazine remained largely focused around selling subscriptions to its print product, Kreisky added.
The publisher's inability to make substantive moves in digital remains a source of bitter finger-pointing. Some charge that Time Warner, its longtime parent, failed to invest the magazine group's profits in digital platforms to capitalize on its best-known brands.
Others interviewed for this story counter that Time's own executives, a leadership group that met with turnover, were too rooted in a print mindset, unable to sacrifice the security of longstanding print revenue streams. Arguably, Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, who took over in January 2008, chose to focus the company on its television and film operations, leading to the spinoffs of AOL, Time Warner Cable and Time.
"Time Warner was milking the Time Inc. business as a cash cow and redeploying the cash into other businesses," said Reed Phillips, CEO of New York media investment bank DeSilva + Phillips. "There were a lot of ideas about what you could do with those assets that never saw the light of day because they didn't have the financial support of Time Warner. Once the spinoff occurred, it was very late in the game to be retooling."
Time Warner declined to comment for this story as did Time Inc.
In the past 18 months, Time has begun to make the kinds of investments and innovations that likely have prompted interest from potential buyers. In June, it launched video-centric platforms Extra Crispy, a food site, and Instant, featuring content from People and Entertainment Weekly. Both are products of its in-house native advertising and video-production group, The Foundry, based in Brooklyn's Industry City as opposed to its corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Time introduced its newest platform, Coinage, a video-based personal finance site, last month, bringing the number of Time's digital properties to 16 to go along with its 22 magazine titles.
Nonetheless, Time remains mired in the difficult decisions confronting many legacy print publishers. Revenue was little changed in 2016 as gains in digital revenue were more than offset by the continuing decline in print ad sales. Circulation revenue fell 9% last year to $944 million, while newsstand sales continued to plummet, falling 16% to $278 million. Back in 2010, newsstand sales were $538 million.
"Time Inc. is a lot more today than just its print title," Kreisky added. "But at the same time, it is joined at the hip with the fate of print."
Whether Time remains a standalone company or is folded into another entity, CEO Rich Battista and Chief Operating Officer Jen Wong, both named to their positions in September, will be looking to continue to reshape a 95-year-old company to compete in a media world dominated by Facebook (FB - Get Report) , Alphabet (GOOGL - Get Report) and Netflix (NFLX - Get Report) .
To get there, it might follow Axel Springer.