By Roy Harris

In discussing Norm Pearlstine’s return to Time Inc. after a long, productive stint at Bloomberg, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera raises serious questions about the nature of the chief content officer position.

Nocera has something of an insider’s perspective, having worked at Time’s Fortune magazine while Pearlstine had an editor-in-chief title that covered the entire Time Warner media empire. And in this case, Joe’s perspective leads to some very real worries about what happens when editors-in-chief give way to chiefs of content.

Joe and I both respect Norm Pearlstine greatly as a news person. He was a terrific Wall Street Journal managing editor in the years I was there. And Time‘s gain was the Journal‘s loss when he left for his exalted magazine title. ASBPE welcomed Norm as a keynote speaker at our 2007 national conference in New York, where his defense of quality in magazine journalism — and his concern about advertiser influence — were extremely heartening.

But the Nocera column has an ominous tone that may seem all too familiar to those of us who have seen editors-in-chief losing more and more battles to their business-side counterparts at B2B publications. For one thing, he lamented that the editor-in-chief title would be abolished at Time. And also, he contrasts Norm’s “passionate, now-legendary memo insisting on the importance of the Church-State divide” with the quote attributed him in assuming this latest “content” post: “I look forward to forging a new sense of partnership between the creative and business sides of Time Inc.”

I haven’t talked with Pearlstine lately. But when Nocera called him, the Times columnist was less than cheered. One concern: that Pearlstine praised the Forbes model that runs sponsored content alongside its staff-written work. The column ended with these words about what Nocera sees as the possibility that the Church-State divide at Time is dead: “May it rest in peace.”

Let us all hope that the divide survives, and doesn’t rest at all.

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Roy Harris, currently the president of the ASBPE Foundation and a former national president of ASBPE, has worked for CFO Magazine, and has served as editorial director of CFOworld.com. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.