A Media Empire Loses Its King. What Now?

Sydney Ember, The New York Times

S.I. Newhouse Jr. was a self-effacing executive who somehow managed to serve as the public face of a brash, glitzy magazine company. How, exactly, will Condé Nast go on without him?

Condé Nast was named after Condé Montrose Nast, who purchased Vogue in 1909. But the glossy magazine company has long been synonymous with its unassuming leader, Samuel I. Newhouse Jr., who became chairman in 1975.

A college dropout who started learning the magazine business in the promotions department at Glamour, Newhouse would become a publishing maven with the glitziest of magazine empires. From his enviable perch, he resurrected Vanity Fair. He purchased The New Yorker and placed it in the hands of editors who reinvigorated it and made it relevant to new readers. He founded Self and took Gentleman’s Quarterly away from Esquire, Inc. for a cool $9 million and turned it into GQ. He helped make stars out of editors like Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, Graydon Carter and David Remnick.

Though reserved and at times even socially awkward, Newhouse presided over Condé Nast — and the Manhattan media scene — for decades. He quietly shaped fashion and popular culture over lunches in the Condé Nast cafeteria with the editors in his charge. As recently as two weeks ago, he made an appearance at the company’s gleaming new offices at 1 World Trade in Lower Manhattan.

But while Newhouse’s death on Sunday, at age 89, did not come as a surprise — he had dementia and was rarely seen in public — it has reignited one of the most vexing questions in magazine publishing: Can Condé Nast survive without Si?

Even before 2015, when Condé Nast changed his title from chairman to chairman emeritus, Newhouse had stepped away from daily operations at his company. His last major decision was to relocate Condé Nast from its headquarters in Midtown Manhattan to 23 floors at 1 World Trade, a move that was completed in 2014.

In the immediate wake of his death, it appeared unlikely that much would change at Condé Nast. Several executives and editors interviewed on Sunday said that, because Newhouse had not been involved in the business for more than four years, there was no immediate power vacuum.

Steven O. Newhouse, the chairman of the digital arm of Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications, said Newhouse’s death would have “no real impact” on the magazine publisher.

“Si has been sick for quite a while, and a long enough time so that we’ve all gotten past the point of operating with him,” said Steven Newhouse, 60, a nephew of the late chairman.

The family, he said, had not considered selling the company and had no plans to do so.

Jonathan Newhouse, 65, who runs Condé Nast’s international titles and is a cousin of the late chairman, was similarly adamant that the company would continue to operate as it had for the last several years.

“His death is very sad and reminds us all about the heritage and the values and what we stand for,” he said in an interview from London. “But in practical terms, it doesn’t make a difference in what the company is doing, because he wasn’t involved in the business.”

Still, the magazine industry faces relentless headwinds, and Condé Nast will now have to carve a path forward without the benefit of Newhouse in the role of company figurehead.

Condé Nast is privately held, and its leadership structure is murky, even to those among its ranks. Major decisions pass through a four-person board made up of Steven and Jonathan Newhouse; Thomas Summer, the chief financial officer of Advance Publications; and Robert A. Sauerberg Jr., Condé Nast’s chief executive. Sauerberg runs the day-to-day operations of Condé Nast and reports to the board.

There is some speculation that a committee of three family members — Steven, Jonathan and Newhouse’s brother, Donald Newhouse, who runs the newspaper division of Advance — will emerge to fill the void, though it is not clear if any one person will step forward as the company’s public face.

Rumors have also swirled within Condé Nast that Jonathan Newhouse will take over the magazine business. Though he lives in London, he visits New York regularly and has long kept an apartment in the city. For his part, Jonathan Newhouse said his role at Condé Nast was “not affected” by Si Newhouse’s death. “It’s just not a factor,” he said.

Without a powerful visionary at its helm, Condé Nast could be rudderless, particularly if there are disagreements within the family. Typically, family-owned businesses do not last longer than a few generations. The Newhouses got into the magazine business in 1959, when Samuel I. Newhouse Sr. bought the company, largely because of the fondness of his wife, Mitzi, for Vogue.

There are other signs that the coming years at Condé Nast will not be easy to navigate.

Once a magazine powerhouse whose editors zipped around Manhattan in the back seats of luxury Town Cars, Condé Nast has stumbled along with the rest of the magazine industry. It has shuttered titles and changed production schedules. A sweeping reorganization of its sales team has heightened the angst inside the building and done the business no favors — the company is expected to bring in $100 million less in revenue this year than it did in 2016, according to a person briefed on the company’s financial outlook.

The specter of layoffs looms large. Two longtime top editors, Carter and Cindi Leive of Glamour, said last month that they were stepping down.

“Of course there are challenges, but almost all businesses have challenges,” Jonathan Newhouse said. “I would rather have our magazine properties than any other media I can think of.”

The Newhouses’ newspaper business, which was named for The Staten Island Advance and includes The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Oregonian and The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, is also struggling, long starved of resources even as the magazine business enjoyed lavish expense accounts.

If the print side of Advance Publications is on tenuous footing, the situation is less dire for the Newhouse family. Last year, it completed the sale of its cable business, Bright House Networks, to Charter Communications for more than $10 billion. As part of the deal, Advance now owns a minority stake in Charter, according to Steven Newhouse, who added that the company has “no cash issues whatsoever.”

In a carefully worded letter to employees on Sunday that was signed (in alphabetical order) by Donald, Jonathan and Steven Newhouse, the family stressed its commitment to the company that was expanded during the Si era.

“On behalf of everyone in our family, we look forward to celebrating Si’s legacy by continuing his passionate support for Condé Nast and for your extraordinary work,” the family wrote. “All of us are thrilled to travel with you on this important journey.”

While the ultimate absence of the patriarch may not immediately affect Condé Nast, his death nevertheless seems a fitting coda for a once-gilded magazine industry now in turmoil.

“‘End of an era’ is thrown around much more often than eras actually occur,” said Jim Kelly, a former top editor at Time magazine and a contributor at Condé Nast. “But the death of Si Newhouse is, more than anything else that has happened in the last few years, the end of an era for magazines, because he was that rare thing — an owner who was an absolute true believer.”

Source: The New York Times

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