The Wonderful Weirdness of Working for Si Newhouse
The media mogul who ran the family-owned Conde Nast wasn’t just an operator. He was a patron.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
The first great job I ever had only existed thanks to Si Newhouse.
From 2004 to 2006, I was a media reporter for Women's Wear Daily, writing the daily Memo Pad column. When people asked me why a women's fashion trade newspaper had a full-time media columnist, I told them: Actually, it had two. (My partner on the column was the terrific Sara James Mnookin.) And that was because our owner, Conde Nast Publications chairman Samuel Irving Newhouse Jr. -- Si, to everyone inside the company, except to his face -- wanted it that way. For some reason.
I only ever talked to Si, who died over the weekend at age 89, a handful of times in my two years at WWD. But my editors were very specific about what he desired from us: While our brief extended to newspapers, television, books and even advertising, glossy magazines were of paramount importance to Si. And we were to reserve our most aggressive, incisive reporting for Conde Nast's own titles, an Olympian club that included Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Gourmet and Architectural Digest.
I can't stress enough how unusual that is. The other media moguls I wrote about regarded the prospect of their businesses being scrutinized with varying degrees of squeamishness. Certainly none would have paid people to expose his or her secrets. I'm still not entirely sure why Si was so keen on it, except that it was said he felt external scrutiny and internal competition kept his editors sharp.
An editor in chief or publisher at Conde Nast in the last boom years for print media was like an exotic pet: They ate the best food, wore the most beautiful clothes, lived in designer palaces, all thanks to Si's largesse. Siccing nosey reporters on them was just one of his clever methods of keeping them from getting too comfortable.
(Pitting them against each other was another. I experienced this from the other side during the two years I spent at Conde Nast Portfolio, when the great Graydon Carter made it his mission to render Vanity Fair's new sister title irrelevant by publishing the best longform business journalism in town, even if that meant hiring away Portfolio's writers, like Michael Lewis. What other owner would have allowed two of his executives to wage a bidding war against each other for talent?)
Sometimes I felt we surely must have been interpreting our writ too liberally. One such occasion was when Conde Nast plastered Times Square with posters touting each of its magazines in what was said to be a seven-figure advertising campaign. Sara and I pointed out that the models in the campaign, each of whom was supposed to represent a different magazine's aesthetic, were almost all Caucasian (with the exception of one Asian woman, I believe.) What was meant to have been a triumphant, feel-good moment for the company instead became a PR black eye. Through the editorial grapevine, we heard the story caused a raucous fight between Conde Nast's then CEO, Chuck Townsend, and Mary Berner, the executive who oversaw WWD.
Several days after our story ran, I found myself face to face with Conde Nast's then-CEO, Chuck Townsend, at a party. Townsend, a large man with a booming voice, clapped his hands on my shoulders and admonished me to remember "we're all on the same team here."
A bit shaken, I reported the encounter to my editor, who told me not to worry. Yes, my own company's CEO might be pissed off at me -- but his boss was delighted.
It was an arms'-length kind of delighted. From time to time, Sara and I would see Si at one of the media or fashion galas we attended as reporters. Our instructions for those scenarios were to approach him and ask him if he had any comment on the subject of the evening, which he would not, we were assured. But he still wanted us to ask, if only to see we were out there doing our jobs.
Whatever the supposed rationale, in reality it made little sense for Si to have his own employees airing the company's dirty laundry, spoiling its surprises, starting feuds between its executives, pestering them at parties. But I like to think that's exactly why he did it -- because the work we did was something stylish and knowing and pointless that couldn't have existed without a patron underwriting it. It gave Si pleasure to have gossipy reporters stirring the pot, just as it gave him pleasure to have fabulously cool editors swanning around Paris and Milan on his dime, or to collect priceless art in his home, or to commission Frank Gehry to design his cafeteria. The fact that he didn't have to do any of these things to be one of the one of the richest and most important people in publishing is what made them worth doing. He lived vicariously through all of us.
To say he was the last of a dying breed is almost too on-the-nose. Hugh Hefner died a few days before Si. Jann Wenner is selling Rolling Stone. After those three, it's a pretty steep drop-off for the world of print magazines. As long as there are ultra-rich people, there will always be a few who value great journalism enough to bankroll it, or at least who see some advantage to themselves in doing so. Lately, it's been tech-sector wealth coming to the rescue, with Jeff Bezos saving the Washington Post and Laurene Powell Jobs taking The Atlantic off David Bradley's hands.
But there's a difference between an owner, even a very good owner, and a patron. What Wenner, Hefner and, above all, Newhouse shared was an appreciation for journalism as performance art -- for what someone blind to the romance of journalism might call the wasteful parts of the business. Si wore the same freebie sweatshirt to the office every day and scarfed down his bland lunch at the same cafeteria table. But he wanted his editors wearing Prada and eating at the Four Seasons because he wanted to publish magazines edited by people who wore Prada and ate at the Four Seasons. He thought that made the magazines better, in the same way prehistoric humans thought eating a lion's heart could make them fierce warriors.
Media moguls will come and go, but, in an era of programmatic advertising and Facebook-optimized content, it's doubtful there will be another one who thinks quite like Si Newhouse thought. It's also doubtful there will be another one who publishes as much great journalism, or as many images that rise to the level of art. To those of us fortunate enough to have worked for him, that's no coincidence.