What Si Newhouse Taught Me.
It highlights my age and number of years in the media business to say that I overlapped with a few of the great names in media – names that understandably don’t mean that much to today’s 30-year-old media executive who’s orientation is all about the present and future. But the fact that I’ve worked for titles led by Helen Gurley Brown (Cosmopolitan), Jann Wenner (Us, Rolling Stone) and Louis Rossetto (Wired) is something I wear with a great deal of pride.
Which leads me to Sunday’s passing of S.I. “Si” Newhouse, Jr., the legendary chairman of Condé Nast. Newhouse was controversial, iconoclastic, painfully awkward and sometimes ruthless. But few can argue that he called the tune on the golden age of the magazine business in the 80s and 90s. And even though Si could never have picked me out of a lineup during my five years at CNP, he nonetheless left a mark on me. So here’s a short appreciation in three parts.
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Part One: He paid a ridiculous amount of attention to the details. Despite being one of his day’s wealthiest Americans and overseeing titles like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Vogue, Si famously arrived at work before dawn and read every page and noted every ad in every single one of Condé Nast’s titles. On a yellow legal pad he’d scrawl notes to publishers with a 49-cent Flair pen and staple them to ads he appreciated seeing – or to those he thought should be running in your pages. Even I got one.
Part Two: He played the long game. Some found fault with Si’s willingness to absorb years of losses on magazines he thought were important. But more often than not his bets on editors and concepts paid off, creating a halo of quality and a baseline of creative assets and brands that commanded premium prices, became must-buys for key advertisers and became the centers of gravity for the worlds they covered. As a sales guy at the launch of Allure, I saw first-hand how he didn’t hesitate to push off the magazine launch by months, then call for a major redesign after just a few issues… setting up Editor Linda Wells for more than two decades of success.
Part Three: He understood the difference between price and value. Si was notoriously quiet and reclusive. The only time I got to hear him speak in a small group setting was when someone asked him why Condé Nast never, ever negotiated on price. (Something that has changed in the intervening decades, but that was legendary in its time.) His answer was short and meaningful and something I repeat constantly to this day. “My father used to tell me that you can talk about price or you can talk about value,” he explained. “But you can’t talk about both at the same time. We just don’t let our people talk about price. So they have to talk about value.”
Si Newhouse’s legacy is undeniably complicated. And he was very much “of his time.” But some of what drove him is still timeless.