To fill the vacancy at Vanity Fair, Newhouse then lured Graydon Carter, a founding editor of Spy, away from his post as the editor of the sassy weekly, The New York Observer.
It had been five years since a change of editors set off such a furor in the business. Not coincidentally, Newhouse was behind all the fuss back then, too, when he dismissed Grace Mirabella as the editor of Vogue and replaced her with HG's Anna Wintour.
A few months after The New Yorker/Vanity Fair shuffle, Newhouse was at it again.
This time he removed 13-year Mademoiselle veteran Amy Levin Cooper as editor and replaced her with Gabe Doppelt, a relatively unknown 32-year-old.
'Change has always been sudden,' Newhouse explains during an interview in his office on the 14th floor of Conde Nast's Madison Avenue headquarters. 'It just happens. Only rarely is a change preceded by a long period anticipating a change.'
Newhouse and the rest of his magazine empire - which consists of 12 magazines under the umbrella of Conde Nast Publications and two (The New Yorker and Parade) under the aegis of Advance Publications - take the recent changes in stride.
'There was an element of concern that with Tina as the new editor at The New Yorker and Graydon as the new editor at Vanity Fair, either one or both might have been uncomfortable with the new magazines,' Newhouse admits.
'Or their readers would have been uncomfortable with them. Fortunately, it's worked out very well.'
Newhouse rejects the notion that there has been any decline in the editorial quality or advertising climate of Vanity Fair since Brown's departure. He also refutes the contention of some media buyers that The New Yorker has taken ad pages or readers away from Vanity Fair.
'I don't think there's any problem with Vanity Fair's advertising or readers migrating to The New Yorker, or vice versa,' he says. 'I think Graydon has caught hold of Vanity Fair. Circulation continues to be up anywhere from 16% to 30% each issue.'
Another source of pride for the tradition-minded Newhouse is the fact that, in an era of takeovers and mergers and public offerings, his privately owned company can continue its traditional way of operating.
'I was brought up and trained in a very personal business by my father and his brothers, and they were all very personal operators and close to what they were doing,' he says.
'That privately owned tradition, that intimacy and association with our executives, is something that is part of the Conde Nast way.
We're probably as unstructured as a company can be. Maybe that's a cause of mistakes, but it keeps us close and we're able to make quick decisions and able to communicate quicker.'
Says Conde Nast president Bernard Leser, 'We're masters of decentralizition. Si combines an ability to be remarkably hands on and also wonderfully hands off, so no one feels hemmed in or inhibited.'
Newhouse is equally aware of the importance of maintaining an aura of quality for the Conde Nast stable of books. Although he steers clear of personal publicity (he even keeps his age a secret; best estimates put him in the mid-60s), Newhouse makes certain the corporate identity comes through immediately when a reader picks up one of his magazines.
'Over the years, the corporate name has become familiar to readers and has acquired an importance that it didn't used to have when we had four magazines,' says Newhouse. 'When we launch a new magazine or when we have acquired magazines or acquired lists of magazines that have stopped publishing, we make sure that the Conde Nast name is part of any solicitations or any mailing that we do.'
It's unlikely, however, that this corporate identity will ever translate into a Conde Nast consumer campaign. 'It really would fly in the face of the tradition of each magazine holding its own and dealing with its own problems,' he says.
Newhouse may be quite fond of tradition, but he is not afraid to make the changes necessary to keep the company forging ahead.
Five years ago - though Newhouse jokes that it feels like more than 40 - Conde Nast purchased the very downtown Details, but not because the company had the foresight to market to Generation X. 'A group of us who looked at the magazine thought it was a good idea to familiarize ourselves with publishing for this market,' he says. 'We were not thinking of it at all as Generation 2000, because it wasn't involved with an age group. It was much more of a lifestyle publication.' Newhouse says the company wanted to learn about publishing a magazine smaller than those already on its roster. The difference, however, between Details and the rest of the CN books was two-fold. First, it was much smaller.
And second, it had an ultra downtown attitude and look. If anything, Conde Nast books are the antithesis of downtown. The only experience the company had with hip, trendy magazines was as a minority partner in a British group that publishes The Face and Arena.
But Newhouse was willing to go against the grain of Conde Nast culture and bring Details into the company. In typical Newhouse style, he wasted no time with layers of consultants and bureaucracy or focus groups and test issues.
These techniques were in part to blame for sinking other books - Time Inc.'s TV Cable Week, Picture Week, Murdoch's Men's Life and Forbes' Egg - whose publishers spent too long kicking around an idea and missed out on the right audience. Details made Newhouse aware there were lessons to be learned from publishing smaller books. When the opportunity arose, and when he saw its appeal to a certain market, Conde Nast acquired Details. It got a magazine that had already worked out the kinks, and then Newhouse adapted the book to fit the house style.
Now, of course, Details is making Newhouse look prescient. It's one of the darlings of the industry in the eyes of advertisers, who believe the book holds a key for reaching the hard-to-reach Generation X, post-baby boom market.
By making readers more aware of the Conde Nast name, and with Details and Mademoiselle selling themselves as books for the hot twentysomething generation, does Newhouse see Conde Nast cultivating a new generation of readers who would graduate to the next level, such as GQ or Vogue?
'I don't think that works,' he says. 'Whether or not we were publishing Details and Mademoiselle, readers at a certain age will become interested in GQ and Vogue and Allure. They may also be reading those magazines at the same time they're reading Details and Mademoiselle.'
Not that Conde Nast doesn't encourage subscribers and newsstand readers to pick up on other books published by the company. 'I think that the readers of Details and Mademoiselle will be available, in a sense of being names on our lists, as prospective readers,' says Newhouse. 'But, I don't think it's going to happen naturally, like soldiers going from one step to the next.'
The company also has held steadfastly to its rule of staying on the rate card. Three years ago, when Conde Nast refused to restructure rates at discounts demanded by General Motors, the automaker virtually boycotted Conde Nast. Sources speculated that GM was able to threaten other magazine companies with pulling out, as it did from Conde Nast, and garner deeper discounts.
Last fall, GM ended its boycott and returned to the Conde Nast fold. 'We felt it would be unfair to any of our advertisers to depart from the published rates,' says Newhouse. 'I think General Motors respected that and understood it, and there was always some small use of our magazines by General Motors. Eventually, times changed and they started to use more of our magazines. I don't think it was as dramatic or confrontational as the press played it up as being. 'I hate to say this, but there are many advertisers who do not use Conde Nast magazines, for any number of reasons. We try to market ourselves in the best way possible and sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't. I don't question the motives of advertisers who do not use our magazines.'
As for the future of Conde Nast, the focus remains on publishing magazines. 'We have no present plan to extend these magazines into alternate media. We're waiting and everyone else is waiting to see what will come out of the new technology and new delivery systems,' says Newhouse. 'We have not diffused our energy by spending a great deal of time in alternate media.'
Newhouse's office is the size of a conference room. It's simple, with a big, unremarkable desk.
The walls are covered with a striking array of framed original comics from the early part of the century. There are sketches by Winsor McCay, the creator of Little Nemo' and Rabbit Fiend, and drawings by George Harriman, the creator of Krazy Kat. There are original drawings of the 'Gasoline Alley' strip. And there are prints from the first successful color comic strip character, the Yellow Kid. One of Newhouse's favorite cartoons features a politician whose arms grow longer as he lies.
Newhouse points out the Nemo cartoons all take place in a dream - that Nemo wakes up in final frame of each strip. It's easy to imagine Newhouse just walking into one of the cartoons, shaking things up a bit, then walking out. Newhouse's legendary drive for perfection and success reportedly puts him at his office before dawn every day. He is said to read every word of every magazine, and know every photo credit, every editor, every writer.
When pressed about his reputation he smiles and begins to deny almost everything. 'First off, it's not true that I get in at 4:30. It's closer to 6,' he says. 'It's not true that I read every single article. It's not true that I know every photographer.
It's not true that I pour over every detail. In some cases, I read all of a magazine. In other cases, I don't. In each case, though, I do look carefully at each magazine.'
For Newhouse, who says the only magazines outside the Conde Nast family that he reads closely and regularly are The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, the business is a labor of love.
'I get enormous satisfaction out of magazine publishing,' he explains. 'I get special satisfaction out of publishing at a certain level of quality that I learned from years of exposure to the tradition of Conde Nast. I have tried in my own way to encourage and carry on that tradition.'
Judging by the continued quality and strength of Conde Nast's publications, he is doing just that.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)