Si of Relief? Condé Nasters Still Waiting for January Surprise

si10709 Si of Relief? Condé Nasters Still Waiting for January SurpriseIn Januarys past, we’ve watched Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse return from a December vacation in Vienna, flick his wrist and send his employees into a mad fury. Firings, closures and promotions have all been a part of this oft-repeated “January surprise.”

This was a particularly nervous holiday season—what would Si do in this scary, unprecedented, in-the-toilet media year?

So far, not much. And at least for now, Condé Nasters are exhaling. “This building buzzes when it’s real,” said one well-placed 4 Times Square insider to Off the Record. “There’s no buzz right now.”

Last month, as the New York Post’s Keith Kelly reported, the chatter in the cafeteria was focused on two magazines: Would struggling shelter mag Domino crumble like House and Garden before it? And would Details suffer a similar fate to Men’s Vogue, which was all but eliminated last year?

But apparently, since every magazine is suffering in the ad-pages department, it’s a tough time to measure who’s up and who’s down.

“It’s an unclear read,” said our spy. “In times like this, everyone is in the same boat and no one knows really what it means.”

Mr. Newhouse, however, works quietly, and even those who talk to him and company CEO Chuck Townsend only have the foggiest clue what the two men are thinking.

“When they make a big decision, they make it in the morning and announce it in the afternoon,” another source said.

The deep concern for Condé Nast—and every other magazine publisher this year—is redundancy.

In the past, industry execs have loved having a few titles in the same category: They could corner the market on all the ad money being thrown around.

But in these days of tight-fisted advertising, the thinking is that if some magazines need to be drowned in the river, it’s the ugly stepsisters that might be up first. Can Domino survive in a world where there’s already an Architectural Digest? Can Details make it another year when there’s already a GQ? Is it really worth letting Bon Appetit fight for the same ad pages as Gourmet? And does Condé Nast really need three magazines about brides in 2009?

Over at Hearst, where O at Home faced the wrecking ball last year, are House Beautiful, Country Living and Veranda quaking? And what of Redbook and Good Housekeeping? (At least be assured that Caroline Kennedy won’t be a cover subject anytime soon, even if she is appointed senator.)

At the end of the month, Condé Nast publishers and execs will convene in their multipurpose conference room—as opposed to a sunny resort in Florida, as in years past—to reveal the winners of 2008’s sweepstakes. And so far the talk is that they will be two relatively under-the-radar magazines: the fitness-focused Self, and hipster-parenting guide Cookie—which, unlike nearly every other magazine in the planet, was up 10.72 percent in ad pages in 2008, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Stay tuned!

jkoblin@observer.com