The Sunset of Si: As the Conde Nast Chairman Fades Away, His Glossy Kingdom is Losing Some Sparkle

Is There a New Newhouse in the House?

newfinal sinewhouse jason seilerweb The Sunset of Si: As the Conde Nast Chairman Fades Away, His Glossy Kingdom is Losing Some Sparkle

Illustration: Jason Seiler

About six years ago, Tom Florio, then the publisher of Vogue, had an idea. He wanted to expand the fashion bible’s brand into a new platform: online television. The magazine’s discerning editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, approved and Mr. Florio found blue-chip financial investors who did too. He’d been working on the proposal for nine months when he presented it to Si Newhouse, Chuck Townsend and other top Condé Nast brass.

“I hate it,” Mr. Newhouse said.

Encountering Mr. Newhouse at a dinner party a few days later, Mr. Florio asked the Condé Nast chairman to elaborate on his abrupt dismissal of the idea.

“All that did was make money,” the boss told him.

It’s hard to imagine the executive who would utter such a sentence in today’s economy (let alone one tasked with navigating the turbulent media market). But the story exemplifies what some say is the defining brilliance of Mr. Newhouse: his quickness to tear a book up, to unceremoniously fire and replace someone (see: Vreeland, Diana, or Mirabella, Grace), to say “no.”

“He makes decisions based on what the essence of Condé Nast was,” Mr. Florio, now CEO of Advanstar Fashion Group, explained.

It’s certainly the signature trait that enabled him to build his stable of glossies into one of the most influential corporate architects of consumer aspiration. But as luxury print advertising—the company’s lifeblood—continues to dry up, Condé Nast is reprogramming its top brass to say “yes”: to brand extensions, such as e-commerce relationships (GQ and Nordstrom), membership programs (Lucky Rewards) and licensed merchandise (Bon Appetit for Home Shopping Network).

Though the 84-year-old Mr. Newhouse remains the company’s chairman and is still regularly spotted in the cafeteria, insiders say his presence is less common and his day-to-day influence quickly waning. The upshot is that the editorial old guard of Condé Nast is losing its best defender, prompting some to wonder if it the company’s “essence,” the ineffable lustre that long captivated advertisers and readers, will survive its 2015 move downtown to 1 World Trade.

Some signs of drift are more apparent than others. Employees have become accustomed to the sight of busted banquettes in the once-gleaming Frank Gehry cafeteria, for instance. “That was the symbol of the luxury of the place,” noted a long-time staffer, adding that the food has also become less appealing. “I think they just stopped caring,” the staffer said. “I think something happened where they were like, ‘I’m not spending any more money.’”

And according to some male editorial employees, even the elevator eye candy isn’t what it used to be. As one put it, “You do sense that maybe one of the weird by-products of the ‘Death of Print’ is that girls in sundresses don’t all flock here quite as much.”

The result seems to be a corporate culture that has lost its edge. “You sense a little bit the loss of that swagger, the feeling that ‘I’m working in some special place,’” the employee added with a sigh.

At this rate, how long will it be before the aroma of garlic—which Mr. Newhouse views with such vampiric scorn that it has been banned from the lunchroom—is wafting through the hallways?