“It’s not visionary stuff,” said the former Condé Nast executive of the current state of the company. “It’s about cutting and pulling back and restoring some of the fundamentals. That’s what every company has to do—otherwise they go out of business. One hopes that after that, a new vision can assert itself that is not just about how Chuck thinks. At some point, the company will need a new visionary.”
“THERE IS NO particular global view about what Condé Nast should be,’’ said Mr. Newhouse in an interview in 1989 with The New York Times Magazine. Instead, he said, “thinking pragmatically” is the key to his company. When it comes to starting, buying or revamping a magazine, Mr. Newhouse said then that he does it “if it seems like a good idea at the time.’’
Twenty years and one big giant media retrenchment later, there’s no evidence that Condé Nast has a new strategy. But it remains to be seen how, in this climate, Condé Nast can live at the same altitude it has inhabited for the past 50 years.
“How would you know what’s going to happen in the magazine business?” said Mr. Wallace. “You would look at its vital statistics. You would look at its sources of income from consumers, and from advertisers. And you would look at where you’re finding your circulation. We have no problem with circulation for print magazines.
“We have what we believe is a short-term problem with advertising revenue,” he continued. “That problem seems to be improving. How long will there be print magazines? I don’t know. But for as long as there will be, Condé Nast is well positioned.”
The core belief of Mr. Newhouse’s company—that advertising will return, that everything will be O.K.—is decidedly a risk. One has to wonder if Mr. Newhouse is simply comfortable to look into the next frontier, if this confidence in the old model is born as much from familiarity as from true belief.
“We’re so attached to a great publishing model that served us so well from World War II to September 15, 2008, but what if they don’t know that the model has died?” said Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “How many electrical shocks can you send before they see it’s dead?”
But Mr. Wallace fundamentally disagrees.
“The advertising revenue until proven otherwise is cyclical,” said Mr. Wallace. “And if it is proven otherwise, we’ve already adjusted for it.”
The 16 million people—and if you add in The New Yorker, the 20 million people—who read Condé Nast magazines every month, will stay right there, he believes. Along with the advertisers.
“I was the editor of Condé Nast Traveler during the Persian Gulf War. If you may remember, that was the end of travel as we know it. It was shutdown worldwide. It was followed by avian flu, SARS, hurricanes and typhoons and God knows what. There were bankruptcies on a massive scale in the hotel business.
“Travel came back,” he continued. “And Traveler came back. And then we went to September 11, Persian Gulf II. Stuff happens. And every time that happens, there is someone who wants to say it’s the end of the world.”
Si Newhouse, despite everything, still isn’t one of them.
For the famous pragmatic thinker who built the Condé Nast empire, it’s his greatest risk yet.
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