Remembering Si Newhouse

Jonathan Newhouse and Si Newhouse

It is a sad day for readers of this magazine and the staff of the company which publishes it, Condé Nast. Si Newhouse, the man who built the company and directed it for more than 50 years, has died in New York after a long illness.

The company Condé Nast was named after its founder who started the publishing house in the early part of the twentieth century — but it could easily be renamed the Si Newhouse Company. He started with a small enterprise which produced a few magazines (four in the US, two in Britain and two in France) and vastly expanded it while attaining new heights of publishing excellence and influence. His accomplishments are too many to list in their entirety. He reinvigorated Vogue, establishing it as the world leader and the most influential magazine brand in the world. He revived Vanity Fair, which became a powerful publishing phenomenon. He rescued a fading weekly, The New Yorker. He acquired Gentlemen’s Quarterly, (GQ) which became the market leader. He launched or acquired leading titles in the fields of health, travel, architecture, beauty and sport. And he expanded the organisation’s publishing activities around the world, growing from six countries to thirty and more than 140 magazines and 100 websites.

Toward the end of his career as digital media came to the fore, he focused on this too, reinventing the magazine brands in digital form while maintaining the highest standards of editorial quality.

Si, as everyone called him, devoted himself incessantly and single-mindedly to producing the best journalistic products. And it was this vision, coupled with commercial acumen, patience and courage, which earned Condé Nast its leadership position in the industry and the admiration of writers, editors and photographers along with the gratitude of millions of readers, even if they didn’t know who was behind the shiny magazine they held in their hands.

I had the joy and honour of working for him and with him for 36 years. As he and I share the same last name, many people assumed he was my father or my uncle. He was actually a much older first cousin; however, our relationship was something like uncle and nephew, mentor and protégé and finally, two devoted friends. He taught me most of what I know about business and a lot of what I know about life, and I loved him.

As a person he was unassuming, soft-spoken and had a sense of irony, including an ability to laugh at himself. He was always fair in dealing with people. He rarely lost his cool and never raised his voice. He treated everyone, from the highest ranking person to the lowest, with courtesy. He paid attention. In the days before the word became trendy, he was “mindful.”. He had a keen sense of aesthetics, especially visual, and became a renowned art collector. And as if he possessed an inner Google map, he had an uncanny sense of physical space; while walking in an unfamiliar city of an office labyrinth he never got lost.

For those of us living and working in Europe, the highlight of the year was a warm week in May when Si would tour the Western European offices, starting in Paris on a Monday and moving on through Munich, Milan and Madrid before finishing in London. It was an intense week when I accompanied him from morning to night. Si met with executives and editors as we discussed, debated, speculated, analysed and traded information. He would enter the offices in a baggy, rumpled suit, looking more like a university lecturer than a CEO. He never referred to a budget or brandished a spreadsheet or statistics. But his penetrating mind observed everything, and his continual questions and comments tested and stimulated his listeners. In the end, the process made us better professionals and even more inspired.

I could (but won’t) write a book about him and what he achieved. I will, however, share a memory. In early 1981 we had lunch in his office (I was a 28 year old trainee) and he told me about how Vanity Fair had been published by Condé Nast from 1914 to 1936, closing down in the depths of The Great Depression. He said, “It has always been the dream of this company to bring back Vanity Fair.” That was the word he used — dream. That’s how it was in those days! Before there was a business plan, a marketing strategy, a mission statement, there was….a dream. Si Newhouse was a dreamer, and he made those dreams a reality.

Today when young people are asked what they want to do with their lives, they often respond, “I want to change the world.” Young people growing up in an earlier time did not express the same self-confidence and ambition. Si Newhouse didn’t grow up wanting or expecting to change the world. But he did. And the proof of it is the words you are reading right now.

We at Condé Nast who work with pride in the organisation he built will honour his memory by carrying on the achievement to which he dedicated his life — producing the very best for you.—Jonathan Newhouse

Read Jonathan Newhouse’s personal tribute here

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