Unwanted biography reveals Newhouse

While there often seems to be a mystique that travels with the rich and powerful, the aura of mystery is almost always magnified when the potentate chooses to shun the limelight. S. I. Newhouse, the man behind Random House Publishing, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, a nationwide chain of newspapers and a big cable-television operation, prefers to work in the dark.

Mr. Newhouse's great success as a media tycoon and his penchant for secrecy have earned him the expected but unwanted attention of Thomas Maier, an investigative reporter for New York Newsday. Despite no cooperation from Mr. Newhouse whatsoever, Mr. Maier has written a revealing profile of Mr. Newhouse and his privately owned, generally upper-crust empire, spiced with gossip and insider information that would be especially appealing to readers of Mr. Newhouse's magazines.


Many of the giant media chieftains revel in the attention, nearly all of which tends to inflate their own importance and the impact that their empires have on society. The importance of the estimated $13 billion size of Mr. Newhouse's Advance Publications empire is justifiably lost on millions upon millions of Americans who can easily live their lives without ever picking up Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, the Cleveland Plain Dealer or any other Newhouse publication.

There is a strong argument to be made that Mr. Newhouse's influence lags far behind that of Rupert Murdoch or Michael Eisner or Gerald Levin. Mr. Newhouse does not pack the punch of a William Randolph Hearst. Comparative influence, however, is beside the point, because Mr. Newhouse is a determined and successful trendsetter in the publishing business.


Mr. Newhouse, as Mr. Maier points out, is a devoted disciple of his father Sam's conviction of "keeping his eye fixed on the bottom line rather than the editorial page." By doing that, Mr. Maier writes, Sam Newhouse made "chronically mediocre newspapers . . . cash cow subsidiaries" that allowed him to expand his publishing domain.

Where newspapers were a means to an end for Sam Newhouse, they provided the cash that enabled his son to venture into the glossy world of New York high-fashion magazines.

While some media companies love the splash from a big acquisition, Mr. Newhouse followed the example of his father "that we not fall into the Hearstian trap of developing big egos and rich habits." And so it was that Si Newhouse, who dresses casually and is normally at work at 4:30 a.m., quietly built upon mediocrity.

Si Newhouse labored in his father's shadow and endured an emotionally difficult childhood. His collection of friends was curiously eclectic, including in his early years the future liberal member of Congress Allard Lowenstein, and later on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's political henchman, Roy Cohn.

The non-nurturing nature of the workaholic Sam Newhouse left its mark on his son, who dropped out of college and through much of his adult life was often uncomfortable in social situations. By age 50, however, after Sam Newhouse died, Si developed a strong sense of self-assurance regarding the direction of the company. This newfound confidence coincided with the growth years of Advance Publications, in the 1980s.

Still, he was loath to tell his editors personally that they had been sacked. A fierce advocate of change, Mr. Newhouse has been brutally abrupt with his editors, Mr. Maier writes. An outgoing editor at The New Yorker, apparently in retaliation, published a cartoon in his final edition featuring a smiling boss surveying an empty office. "Ahhh, the smell of freshly mowed employees," it read.

Recognizing the changing nature of media, Mr. Newhouse invested $500 million in the unsuccessful bid by Barry Diller's QVC Network to buy Paramount Communications Inc. With almost 3 million newspaper readers as part of its empire, the Newhouse organization is trying, like other media companies, to anticipate a multimedia, interactive future. Si Newhouse is also trying to preserve the empire for his heirs.

However he does it, it will be designed to attract as little attention as possible. A good example of the desire for secrecy can be seen in the October issue of Vanity Fair. The magazine offers a 56-page spread on "The New Establishment," led by such media gurus as Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Eisner, Mr. Diller, Bill Gates and John Malone. There are even glossies of Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey.


But not Si Newhouse.


Title: "Newhouse: All The Glitter, Power and Glory of America's Richest Media Empire and the Secretive Man Behind It"

Author: Thomas Maier

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 446 pages, 24.95