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2017-10-02 23:44:03
S.I. Newhouse Jr., Unlikely Savior of The New Yorker

S. I. Newhouse Jr. and The New Yorker seemed like a mismatch at first.

He was a shy Syracuse University dropout who learned the magazine trade through working at the fashion titles Glamour and Vogue. Little by little, he rose through the ranks at Condé Nast, the glossy magazine company purchased by his father in 1959, and became its chairman in 1975.

The New Yorker was something quite different from the glossies where he had made his name. The high-minded, text-heavy, general-interest weekly often held itself aloof from news cycles and popular culture. Its staff included more than a few strong-willed writers and editors, many of them Ivy League-bred, who took a dim view of media executives. There were moments over the last three decades when they were convinced that Mr. Newhouse did not have their best interests at heart and might even destroy the publication they had pledged themselves to with an almost religious devotion.

The suspicion started with his aggressive $168 million purchase — in cash! — of the magazine in May 1985. When Mr. Newhouse unceremoniously dumped its longtime editor, William Shawn, in 1987, the staff nearly went into revolt. And then, there was the time, in 1992, when he handed the magazine to Tina Brown.

And yet, Mr. Newhouse, who died on Sunday at age 89, ultimately proved to be the man who would preserve The New Yorker and protect it during the most turbulent period in the industry’s history.

When, for instance, consultants from McKinsey & Company stalked the hallways of Condé Nast’s former headquarters at 4 Times Square in 2009 in search of ways to cut costs, trouble followed. Magazines were shuttered — Gourmet, Cookie, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride — and several surviving magazines saw their budgets slashed by 25 percent.

But not The New Yorker.

Mr. Newhouse did everything he could to favor the fabled weekly.

“Ever since the technological revolution began, it’s been a complicated time in the magazine business,” The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, said in an interview on Sunday. “And S. I. Newhouse has supported The New Yorker in a way that I could never have imagined.”

It took a while for many New Yorker writers and editors to come around.

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Newhouse went after The New Yorker with gusto, buying up stock as he tried to wrest it away from its longtime publisher, the yeast magnate Peter Fleischmann. It was a hostile takeover bid, one that unnerved those in The New Yorker’s offices on West 43rd Street in Midtown.

“The future of the magazine seemed to be in the gravest of jeopardy after S. I. bought it,” John Bennet, an editor who worked at the magazine for four decades before his retirement last year, said in a telephone interview.

As the former New Yorker writer Jonathan Schell put it in Carol Felsenthal’s biography, “Citizen Newhouse,” the notion of Mr. Newhouse owning the magazine was “greeted with horror, absolutely with horror.”

The magazine was stocked with assertive, big name writers — Pauline Kael, Renata Adler, George W. S. Trow — and Mr. Newhouse was aggressively shy.

“If I wasn’t intimidated by The New Yorker before, I am now!” he said in his first speech to gathered staff.

Longtime staff members were also not used to outsiders, and they feared that Mr. Newhouse would turn it into Vanity Fair, the bright-and-brash monthly magazine that served as a guide to the go-go 1980s.

To keep The New Yorker from falling into the wrong hands, Mr. Shawn, the editor, considered reaching out to Warren Buffett to “come to the magazine’s rescue,” according to Lillian Ross, a star writer for the magazine, in her 1998 book, “Here but Not Here.”

Alas, it was too late, she wrote, and the Shawn-Newhouse relationship began on an awkward note: At their first meeting, over breakfast, Mr. Shawn “knocked over his glass of orange juice, which led to the usual awkward semi-hysteria,” Ms. Ross wrote.

Mr. Newhouse did not ingratiate himself when he fired Mr. Shawn a little over a year later, replacing him with Robert Gottlieb, who was then the editor in chief of the book publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

The staff was in an uproar. More than 150 writers and editors wrote a letter asking Mr. Gottlieb not to join, saying that The New Yorker had never “achieved its pre-eminence by following orthodox paths of magazine publishing and editing.” Even J. D. Salinger broke his long public silence by signing the letter, although he was concerned that it was not “strong enough,” according to Ms. Ross.

Mr. Gottlieb took the job anyway. If he did not reinvent the magazine in his five-year tenure, neither did he turn it into a moneymaker. The median age of the magazine was rising, and Mr. Newhouse decided to make yet another change: He fired Mr. Gottlieb and replaced him with Ms. Brown, the 38-year-old British editor who had made a splash with the celebrity- and royalty-heavy Vanity Fair.

Once again, staff members feared that their magazine was under threat.

Ms. Brown introduced a lot more photography to the magazine along with new bylines. She also broke with fusty convention by embracing gimmicks, like making the comedian and sitcom star Roseanne Barr a guest editor for an issue in 1995. The longtime staff writer Ian Frazier quit in protest, telling The New York Observer he was “outraged.”

“This is the Newhouse company doing weird things,” Mr. Frazier said at the time.

Another longtime writer at the magazine, Ms. Adler, said in her 1999 book, “Gone: The Last Days of The New Yorker,” that under Ms. Brown “the magazine lost its character.”

“There was no longer anything special about it or even characteristic of it,” Ms. Adler continued. “It became a magazine like any other, only less clearly defined.”

Not every writer felt that way. Mr. Remnick, whom Ms. Brown hired, said, “Tina woke the thing up.”

Ms. Brown, for her part, paid tribute to Mr. Newhouse in a remembrance on Sunday for Time.com: “He was a publishing force whose religion was quality, whose taste and ambition led him to assemble a roster of some of the best editors in America and gave them the resources to do their best work without interference.”

Mr. Newhouse hired Mr. Remnick to take her place in 1998. In the next 19 years, the magazine has stabilized — financially as well as editorially. And Mr. Frazier came back shortly after Mr. Remnick started.

Mr. Bennet, the veteran, said that the magazine has been “in a true golden age for the last 10 or 15 years. I think it is as good as it ever was.” Its healthy state is thanks to its late owner, he added.

“Si made the decision” to hire Mr. Remnick, Mr. Bennet said, “and he deserves great credit for that.”

It also turns out that the taciturn, hands-off owner was precisely the one The New Yorker most needed. Mr. Remnick said that by the time the magazine became profitable in the early 2000s, they discussed it during their regular lunch for about a minute and a half before moving onto other topics.

“There was no endless dwelling about this,” he said. “There was no sort of indication that this was the most important thing in the world to him.”

The last 20 years has been a gut-check time for media owners. It’s easy to imagine that in someone else’s hands, the magazine could have ended up in a very different position. The Wenners are selling Rolling Stone. Time Inc. is in a vicious cycle of budget cuts. Even New York magazine, which remains robustly funded by the Wassersteins, has gone biweekly.

When it came to The New Yorker, Mr. Newhouse didn’t buckle.

“If we were owned by almost anybody you can imagine, we’d be in trouble,” Mr. Remnick said. “I think a faith and a kind of love of the idea of The New Yorker allowed us to survive in ways that was very hard for anybody to see on the staff in the ’80s.”