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Friday, December 1, 2006

Nothing exceeds like excess

Glamour, wealth & prestige

One man picks up every tab - thanks to newspaper subscribers and advertisers in Newhouse chain monopoly properties like The Oregonian.

Nine years ago, Slate chronicled the Manhattan-au-go-go company-paid lifestyle in the Newhouse magazine empire. Below are excerpts - click here for the entire article from 12/6/97.

Donald Newhouse tends to Advance's hugely profitable newspaper, radio, and cable holdings. Older brother Si runs the less profitable but more glamorous properties, anchored by the Condé Nast magazines.

The expense-account lunch is a hallowed journalistic tradition. But consider a day in the life of an editor working for Si Newhouse. (Donald's editors are a different story, as they will be happy to tell you.) It's a closed economy where almost all human needs and desires can be gratified with a miraculous, unlimited currency called the Si.

A Lincoln Town Car is waiting outside your door in the morning to take you to work. The car, which costs $50 an hour, is written into your contract. First stop, breakfast with a writer at the Four Seasons. The check may be as little as $40. You've forgotten to return the video your kids watched yesterday, so you have a messenger take it back to Blockbuster. Si spends $20; you save a $1.50 late fee.

Then there's lunch. The magazines account for more than a quarter of daytime revenues at the Four Seasons and the Royalton. A modest lunch for two at the Royalton might cost $80.

Back at the office, you hear that a friend at another Newhouse magazine has been promoted, so you send flowers. The tab: $100. Si pays. (One of my favorite Condé Nast stories is of an editor who had just been promoted to an extremely senior job. His office was jammed with congratulatory flowers and cards. All had been sent by fellow Condé Nast staffers. All had been billed to the company.) Four o'clock, and it's snack time. Your assistant joins the mob in the lobby newsstand. She bills your candy bar, juice, and cigarettes (as well as her own candy bar, juice, and cigarettes) to the magazine ($15). After all, it's a "working snack." Later, there's a birthday party for your assistant. You order champagne and a cake - on the company, of course, and present her with your gift - a Prada wallet ($200). Later, she submits the expense sheet for it.

Finally, after a Random House book party at Le Cirque 2000 (estimated cost to Si: $35,000), your car ferries you home.

Newhouse expense stories are a staple of New York literary-journalistic conversation. Stories about the $10,000 in expenses that a New Yorker editor billed for a single month. About the interior-decorating costs for the fashion-magazine editor who likes to have her office photographs rearranged every few months. About the hotel tab for the big-name New York writer who spent three weeks in Washington's Hay-Adams (basic room: $285 a night) researching a Vanity Fair story that will never run.

To be fair, Si doesn't pay for all such treats. There is also a much-honored tradition of accepting tribute from companies that Condé Nast magazines cover. One magazine exec reportedly got so much loot last Christmas - Cuban cigars, "crates of wine," designer suits ("It was like a Spanish galleon") - that he needed three cars to cart it home. At yuletide, even midlevel fashion-mag writers and editors are inundated with "cashmere sweaters, Versace pillows, coats ..." recalls one ex-Vogue staffer wistfully.

At the top of the masthead, the perks are perkier. His Si-ness (their joke, not mine) does not expect his editors in chief to actually live on their million-dollar salaries. He also gives them clothing allowances (up to $50,000 a year). He buys them cars of their choice and hires chauffeurs to drive them. He offers them low- or no-interest home loans. GQ editor Art Cooper reportedly received two $1-million loans, one for a Manhattan apartment, the other for a Connecticut farm. Tina Brown and her husband, Harold Evans, former president of Random House, reportedly just took a $2-million boost to buy a $3.7-million Manhattan house.

Si's favorite courtiers lead lives of jaw-dropping privilege. When she was editor of British Vogue, Wintour commuted between London and New York - on the Concorde. Some editors prepare for trips by Federal Expressing their luggage to their destination. Why? "So you don't have to carry your bags. No one would be caught dead carrying a bag."

Writers, of course, are nowhere near as profligate as photographers. Stories of wasteful shoots abound: the matching seaweed that had to be flown from California to the Caribbean for a fashion photo; the Annie Liebovitz Vanity Fair cover shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger that reportedly cost $100,000; the Vogue shoot in Africa in which, an ex-Vogue editor claims, the photographer and his huge entourage wined and dined to the tune of "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

And there are the parties. Last month The New Yorker spent - and this is not a joke - $500,000 on a two-day "Next Conference" at the Disney Institute in Florida, in connection with a special issue on the same theme. In order to get Vice President Gore, who was traveling in California at the time, The New Yorker paid for him and his entourage to fly Air Force Two from California to Florida and back. And vice presidents are not the only things that Condé Nast flies in for parties. The New Yorker once shipped silverware from New York to Chicago for a dinner. ("What, they don't have silverware in Chicago?" asks a New Yorker staffer.) Vanity Fair toted food from New York to Washington for this year's party on the night of the White House Correspondents Dinner. (What, they don't have food in Washington?)

That annual Washington do has grown from an after-dinner gathering for drinks at a contributor's apartment to two huge blasts - before and after the dinner itself - at a rented embassy. VF's annual Oscar-night party has become a similar institution in Hollywood. In addition to the parties themselves, Si also naturally pays to fly in VF staffers and to put them up at top hotels. (What, they don't have editors in Washington or L.A.?)

Condé Nast's magazines are all about glamour, wealth, prestige. To uphold that image, magazine editors need to circulate at the top of New York society. But the top of New York society consists of people who make far more money than magazine editors do--investment bankers, corporate chieftains, and fashion designers. Million-dollar salaries aren't enough to mix as equals with the Trumps and Karans. Si's perks are equalizers.

And they say it's not as good as it used to be. In 1992, according to Thomas Maier's biography of Newhouse, the editor of Self held a birthday party for Si Newhouse's dog. (Owners ate caviar; dogs drank Evian.) The lowliest assistants used to take car services home. But new Condé Nast CEO Steve Florio has restricted cars and catering. Editors who used to fly the Concorde now fly first-class; those who used to fly first-class now fly business. Expense accounts are scrutinized. Even so, today's Condé Nast is economical only by Condé Nast standards. The belt is tighter, but it's still hand-tooled, hand-tanned, and fashioned from the finest Italian leather.

Part 5 in a series: "Getting to know The Oregonian's owners"

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