Let Si Get This
The Condé Nast economy—all expenses paid, all the time.
As the New York Times' David Carr noted last Sunday, the recession has taken its toll even on the once bottomless pockets of the Condé Nast empire. Its business model, based on spending money to bring in money, is taking a hit as the media conglomerate struggles to bring in luxury-product advertisements. In 1997, Slate's David Plotz's chronicled the gratuitous profligacy of those with Condé Nast expense accounts—an era that could soon be history. The article is reprinted below.
During a typical lunchtime at the Royalton Hotel restaurant in midtown Manhattan, TheNew Yorker's Tina Brown might be installed at her usual table, and Vogue's Anna Wintour might be at her usual table (chewing on her usual meal—a $25 hamburger). Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter might be there, too, although he has transferred his main allegiance to a place called Patroon. Filling out the room are other editors, publicists, and writers from these magazines and GQ and House & Garden and so on. And one man, who probably isn't there himself, picks up every tab. Some of the lesser fry may even utter the Condé Nast mantra—though it is hardly necessary at the Royalton—as they grab for the check: "Let Si get this."
S.I. "Si" Newhouse Jr. and his younger brother, Donald, control Advance Publications, one of America's largest privately held companies. (Estimate of their combined wealth: $13 billion.) Donald tends to Advance's hugely profitable newspaper, radio, and TV holdings. Si runs the less profitable but more glamorous properties. These are the 15 Condé Nast magazines, including (in descending order of fabulousness) Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler, House & Garden, Allure, Details, Self, Mademoiselle, and Glamour; The New Yorker; and Random House.
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. When you reach the office, you realize you're out of cigarettes. No problem—you send your assistant to buy a pack for you. She gets reimbursed from petty cash ($3). (Could be worse for the assistant: She could be forced to pick up her boss's birth-control pills, or her boss's pet from the vet, or presents for her boss's children—regular duties for Condé Nast underlings.)
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 (no fancy wine or anything) might cost $80. But Si's generosity extends to even assistants and sub-sub-editors, dining on sushi at their desks. If you spend $10 or less on lunch, and claim you were working, Si pays. At Vogue and Vanity Fair, almost everyone has a "working lunch" every day. An editor at Allure says that "working lunches" there are limited to 10 a month.
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.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.