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'FUTURE THAT FEELS RIGHT FOR US' WHY NEWHOUSE IS USHERING IN NEW LEADERSHIP

By Published on .

NEW YORK-As Conde Nast Publications is swept by generational change, even S.I. Newhouse Jr. is putting in place his own succession plans.

And though the company's 66-year-old chairman and owner has set no timetable for retirement, he discussed the topic during a wide-ranging interview in his office last week. Wearing green corduroys, a black sweat shirt and black loafers, Mr. Newhouse talked candidly about the future of Conde Nast.

"When I feel that I can no longer make a contribution, I have an excellent backstop," Mr. Newhouse told Advertising Age. "My cousin, Jon Newhouse, is running our international operations and doing a wonderful job. We are in touch all the time, and when I feel that it's right or necessary, then Jon will take my place."

Jonathan Newhouse, 41, is the Paris-based chairman-ceo of Conde Nast International and has been overseeing the company's overseas operations since 1990. After several years with Conde Nast parent Advance Publications, he joined Conde Nast in 1980 as a research manager.

He also worked closely for five years at The New Yorker with Steven T. Florio, 44, who assumes the presidency of Conde Nast in June. And though Jon Newhouse was widely assumed to be in line for the Conde Nast chairmanship, his older cousin has not publicly discussed those plans before now.

S.I. Newhouse Jr., known as Si, joined Conde Nast-acquired by his father in 1959 for $5 million-in 1961 and assumed his current post in 1975. None of his three children currently works at the company, publisher of Vogue, Glamour, GQ, Vanity Fair and nine other glossy magazines.

The generational power shift at Conde Nast began earlier this month with the announcement of Mr. Florio's promotion. Last week, Mr. Newhouse dropped an editorial bombshell, announcing that Alexander Liberman, 81, would step down as editorial director after 31 years in that post. Mr. Liberman-a close friend and confidante of Mr. Newhouse-was named to the new post of deputy chairman.

The surprise was in Mr. Newhouse's choice of a successor: James Truman, the 35-year-old, British-born editor in chief of Conde Nast's Details, a cutting edge magazine for twentysomething males.

"We anticipated there would come a time when it would be in the best interests of both Alex and Conde Nast to designate a successor," Mr. Newhouse said. "We both feel that James is a very uniquely talented journalist. He has, in addition, a very winning personality, a very attractive sense of humor and a wide knowledge of and interest in magazines all over the world."

As with the appointment of Mr. Florio, Mr. Newhouse said he relied heavily on intuition in picking the company's second editorial director and believes Mr. Truman can win the respect and confidence of older editors:

"James is now 35, and one day I expect him to be 40 and even 45, and by that time he will have experience and background. While he won't be Alex, he will put his own mark on the company."

John Leland, 34, was named to succeed Mr. Truman at Details. He has been a senior editor with Newsweek, overseeing the life-style section.

The younger Conde Nast executives reflect the changing times, but Mr. Newhouse said he expects few changes in the corporate culture or its loosely defined management structure.

"As we looked at things and looked ahead-conscious of changes in readers' interests, changes in technology, differences in ways of life in the '90s-we felt this was a good time to start with a new president and editorial director who can lead the company into this very interesting period," he said.

Conde Nast is changing in other ways. Known for casting a wary eye on industry trends, the company in recent months has created a new media unit and is developing database marketing programs. Earlier this month, it acquired a passive minority stake in the year-old digital media magazine Wired.

"We are, in our own way, trying to come to terms with the information revolution," Mr. Newhouse said. "I don't see that magazines are at all threatened by the developments that are happening."

He said Conde Nast magazines are considering electronic rate cards and some, led by Details, may move to on-line computer services or other electronic forms, albeit cautiously.

"There are things we won't do," Mr. Newhouse said. "We won't do custom publishing. I'm not sure we will solve the problem of adapting our content to cable, and it is not for me a high-priority item. We will adapt to whatever the future holds that feels right for us."

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