Byline: Lisa Lockwood

NEW YORK — Call it the battle of the billionaire media barons. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post is having a field day at the expense of S.I. Newhouse’s Conde Nast Publications.
Murdoch, whose far-flung holdings include Mirabella and HarperCollins, and Newhouse, who, in addition to Condé Nast’s huge stable, owns Random House, Alfred Knopf and Advance Publications, already bump heads in several markets, but it’s Murdoch’s Post that has really sharpened the knife.
Just about every time there’s an announcement at one of the Conde Nast magazines — and there does seem to be a lot of announcements — the Post goes bananas.
This year’s headlines tell the story: “Conde Nast’s Empire is Stumbling Badly” (April 12); “Details Editor is Fired After Seven Months (Nov. 9);” “Brit Takeover Riles Condé Nast Yanks (Jan. 27);” and “An Axman Commeth at Condé Nast” (June 10).
“Between Murdoch and Newhouse, there’s a billionaire rivalry,” says Martin Walker, chairman of Walker Communications, a magazine consultant.
“I don’t know if Murdoch said, ‘Get in there and stick it to him,’ but the person running the Post understands the game.
“It’s a small fraternity [of reporters]. They all stick it to each other. It’s a bit of a game of one-upmanship. There’s so much interest in New York media and it’s covered at every level. It’s almost supplanted Hollywood gossip,” Walker said.
“I’d say it’s an aggressive attitude,” said William Norwich, a contributing editor at Vogue and a former columnist for the Post.
“It’s a sexy business story and in the spirit of the Post; it’s in keeping with the overall tone of the Post. And nice is not the tone of the Post.”
Most of the stories are written by Post business reporter Paul Tharp — one media executive described him as “obsessed with Condé Nast” — although some were written by former business editor John Cassidy, who is known as a Murdoch favorite and has just been named deputy editor of the paper.
Many of Tharp’s stories have painted James Truman, Condé Nast’s 35-year-old editorial director, in a less than flattering light.
Tharp reported on Wednesday that John Leland, the editor of Details, “was fired” after seven months on the job. In the story, Tharp quotes a source as saying: “This doesn’t look good for James. This is a terrible blow to James’ authority as editorial director. James was always championing Leland; he was definitely Truman’s guy.”
A spokesman for Condé Nast, Paul Wilmot, declined to comment on the Post’s coverage, although he once accused Tharp of “coming in here and pissing on our rug.” Or at least the Post reported he said that. Wilmot claims he never did. “I wouldn’t use a word like piss,” he insisted.
This summer, after Truman had been at his new job for four months, The Post tried to get an interview with him but was rebuffed twice. In response, the paper printed a list of questions it wanted answered, in a story headlined “Conde Nast Big Takes The Fifth.” Later that week, when an interview with Truman appeared in WWD, the Post wrote, “Tight-lipped James Truman is finally ready to open up — but not for The Post.”
The Post has also closely followed the dwindling fortunes of Vanity Fair. “The once red-hot monthly has been hit by a disastrous slide in advertising revenue since editor Tina Brown left in 1992 to take over the New Yorker,” wrote Tharp, when the magazine’s publisher was fired a few months ago.
And the tabloid is not above cheap shots. In a story called “Brit Takeover Riles Condé Nast Yanks,” Tharp quoted one unnamed Condé Nast source as saying, “Si is a short, rich Jewish man who is obsessed with the English, believing that their accent makes them morally and intellectually superior. It’s cultural insecurity.”
But according to The Post’s business editor, David Yelland, the paper has no ax to grind. He argues that the Post has run several favorable articles recently about Condé Nast, including pieces on Architectural Digest, The New Yorker’s fashion issue and a story about Wired, a recent Newhouse investment.
“Condé Nast is a big publisher. It’s a very important company for New York City which is the ultimate media city. Anything that happens at Condé Nast is newsworthy,” Yelland said.
“We’ve made a real effort to expand the Post’s coverage of New York’s media business. When a publisher is hired or fired, we give it huge space.”
Asked if the Post is particularly nasty in its coverage about James Truman, Yelland replied, “James Truman is the editorial director of Condé Nast, therefore, he’s going to receive a great deal of coverage, just like Alexander Liberman did. If anyone’s suggesting we have something personal against James, it’s not the case. I think our coverage has been fair.”
Yelland, who is British himself, doesn’t believe the Post has gone overboard in describing the British influence at Conde Nast. He also defended the newspaper’s sources.
“We have people here who have very good contacts at Conde Nast. The publishing industry is a rough and tough business. Other New York publications might accept the Conde Nast PR line, but we don’t. We’re trying to tell the real story.”

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