Cuomo’s Revenge & Condé’s Numbers

Chris Cuomo
Photo: Donald Bowers/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
July 27, 2022

Chris Cuomo, the aggrieved former 9 p.m. occupant, First Brother and Zucker/Gollust antagonist, spent about seven months in the wilderness—some of it building a $125 million arbitration case against CNN, much of it building more muscle tone in the Hamptons—before apparently coming to the conclusion that his only path back to the broadcast studio ran through NewsNation, the fledgling cable news network whose highest-rated show on most days are afternoon reruns of Blue Bloods. NewsNation averages just 50,000 viewers in primetime and 8,000 in the demo, or roughly 3 percent of the audience he had garnered nightly during his final year at CNN. But beggars can’t be choosers.

Cuomo’s decision to join the network, which he announced on Tuesday at the end of an hour-long interview on the channel about his ouster from CNN, presumably reflects a couple of calculations: first, that hosting a podcast or sitting on the beach isn’t going to satisfy his ego; and second, that at 51 years old, with a newly built home on the waterfront, he is going to need money—money which looks increasingly unlikely to come from his former employer. One cornerstone of Cuomo’s arbitration claim was that “his journalistic integrity” had been so “unjustifiably smeared” that it was “difficult if not impossible for [him] to find similar work in the future.” Alas, thanks to NewsNation, that is not the case.

Thanks, more specifically, to Perry Sook, the chairman and C.E.O. of Nexstar who last year decided to rebrand his little-watched WGN America channel as NewsNation and make a play on the cable news space, likely with an eye on boosting the Nexstar stock price. To furnish that effort, he has tapped media entrepreneur Dan Abrams—a Cuomo Hampton buddy who played a key role in pitching Cuomo on the network, and who conducted Tuesday’s interview—as well as a number of broadcast and cable veterans who, for one reason or another, are looking to rehabilitate their careers. Among them is Michael Corn, the longtime Good Morning America executive producer who was ousted from ABC News due to a sexual harassment allegation that has since been dismissed. Other recent hires include former CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield and former Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert.

In a statement, Cuomo said he will cover “news wherever it happens” and hold “conversations that cater to common concerns and solutions rather than political parties or the political circus.” Perhaps there will be some interest in Cuomo’s next act as a free-agent truth teller, and undoubtedly Abrams’s cable news-obsessed website Mediaite will help boost awareness. But no one in this business expects Cuomo to be the catalyst that makes NewsNation relevant, no matter how many times he books his brother. In fact, there is a long history of on-air talents (Katie Couric, Bryant Gumbel) who have headed elsewhere without bringing their audiences with them—and, respectfully, Cuomo didn’t have that large of an organic audience in the first place. 

But could NewsNation give Cuomo the chance to rehabilitate his career, and move past the scandals that got him fired from CNN, which include advising his brother, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, on how to overcome sexual harassment allegations? Presumably. But such a rehabilitation effort would require some semblance of shame or regret for past behavior, and one thing you hear consistently from folks close to Cuomo, or who worked with him at CNN, is that he still sees himself as the victim and believes he was wrongfully and unlawfully fired. (Cuomo could not be reached for comment).

No one at Hudson Yards subscribes to that view, of course. The widespread sentiment inside CNN is that Cuomo compromised his colleagues by dragging the network into an ethics scandal with his brother, and did even more damage by waging a scorch-earthed campaign to exact revenge on Jeff Zucker for firing him. Many CNN sources I spoke to this week looked upon Cuomo’s move to NewsNation with a mix of bemusement and pity. “It’s not a good look,” one of his former colleagues said. Of course, it was the only look available to him.

The Years With Remnick

One recent Friday afternoon, The New Yorker let go its long-time archivist Erin Overbey after a biblical tweet thread that, among other things, accused the legendary media brand of gender inequality and, oddly, suggested that its Pulitzer-winning editor-in-chief, David Remnick, had inserted factual errors in her work. Like many members of The New Yorker staff, Overbey had been with the magazine for decades, and her various aggrieved Tweet threads, including one on Monday announcing her departure, evidenced a twin frustration and fealty for the place. The New Yorker, she wrote, “is, in many ways, a wonderful institution. But it’s also ground zero for a kind of regressive literary gatekeeping, class exclusivity & old-school cultural thinking that simply no longer have any relation to, or frankly relevance in, the modern world as we know it.”

In fact, that somewhat elegantly sums up the reason that S.I. Newhouse, Jr. bought the magazine in 1985 after a torturous acquisiton war against Peter Fleischmann, the yeast mogul. He coveted a wry and occasionally pompous confection of a title that began stories with stiff formulations like “One recent Friday afternoon…” Founded sixty years earlier by legendary editor Harold Ross and his wife, the journalist Jane Grant, the magazine aspired to be a cosmopolitan reflection of sophisticated and avante-garde metropolitan ideas, the sort of thing that The Times could never be. (James Thurber has captured much of this era marvelously in The Years with Ross.

But by the time Newhouse got involved, The New Yorker was a relic of its former stature. Si, as he was universally known, began the restoration process by preparing for life after William Shawn, Ross’s successor. He succeeded him with his friend, Bob Gottlieb, the leader of Knopf, who did little to materially improve the brand’s luster in a five-year turn. Tina Brown, fresh from her successful stint reviving Vanity Fair, had a noisy six-year tenure in which she created buzz around the place, redefined the magazine’s ambitions, and drove many writers nuts.

In 1998, when Brown decided to move on to start Talk magazine with Harvey Weinstein, Si reached out to Graydon Carter, who had since turned Vanity Fair into the pinnacle of the culture and a veritable cash machine, to see if he was interested in the job. (Si had also offered The New Yorker back to Carter in 1992.) Once again, Carter chose Vanity Fair, which in its heyday made around $200 million in revenue and some $30 million in profit in the U.S., according to sources familiar with the numbers. But Carter suggested that Si speak with Michael Kinsley, the renowned Washington journalist, and a fellow wunderkind already on the New Yorker staff, a gifted profile writer named David Remnick. As detailed in Citizen Newhouse, Si broke bread with both of them and much preferred Remnick.

Of his many accomplishments during his nearly 25 years atop The New Yorker—Pulitzers, the Weinstein investigation, Jane Mayer’s dark money work, The New Yorker Festival, Gladwell—Remnick’s most significant accomplishment is not even literary. Years ago, he saw the need to turn the once ad-reliant business into a subscriber-supported enterprise. Indeed, according to various people I spoke with who were familiar with its business, The New Yorker’s topline revenue is now north of $150 million, with nearly 75 percent coming from its subscription business—a true anomaly compared to other Condé titles that rely heavily on ad revenue, and a near total reversal from the days when advertising accounted for the bulk of its own revenue.

Remnick can’t take full credit, of course. A team of eager executives supported his vision. Former Condé Nast C.E.O. Bob Sauerberg immediately saw the opportunity and invested in it heavily. Remnick’s former digital director, Nick Thompson, was also instrumental in the growth. (Thompson is now the C.E.O. of The Atlantic, and trying to replicate the success.) Current C.E.O. Roger Lynch, a veteran of the subscription media business, also deserves praise for optimizing the opportunity. Monica Ray, who helped the brand figure out its marketing and growth strategy, played a major role, too. If The New York Times just paid $550 million for The Athletic, a subscriber pure-play with more than $60 million in annual revenue, it’s conceivable that the terminal value for The New Yorker is well over a billion bucks. (The Overbey affair is a potato chip crumb on the map, but perhaps they could have afforded to give her a raise, after all.)

The New Yorker’s success is best revealed when contextualized among the other business units in the Condé portfolio. According to my sources, V.F. and GQ each turned under $60 million in U.S. advertising revenue last year; Wired just under $50 million. And 2021 was a good year for the advertising business. Many expect those numbers to decline over time. (According to someone familiar with the situation, these three brands are having strong years. As a private company, Condé Nast’s accounting practices, and the way they handle booked revenue across their internal organizations, are private. However, representatives for the company pushed back strongly against these numbers. “Condé Nast strongly disputes these figures,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that Puck has chosen to run such inaccuracies.”) 

Vogue remains the largest business unit, with all its global titles, but it is also seeing natural attrition—a trend likely to continue when Anna Wintour eventually steps aside or embraces a more fully corporate eminence grise sort of role. Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s annual recurring revenue model makes it much more sustainable and less vulnerable to secular downticks in the macroeconomy. It’s the sort of success that Si likely never fathomed all those decades ago.

As he prepares to mark his quarter-century turn, Remnick is a youthful 63. He’s not only a prodigious editor, but also the best writer on his staff, a quality that many of his charges know he knows all too well. (His obsessions are well-known by now—the music of his youth, baseball, New Jersey adjacent content, the Democrats and Israeli politics—but he writes about them with generational grace and lucidly.) He recently insinuated on The Smartless podcast that he doesn’t want to stick around on his throne forever, and presumably fancies a Walter Isaacson-esque third act of massively successful literary biographies or something of the sort. He’s not going anywhere any time soon, of course, but given the descent of titles like V.F. and Glamour after their larger-than-life editors exited, Steven O. Newhouse, who largely oversees his family’s media interests, has probably pondered the question once or twice. (Disclosure: I started my career as an intern in The New Yorker typing pool.)