If you read Wired magazine, The New Yorker, or Vanity Fair, you’re reading material produced by a company named Advance Publications. And if you read Parade, the largest circulation Sunday supplement magazine in the U.S., or Golf Digest, or Glamour, these magazines are also published by Advance – as are Vogue, The Sporting News, Architectural Digest, and several others.Advance owns newspapers as well, found in more than twenty-five American cities, including Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; and Syracuse, New York. Another 40 weekly titles are published by Advance through its American City Business Journals. Cable television outlets owned by Advance serve 2.4 million customers in Florida, California, Michigan, Indiana and Alabama. On the web, Advance Internet operates more than 100 websites, most of which serve and extend the company’s print and cable operations. Reddit.com, the popular user-generated “social news” website, is one of Advance Internet’s properties.
Advance Publications was formed and is owned by the Newhouse family of Long Island, New York. In recent years the Newhouse /Advance empire has ranked among the 50 largest private companies in the U.S. The company dates to the early 1920s, and grew to fame in the heyday of the newspaper business when its founder, Samuel I. Newhouse – “Sam” – steadily went about acquiring all manner of America newspapers during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Today, as of September 2012, Advance Publications is run at the corporate level by Sam’s two sons — S.I. Newhouse, Jr. (84), known as “Si,” and brother Donald Newhouse (81). Assorted other Newhouse family members assist in the management of various divisions and subsidiaries. Si and Donald will soon turn over control of the company to the next generation of Newhouse executives.
Yet, some say the Newhouse empire is “yesterday’s media company,” and will succumb to the albatross and high-cost of print in a digital age. Others believe the Newhouse empire will not only survive, but will thrive, continuing to be a dominant cultural force and contemporary story teller, setting trends in fashion, literature, and style as it goes. Whatever the outcome, there is 90 years of rich history here – a publishing and cultural time capsule of sorts, reflecting changes in publishing and media generally over that period. What follows is a narrative and visual look at some of that Newhouse history, and by extension, media and publishing history as well. First, Sam Newhouse, the founding father, circa 1920s.
Life magazine photo of Sam Newhouse, 1963.
Having left school at about the age of 13 due to his family’s poverty, Samuel I. Newhouse landed a job with a local judge in Bayonne, New Jersey. There, he was given the task of minding a local newspaper named the Bayonne Times which his employer had acquired in payment for a bad debt. Newhouse succeeded in making the paper profitable, and along the way, attended evening classes at the New Jersey Law School at Newark, receiving a degree in 1916. Newhouse was 21 by this time, and his boss, Judge Lazarus, paid him $30,000 a year, and gave him a 25 percent share the Bayonne Times. In 1922, with Judge Lazarus, Newhouse purchased the Staten Island Advance, one of the first newspapers he acquired – the property from which “Advance Publications” got its name. When Judge Lazarus died in 1924, Newhouse acquired the rest of the Staten Island Advance. He then focused on the idea of expanding newsstands in the region as a way to grow his newspaper – newsstands at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island and others throughout Manhattan, at LaGuardia and Newark airports, and at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York city, which became the world’s largest and most lucrative newsstand. Then came other newspaper acquisitions: the Long Island Press in 1932; the Newark Star Ledger in 1933, the long Island Star Journal in 1938; the Syracuse Journal in 1939; the Syracuse Herald-Standard in 1941; the Jersey Journal in 1945; and the Harrisburg Patriot of Pennsylvania in 1948.
Dec 1955: Newhouse makes Alabama deal.
Newhouse soon moved beyond the Northeast in prospecting for additional newspapers to buy. In 1950, he purchased The Oregonian for $5.6 million, then the largest newspaper sale ever. Five years later, in 1955, Newhouse purchased St. Louis Globe-Democrat for $6.5 million, another record. In the same year in Alabama he acquired the Birmingham News and Huntsville Times, along with one TV property and 2 radio stations for a combined $18.7 million. This deal set another record, surpassing Cyrus McCormick’s $18 million purchase of The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1930.
In buying up newspapers, Newhouse adopted a low-key, non-threatening approach with the companies acquired. He usually kept the existing management and editors and was reluctant to upset the status quo, believing the papers should remain local institutions run by people in those communities.
March 1958: “Glamour” shortly before the Newhouse acquisition.
But Newhouse also expanded his growing publishing business with new magazine properties. By 1959, he acquired the Condé Nastmagazine group, which then included seven magazines – Vogue, Glamour, Bride, and House & Garden among them. At the time, these magazines had sales in the neighborhood of $20 million a year. Added to this group in August 1959 were more magazines through another Newhouse acquisition – this time, buying up Street & Smith Publications which held titles such as Mademoiselle magazine and several sports annuals, including: College Football, Pro Football, Baseball, Pro Basketball, and College/Prep Basketball. In some cases, Newhouse took the less viable magazines in one company and rolled them into the better version in another company, often helping his bottom line. The Condé Nast group had been losing money when Newhouse acquired it, but within one year under his management it turned a $1.6 million profit. Within the Newhouse family, meanwhile, Sam’s sons were chosen to help run the business – S. I., Jr. ran the Condé Nast group, while younger brother Donald managed the newspapers and broadcasting in Newark, NJ.
The wealth of the Newhouse family at this point approached $200 million. Some began wondering exactly how Newhouse was generating the funds for his deals. A few even speculated that he was laundering money, using his newspapers as a front for a local mob organization’s illegal booze operations during prohibition. But it wasn’t that at all. Newhouse had just hired smart attorneys and accountants who figured out ways to pay the absolute least amount of corporate taxes while costing every expense they could and depreciating assets to the limit. They also structured each newspaper as its own operation, each attributed its own separate profits, avoiding a much higher commulative total under one, single-owned Newhouse entity. There was also a Newhouse Foundation created early on as an additional tax dodge, which some believe was also used to help finance the $18 million deal for the Alabama newspapers in 1955.
1962: Newhouse buys Louisiana newspapers.
In the 1960s, Sam Newhouse continued building his newspaper empire, but he didn’t appear to use his growing publication power in the political arena. The Newhouse newspapers appeared to follow their own political inclinations, and were not told to endorse specific candidates. Newhouse himself was a registered Democrat, and he voted for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. Eight of the Newhouse newspapers, however, endorsed Nixon. In New York, Mr. Newhouse favored Republican Nelson Rockefeller for governor.
Back on the newspaper acquisition trail, Newhouse acquired the Oregon Journal in 1961 for $8 million. By then he owned 16 newspapers. But in 1962, having failed to buy the Houston Post after he had made a generous offer to that paper’s owner — Ms. Hobby, who refused to sell — Newhouse was still itching to buy a paper, any paper. So he telephoned a newspaper broker named Allen Kander in Washington, D.C. Newhouse, then continuing his travels in the South, asked Kander where he might buy a newspaper in the region. Try New Orleans, Kander suggested. Newhouse did. Two weeks later, he set another record, paying $42 million for both of New Orleans’ newspapers: the morning Times-Picayune and its evening companion, the States-Item. The larger of these two, the Times Picayune, then had a daily circulation in excess of 195,000, with more than 300,000 sold on Sundays. The States-Item was an evening paper with a circulation of about 163,000.
S.I. “Sam” Newhouse on the cover of Time magazine, July 27th, 1962.
The Louisiana deals that Newhouse had made, not only set a record, but also sent his company into the upper echelons of the newspaper industry. Newhouse by then had collected 19 newspapers with a combined daily and Sunday circulation of 5.7 million. He now owned, in whole or part, more newspapers than anyone else in the U.S. The Scripps Howard organization was right behind him with 18, followed by Hearst newspapers with 13. However, Scripps-Howard and Hearst both had bigger total circulation numbers than did Newhouse. But Newhouse was growing in size, even as Scripps-Howard, Hearst, and most of the U.S. newspaper industry was contracting. And Sam Newhouse appeared to be the better businessman of the bunch, having a special knack for making newspapers profitable. By late July 1962, Sam Newhouse appeared on the cover of Time magazine, depicted with a stream of acquired newspapers behind him, shown generating a flow of cash.
In the fall that year, Newhouse set out again to bag another newspaper. On October 12, 1962, The Wall Street Journal reported that Newhouse was planing to buy The World-Herald newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska. And a few weeks later Newhouse made a $40 million bid for the paper, which appeared to be accepted.
1967: Sam Newhouse acquired ‘The Cleveland Plain Dealer’ newspaper.
However, a local Omaha construction magnate, Peter Kiewit, bid higher at $40.5 million, which the World-Herald board accepted, preferring to keep the paper in local hands. Back in New York, meanwhile, in 1964 Newhouse made the largest gift to Syracuse University by a living donor as the university dedicated its new School of Communications Center, which was named for Samuel Newhouse.
In 1966, Newhouse acquired three newspapers in Springfield, Massachusetts – The Springfield Morning News, The Republican, and The Morning Union – followed by three more in the south; TheMobile Register, The Mobile Press and The Mississippi Press-Register. The following year he set another industry record when he paid $54.2 million for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
As he went about his business, Newhouse gained a reputation as a tight-fisted owner and manager known for cost cutting. He also resisted unions and did not pay high salaries to his reporters. Nor did he impose any particular ideology or editorial line on his managers and editors, and for the most past, he maintained political neutrality. Said he in 1968: “My papers have different philosophies, and they’re about as wide apart as they can get. Some are Democratic, some are Republican. I am not going to try to shape their thought.” Many others in the business followed his “hands off” example.
By the mid-1970s, Sam Newhouse, then 80 years old, was still looking for more newspaper properties. In February 1975 he had acquired 25 percent of the stock in the Booth Newspaper group, a chain of eight small newspapers all within 200 miles of Detroit, Michigan. Booth also owned Parade magazine, a popular Sunday supplement. Local newspapers with monopoly positions like those in the Booth chain, were described by one 1975 analyst as offering “practically a licence to print money.” The eight papers – The Grand Rapids Press, The Flint Journal, The Kalamazoo Gazette, The Saginaw News, The Muskegon Chronicle, The Bay City Times, The Ann Arbor News and The Jackson Citizen Press – then had a combined circulation of about 506,000. But Newhouse wasn’t the only party interested in this newspaper group. The Times Mirror Company – then owner of the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Dallas Times Herald, and The Orange Coast Daily Pilot – was also interested. In the fall of 1976, Times Mirror made an offer to buy the Booth chain at $40 a share, which was more than double Booth’s stock price at the time. But Newhouse made a counter offer of $47 a share, which the Booth group accepted. In the end, Newhouse gained total ownership of the eight Booth newspapers and Parade magazinefor $305 million.
The look of Parade magazine in August 1977, not long after being acquired by Newhouse.
The deal was seen in the industry as an investor’s dream, as the eight Booth newspapers were the sole papers in their respective communities, each offering a monopoly source for local advertising. Observed one newspaper analyst at the time: “It has developed over the years that small-to-medium sized newspapers with a monopoly are the Cadillacs of newspaper stocks. These are steady, reliable, profitable businesses and that is practically a licence to print money.”
But in addition to the eight local newspapers, there was also something else. No small part of the deal was Parade magazine.Parade, in fact, gave Newhouse a window into many other newspapers, as it was then one of the leading Sunday supplement inserts – used by some 111 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than 19 million. And under the Newhouse umbrella, Parade would only grow in the years ahead. Elsewhere in the magazine business, in February1979, Newhouse also purchased Gentlemen’s Quarterly from Esquire and rolled it into the Condé Nast magazine group, later renaming it GQ.
1974: Sam Newhouse.
The Newhouse empire, however, was about to change. In August 1979, at the age of 84, Sam Newhouse passed away. He died of complications following a stroke. At the time of his death, what had begun as a single Long Island newspaper 50 years earlier, had become a nationwide communications empire that included not only newspapers but magazines, radio and television stations, printing companies and delivery services.
By1979, the Newhouse operation held 31 daily newspapers with a total readership of more than 3 million, then the third largest U.S. newspaper chain behind Gannett and Knight-Ridder. With Sam’s passing, his two sons began running the company – S.I., Jr., known as “Si,” would head up the company’s magazine operations, and Donald Newhouse would run the newspapers.
The banners of the two main newspapers in New Orleans ran together for a time after Newhouse consolidated the them. But in 1986, The States-Item name was dropped.
In the 1980s, although no newspapers were acquired, some were consolidated, especially in cities where Newhouse owned both the morning and afternoon papers. In New Orleans, The Times-Picayune was combined with The States-Item. Newhouse had bought both papers in 1962. On June 2, 1980, The States-Item was gone but the surviving paper shared a joint banner using both names. Six years later, The States-Item name was dropped altogether, and the newspaper of New Orleans became The Times-Picayune.
In Portland, Oregon, The Oregon Journal was merged with the Oregonian in 1982. That same year, the Cleveland Press ceased operation. The Newhouse-owned Cleveland Plain-Dealer then became the city’s only daily newspaper. Allegations were made that Newhouse management had paid The Press’ owner to go out of business, and in 1985, a grand jury began an anti-trust investigation into the Newhouse role, but charges were never filed. In other newspaper business, Newhouse also sold the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1984.
The Random House logo.
In other ventures, Newhouse scored big when he acquired Random House in 1980, then one of the world’s top book publishers. He bought the premier publisher from RCA for $70 million. Two years later Fawcett Books was acquired from CBS and placed in the Ballantine Books division of Random House. In that deal, Newhouse inherited Fawcett’s mass market paperback list with established authors such as: William Bernhardt, Amanda Cross, Stephen Frey, P. D. James, William X. Kienzle, Anne Perry, Daniel Silva, Peter Straub and Margaret Truman. Fawcett also became the official home of Ballantine’s mass market mystery books program. Later in the 1980s, Fodor’s Travel Guides (1986) and the Crown Publishing Group (1988) would be acquired and rolled into Random House as well.
In 1980 Newhouse also sold five television stations to the Times Mirror Company for $82 million. He sold the stations primarily because his company then held newspapers in those same cities and he feared the government would eventually order the sale on anti-trust grounds. Newhouse used part of the money from that sale to buy up other cable TV systems, and by 1981 or so had over 500,000 cable television subscribers. Forbes magazine around this time observed: “By the most conservative standards, the Newhouse properties are worth well over $1 billion. They are unencumbered by a penny of debt and except for a 49% interest in a paper mill, are 100% owned by the Newhouse family or by trusts they control.”
In the magazine business, meanwhile, the early 1980s at Newhouse were a time of revamping and relaunching some of the company’s acquired properties. Among these was Gentleman’s Quarterly, or GQ, a men’s fashion magazine dating to 1931. At the time Newhouse acquired it, GQ had become known as a gay men’s magazine. But at the Newhouse Condé Nast shop during the early 1980s, the decision was made to give GQ a more masculine focus, as the company wanted to reach a broader market and become a competitor to Esquire. The covers in the early 1980s began featuring male movie stars and athletes, among them, actors such as Jack Nicholson, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford and athletes such as Washington Redskins quarterback, Joe Theismann. Advertising pages in the magazine featured male models with admiring females.
In early 1983, Newhouse also made a major move with the re-launch of Vanity Fair as a glossy celebrity magazine focused on literature, the arts, politics and popular culture. Some $10 million was invested in strengthening the magazine editorially. It was also redesinged to give it a new look and a new start, hoping to restore it as the central publication within the Condé Nast group. The first new issue included some 290 pages with a short novel by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for literature, and also articles by writer Gore Vidal and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Photographer Irving Penn, described as “one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century”, was enlisted in the Vanity Fair re-launch during 1983. Penn, who began shooting for Vogue magazine in 1943, did six successive covers for Vanity Fair in 1983, August through December 1983. Four of those cover shots, which featured celebrity authors and actors, are shown here at right – from top left: novelist Philip Roth, September 1983; writer and playwright Susan Sontag, October 1983; European writer, Francine du Plessix Gray, November 1983; and comedian-in-disguise, Woody Allen, December 1983. A round of reviews followed the Vanity Fair makeover, including some that were sharply negative, as those that came from Time and The New Republic. ”We never believed we were producing a perfect magazine when we relaunched Vanity Fair,” said Si Newhouse at the time. He acknowledged there was much work ahead — “before we get the wonderful, seamless quality a mature magazine has.”
One step to getting Vanity Fair on the right track, Newhouse hoped, was the January 1984 hiring of Tina Brown, the former editor of The Tatler, societymagazine in London. Brown, an Oxford University graduate, had given The Tatler a more modern and satirical edge, and it appeared that’s what Newhouse had in mind for Vanity Fair as well. Time would tell.
The New Yorker, Feb 25, 1985, featuring famous mascot, Eustace Tilley, about the time S. I. Newhouse acquired it.
Then in November 1984, Newhouse took another big bite in the magazine industry, spending $25 million to acquire a 17 percent ownership position in the The New Yorker magazine, one of the nation’s most venerable magazines of style and literary excellence, published for some 60 years. By February 1985, Newhouse had acquired the whole company, which then also included a few other magazines.
The acquisition of The New Yorker stunned the publishing world. At the time, many worried for the fate of the magazine’s vaunted literary quality, which showcased some of the finest writers in America, might suffer under the Newhouse cost-conscious management style. An unsigned article published in the magazine during the management change questioned whether the new ownership would result in erosion of The New Yorker’s long tradition of editorial independence. Fears escalated when the long standing editor of some 32 years, William Shawn, was fired by Newhouse. Depsite the concerns, things at The New Yorker continued pretty much as they had, as the magazine’s integrity and quality were not compromised.
In the business world, however, there were those who believed that buying up The New Yorker made no economic sense, as the magazine was seen as “old media” and on the way out – especially as television’s “quick take” and “sound bite” stylistic tendencies began encroaching on the print world. But Si Newhouse was a careful student of the magazine business. In September 1988 he told Geraldine Fabrikant of the New York Times that The New Yorker was then “one of the greatest things in journalism and the most interesting thing I am involved in.” He added: ”People have been convinced that no one is reading any more, so that bringing The New Yorker back is a fascinating challenge,” he said. ”When I study the health of magazines, I study renewal rates,” he explained. ”That tells you whether a magazine is right for its readers. Once you have a good reader base, advertisers invariably follow.” The New Yorker at the time had a renewal rate of 72 percent, which was then 2 points above the industry average.
Vanity Fair, meanwhile, under Tina Brown, faced a make-or-break situation, with 1984 circulation of 200,000 and very little advertising. Rumors circulated that Si Newhouse might decide to take the barely-surviving magazine and fold it into The New Yorker. But under Brown’s direction, Vanity Fair began to show itself in a new way, offering a range of new cover subjects, stories and photography.
Three Vanity Fair cover stories during 1985 are sometimes credited as the turning point. First was the Vanity Fair cover of Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing in the White House by photographer Harry Benson for the June 1985 issue. Then came the August 1985 cover story of accused murderer Claus von Bulow with his mistress Andrea Reynolds on the cover and in other photos by Helmut Newton of von Bülow and Reynolds in matching leather jackets that made them look, as Reynolds put it, like “S&M people.” And finally, there was Tina Brown’s own cover story on Princess Diana of October 1985 titled “The Mouse that Roared,” which examined how marriage and a public life had changed young Diana, a former preschool teacher. Princess Di was photographed in full House of Windsor regalia for the issue. But perhaps more notably, the Princess Diana story also broke news of the royal couple’s fractured marriage. The issue boosted Vanity Fair newsstand sales by 100,000 copies.
Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown with Si Newhouse, 1990.
The von Bülow and Princess Diana issues set Vanity Fair sales records and helped convince Newhouse to stick with the venture. Vanity Fair’s fortunes generally rose thereafter, as sales began rising, especially on the newsstands, a very good bellweater of consumer acceptance and magazine success. By 1988, Tina Brown was named Magazine Editor of the Year by Advertising Age and Vanity Fair’s advertising pages were on the rise as well. Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair cover subjects continued to reflect leading edge culture, with figures such as Madonna and Michael Jackson featured on issues in the second half of the 1980s. The magazine also used current events to its advantage. “I brought in the news gene,” Tina Brown would later explain to writer Steve Fishman in a 2009 New York magazine interview. “Newhouse came to understand that news was a key to connection to the culture.” News meant buzz, politics, and culture. As New York’s Steve Fishman, would put it: “Brown had an instinct, and an unrestrained affection, for power, and she set about glamorizing it, whether in politics, Hollywood, business, or crime. The notion that a magazine could borrow celebrity power to increase its own, such a truism now, was revelatory at the time.”
2010 edition of “Condé Nast Traveler,” launched in 1987.
“Details” magazine in 1992 after a Newhouse overhaul.
Si Newhouse, meanwhile was also adding other magazines during the late 1980s. Among these was a magazine that would later become the CondéNast Traveler, a monthly magazine for affluent readers and travelers that was acquired from American Express as Signature magazine, but was vastly upgraded and relaunched by Newhouse in the fall of 1987 with an infusion of about $40 million. In early 1988, Details magazine was acquired, which was originally a somewhat quirky chronicle of Manhattan’s downtown art and club scene when Newhouse acquired it for $2 million, but was transformed into a young men’s fashion and lifestyle magazine. Later the same year, Woman magazine was acquired, an eight-year-old magazine with a circulation of 525,000. Somewhat less sophisticated than others in the Newhouse / Condé Nast group, Woman would target a newer market segment. Meanwhile, an older but reliable magazine on the newspaper side, Parade, was enjoying a growing readership base. By 1989 the Sunday supplement was included in some 330 newspapers with a circulation of more than 35 million readers. A full-page color ad in Parade at this time would cost its sponsor about $420,000.
Elsewhere in the late-1980s Newhouse empire, Random House in 1988 added Crown Publishing to its growing group of imprints. The IRS about this time filed charges against the Newhouse family, claiming taxes due on the estate of Sam Newhouse. The family had filed an estimated amount of $48 million. The IRS, however, said the amount due was more in the neighborhood of $600 million, plus $300 million more in penalties. However, the courts later found in favor of the Newhouse family. By 1989, Forbes magazine, in its annual listing of the richest Americans, found the Newhouse empire to be worth some $5.2 billion. Fortune magazine estimated Newhouse wealth a bit higher, at $7.7 billion. In any case, by the close of the decade, Newhouse was the nation’s the No. 1 publisher of general books, the third largest magazine publisher, the fourth largest newspaper chain, and one of the top 15 cable TV providers.
Vanity Fair continued to be a pop culture trend-setter in the early 1990s, featuring cutting-edge stories, Hollywood celebrities, and sometimes controversial covers, not the least of which was a nude and very pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of the August 1991 issue. “More Demi Moore,” read the cover tag line, with the featured subject photographed by Annie Leibovitz, as Moore was then seven months pregnant with her daughter. The cover was intended to be “anti- Hollywood” and “anti-glitz,” according to some accounts, and it succeeded in sparking intense controversy and debate, receiving wide media coverage in the process. Other Vanity Fair covers through 1992 featured Hollywood celebrities, rock stars, and enticing cover stories, among them: Jessica Lange in October 1991, Goldie Hawn in March 1992, and Mick Jagger in April 1992.
Vanity Fair’s circulation had jumped to 1.2 million by 1991. Advertising pages were also up in 1991, to about 1,440 pages. Revenues from circulation rose, especially from profitable single-copy sales at $20 million. Vanity Fair was then selling some 55 percent of its copies on the newsstand, well above the industry average of 42 percent. Tina Brown had done so well at Vanity Fair that Si Newhouse decided in July 1992 to make her editor of The New Yorker, hoping to give that magazine a bit of Vanity Fair’s sharper edge. Graydon Carter was hired by Newhouse to replace Brown at Vanity Fair, which continued with engaging cover art, such as the August 1993 issue with Cindy Crawford and k. d. Lang, photographed by Herb Ritts. Vanity Fair stories had cultural and current affairs impact, too. In 1996, journalist Marie Brenner wrote a Vanity Fair exposé on the tobacco industry entitled “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” an article later adapted for the 1999 film, The Insider, with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.
1996: “Allure,” Sharon Stone.
October 1995: “Bon Appétit.”
Beyond Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, the Newhouse enterprise continued to extend its reach in the magazine business. In 1991, it added Allure and others through the 1993 acquisition of Knapp Publications including, Architectural Digest and Bon Appétit. The following year, Newhouse acquired a 25 percent share of Wired, a San Francisco based monthly magazine focusing on new technology and how it affects culture, the economy, and politics. Newhouse had also offered some $500 million in backing to QVC, then in a 1993 bid for Paramount film studios, which QVC later lost to Viacom. On the newspaper side, the American City Business Journals were acquired by Newhouse in 1995 for about $270 million, adding business newspapers in some 40 cities with names such as the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the Cincinnati Business Courier, the Denver Business Journal, and others. Still, newspapers continued to be the cash cow for Newhouse, generating the largest revenue stream for the company through the mid-1990s, usually north of $1.5 billion annually. In cable TV, meanwhile, Newhouse and Time-Warner Cable combined cable systems in a joint venture. That deal brought Newhouse Broadcasting’s 1.4 million subscribers together with Time-Warner systems in New York, North Carolina and Florida at a time when the cable industry was undergoing consolidation in preparation for the battle-to-come with phone companies. Newhouse was also then a part owner of the Discovery cable TV channel.
October 12, 1962 issue of The New Yorker with Malcolm X portrait.
Over at the The New Yorker, meanwhile, Tina Brown broke tradition with her second issue of the magazine – for its October 12, 1992 edition – running a portrait of Malcolm X on the cover, as well as a full-page photograph of the slain black leader inside the magazine. It was the first time in the magazine’s 67-year history that an article had received such treatment. The cover painting was by artist Josh Gosfield, which also featured a background collage of other smaller drawings and photos around the Malcolm portrait, including imagery related to the Los Angeles beating of Rodney King and a smaller photo by Richard Avedon of Malcolm X with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. Inside the magazine, there was a related story by Marshall Frady entitled, “The Children of Malcolm.” It was also the first time the cover subject had been related to an article inside the magazine. A New York Daily news story, noting the change, observed: “this is not your father’s New Yorker.”
Inside the magazine, Brown also made changes. She introduced color and photography giving the magazine a more modern layout with less type on each page. There was also more coverage of current events and hot topics, featuring more celebrities and business tycoons. The “Goings on About Town” section included short pieces throughout and a column about Manhattan nightlife. A new letters-to-the-editor page and the addition of authors’ bylines to the “Talk of the Town” section had the effect of making the magazine more personal.
Two Newhouse Books
1994 & 1998
1997 paperback edition of Thomas Maier’s book on the Newhouse family.
The Newhouse family and its rising media holdings had long been of interest to enterprising journalists. And in October 1994, one of the first books examining the Newhouse empire appeared, titled: Newhouse: All the Glitter, Power & Glory of America’s Richest Media Empire & The Secretive Man Behind It. The 446-page book was written by Thomas Maier, a reporter for Newsday, the New York newspaper. The unauthorized investigative volume is centered mostly on Si Newhouse, who Maier calls at one point, “the most powerful private citizen in America.” The book examines the internecine warfare among owner and editors and some of the lavish partying, expense accounts, and excesses. Maier makes clear that he is no fan of the Newhouse empire, which he charges with promoting celebrity and gossip over social responsibility. The book also featured a few long-standing family friends, such as Roy Cohn, and the magic he worked for some politicians in selected Newhouse publications (including JFK and Ronald Reagan). Cohn also helped Newhouse land literary stars like Norman Mailer and aided the family in their battle with the IRS. Maier’s book raised warnings about a media monopoly in America, and how powers like Newhouse were changing journalism. The book won the Frank Luther Mott Award as best media book of the year in 1995 and excerpts appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Worth, and The London Telegraph. An updated paperback was published in 1997.
Carol Felsenthal’s 1998 book, “Citizen Newhouse.”
In December 1998, a second unauthorized biography appeared – Citizen Newhouse: Portrait of a Media Merchant. It was written by Carol Felsenthal who had written an earlier controversial volume on Washington Post owner, Katharine Graham. Citizen Newhouse covers the Newhouse story mostly by way of Si Newhouse. However, this book’s publication became something of a story in its own right when Newhouse worries gripped the book’s editor at Viking Press, causing her to cancell Felsenthal’s book contract. The book was finally published with Seven Stories Press.
Felsenthal worked for five years on the Newhouse book, conducting some 430 interviews and producing a volume that offers a vast compendium of facts, quotes, and anecdotes. Her book includes great detail on Si Newhouse’s editorial proclivities and the lavish perks he bestowed on his editorial elite, with former editors and publishers talking candidly about their dealings with Newhouse, who is cast as cold and uncaring by several long-time editors. Still, Felsenthal portrays Newhouse as a businessman who made few mistakes, taking his father’s newspaper company to new heights with successful expansions in book and magazine publishing.
By March 1998, the Newhouse family appeared to be streamlining its operation, and cutting away properties which had underperformed. One of these was the Random House publishing group, which by then included many well known and well respected imprints including: Alfred A. Knopf, Crown Publishing, Ballantine Books, Fawcett Books, Fodor’s, Modern Library, Pantheon Books, Orion, Vintage Books, and others. During its 18 years of ownership, the Newhouse family had expanded Random House from a $200 million-a-year publishing house with no properties overseas to world’s largest English language trade publisher with ports in England and Australia. But like others in the industry, Random House had struggled with heavy returns of unsold titles and marginal profitability. In 1996 it’s profits were generously estimated at $1 million on $1 billion in sales. However, as part of the privately-held Advance Publications empire, and not having to worry about quarter-to-quarter pressures of a publicly-held company, the Newhouse family could and did take the long view with Random House.Some believe Newhouse played a key role in pushing Random to bring on celebrity authors and blockbuster books that would do well in a more entertainment-driven marketplace. Random also went after celebrity authors, and paid them well to write their books with big advances – $2.5 million to former Clinton presidential adviser, Dick Morris; $5 million for Marlon Brando’s autobiography, and more than $6 million for Colin Powell’s autobiography.
Still, in Random House, the Newhouse organization did not find the cross-business opportunities – or “synergies” as some described them – that might have moved between the magazine and book businesses. One Newhouse editor at The New Yorker told the The New York Observer in March 1998: “The idea that The New Yorker has drawn any intellectual sustenance from Random House is ludicrous. There has never been an exchange of ideas and, even in business matters, like first serial rights. Random House has always been as firmly self-interested as the next publisher.” During the 18-year Newhouse tenure, Random House and the book business had changed, and with the web and new retailing patterns, more change was ahead. Si Newhouse and family, some believed, were just more comfortable in the magazine and newspaper business. “Si loves the media business and he loves it for the right reasons,” one publishing source told The Observer. “He genuinely loves owning things that make a contribution to a high level of intellectual discussion. But he is at core a businessman….” By 1997, Si and family had decided to sell Random, but they would not sell it to just anybody; there would have to be a genuine interest in the book business. When German bookseller Bertelsmann approached Newhouse with an interest in the company, negotiations began. Bertelsmann wanted a foothold in the American publishing business, and in the end paid more than $1 billion for Random House – $1.3 billion by one estimate.
“I think Si deserves a lot of credit,” said Thomas Maier, author of the 1994 book, Newhouse, summing up the Newhouse ownership of Random House to New York Times reporter Doreen Carvajal. “He…grew the business through acquisitions and by hiring some terrifically talented people. I think it’s very debatable whether they improved the quality or not. In some ways they did, and in other ways they ended a genteel, writer-oriented era in publishing in favor of a celebrity, media-driven realm. Was that a tide that could be bucked? Probably not.” Newhouse, in Maier’s view, played a key role in pushing Random to bring on more celebrity authors and blockbuster-type books that would do well in a more entertainment-driven marketplace. And that change helped draw in even bigger players like Disney and Murdoch.
Sept 2001: Gwyneth Paltrow.
April 2011: Liv Tyler.
In the magazine business, meanwhile, the Newhouse enterprise was still buying. In May 1998, the company acquired full control of Wired magazine, the San Francisco based technology/life style magazine. In 1999, additional magazines were bought from Disney through Fairchild Publications, a company Disney had acquired when it bought Cap Cities /ABC in 1995. Newhouse acquired three magazines in the Disney deal – W, Jane, and Women’s Wear Daily. W and Women’s Wear were fashion magazines, while Jane was oriented to the 18-to-34 year old market. Newhouse reportedly offered $650 million in the Disney/Fairchild magazine deal, outbidding the Hearst Corporation, a big rival in the magazine business. With the three mostly fashion additions, Newhouse now had control of more fashion advertising revenue than any of its rivals — worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Covers in these magazines during 1999, for example, featured celebrities such as: Lisa Kudrow, Natalie Portman, Courtney Love, Minnie Driver, Mariah Carey, Claire Danes — with others in that vein continuing through the early 2000s, such as the Gwyneth Paltrow and Liv Tyler covers shown above.
2000s: New World
Actress Rachel Bilson on the cover of the March 2008 issue of “Lucky” magazine, a Newhouse success story in the otherwise tough 2000s.
Through the first decade of the new millennium, Newhouse faced something of a new world, with changing technology, and later, tougher economic times. Still, at the beginning of the decade, the Newhouse enterprise continued what it had been doing in the past – acquiring more properties. In July 2000, Newhouse acquired a group of newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania from the Media News Group, including: The Gloucester County Times, Today’s Sunbeam,Bridgeton Evening News – all in New Jersey – and The Express-Times of Easton, Pennsylvania. However, Newhouse also closed down the Syracuse Herald- Journal in 2001.
On the magazine side, there were also additions, as well as a few subtractions. Lucky, a new creation, was launched in December 2000, cast as a shopping guide and style magazine primarily for women. Its articles focused on fashion – what to wear and how to wear it – and each issue featured a spread on some the cover girl’s favorite clothes and trends. Another magazine, Modern Bride, was acquired from Primedia for $52 million in 2002, and fit another slice of the Condé Nast upscale audience. In early 2003, Teen Vogue was launched as a another new Condé Nast magazine with Gwen Stafani on the cover of the first issue. Teen Vogue was basically conceived as a teenage version of Vogue magazine aimed at teenage girls. Focusing on teen fashion and celebrities, with related news and entertainment feature stories, it became a successful new magazine in the Newhouse/Condé Nast stable, soon reaching a circulation of more than one million. At the same time, three other magazines were closed in 2001 – Mademoiselle,Golf World, and Golf Digest. In the Cable TV arena, Advance and AOL/Time-Warner ended their cable partnership in 2002, as Advance changed the name of its cable operations to Bright House. By early 2008, before the economy went south, the Newhouse empire had revenues of more than $7 billion with more than 20,000 employees. The combined worth of Si and Donald Newhouse had been estimated by Forbes a few years earlier at around $15 billion.
Image & Style. Newhouse magazines during the 2000s continued with their celebrity-centric and fashion offerings, as well as their socially-trendy reporting. Vanity Fair had established itself since the 1990s as perhaps the top New York magazine on pop culture, fashion, and current affairs, and continued with that mix of fare through the 2000s. In 2002, for example, it offered a formal portrait of President George W. Bush’s Afghan War Cabinet. In 2005, came some juicy celebrity exclusives – “the big post-prison interview” with diva Martha Stewart in August, followed by the first interview with Jennifer Anniston after her divorce from Brad Pitt in September titled, “The Unsinkable Jennifer Aniston,” with Anniston on the cover. In January 2006, Vanity Fair published a cover feature and interview with Lindsay Lohan.
Eva Mendes, August 2007.
Jennifer Anniston, Jan 2009.
Hot Covers. Newhouse magazines had generally been edging into more exotic territory with its covers. In fact, during the 1999-2009 period, it ran covers that increasingly showed their female subjects in discreetly- posed nude or near-nude photos. The May 1999 issue of W magazine had Cindy Crawford in a “naked-while-pregnant pose,” repeating the Demi Moore Vanity Fair cover. The August 2002 cover of GQ magazine had model Heidi Klum posing nude with a birthday cake. In February 2003, Kate Winslet appeared on GQ’s cover in sexy black lingerie. For the October 2004 issue of GQ, Heidi Klum, named “Woman of the Year” appeared in just a scarf and thigh-high leather boots. Paris Hilton went topless for the cover of Vanity Fair’s September 2005 issue, as did Jennifer Aniston for the December 2005 cover of GQ, wearing only jean shorts. Heidi Klum was naked on the cover of Jane in August 2006, when “celebrities went bare for charity.” For Vanity Fair’s “Young Hollywood” issue in 2006, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightely appeared naked with designer Tom Ford, subjects shot by Annie Leibovitz. In the August 2007 “celebrities pose naked for charity” issue of Jane, a nude Eva Mendes graced the cover with some strategically placed flowers. And for the January 2009 issue of GQ, Jennifer Aniston posed in nothing but a red, white and blue men’s tie. In February 2012, Time magazine voted three Newhouse/Condé Nast nude covers – Vanity Fair’s 1991 Demi Moore, Vanity Fair’s 2006 Young Hollywood threesome, and GQ‘s 2009 Jennifer Anniston with necktie – among a “top ten” selection of such covers it reviewed. Vanity Fair, however, ran into a bit of controversy in April 2008 after some near- nude photos taken by Annie Leibovitz of Disney teen star, 15year-old Miley Cyrus, leaked out in a New York Times story.
Vogue’s Sept 2007 fashion issue, featuring actress and model Sienna Miller on its cover.
Fashion, of course, is a core part of the Newhouse /Condé Nast publishing and advertising world, with the venerable Vogue magazine and its iconic editor, Anna Wintour, among its biggest stars. Wintour, in fact, was famously played by Meryl Streep in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada. If that weren’t enough, a documentary film was made about Vogue’s famous annual fall fahion issue. The film, bearing the title, The September Issue, was released in 2009. It chronicled the production of what was then the largest issue in Vogue magazine history, the September 2007 issue, running some 840 pages thick, 727 pages of which were ads. The cover of that issue featured Sienna Miller along with its proudly proclaimed page count.
“We stand for a certain world,” Anna Wintour would later tell New York magazine writer Steve Fishman in a 2009 interview. “Women want to have pretty clothes. I mean, it’s a question of self-respect too.” In his New York article Fishman also quoted Wintour describing Vogue’s place in the publishing world as she pointed to some of the wares her magazine promoted: “… Wintour tells me about Ralph Lauren’s new collection of watches, which inspires her. They cost more, but they will last. ‘He wants to be part of the culture, and I feel the same way about Vogue: I want Vogue to be there, part of the culture,’ she says.”
Over at The New Yorker, meanwhile, the engaging stories and cover art of that magazine continued to be much-loved features, though occasionally generating notice with cover art that hit certain sensitive political or controversial subjects. Among these, perhaps most famously, was a July 2008 cover, meant as satire, that used cartoon renditions of then presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, depicting them as flag-burning, fist-bumping radicals — she dressed as a revolutionary and he in muslim garb. The artist, Barry Blitt, defended his work, saying “the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is.” Editor David Remnick explained that the satire was deliberate and purposely overboard in order to mock all the phony smears that were being leveled at the Obamas. Still, others – and notably Obama’s campaign at the time – thought the imagery was harmful. Rachel Sklar writing in the Huffington Post, noted: “presumably the New Yorker readership is sophisticated enough to get the joke,” but she worried about those who might use the “handy illustration” to continue to spread the very scare tactics and misinformation depicted. Other New Yorker covers during the 2000s captured economic problems such as “Red Death on Wall Street,” by artist Robert Risko that ran in the October 20, 2008 issue, or “S.O.S.,” by Christoph Niemann, that ran in the August 15/22, 2011 issue. Two New Yorker covers in 2010 hit BP’s Gulf of Mexio oil spill – one from the June 7, 2010 issue that showed a man in a suit testifying before a Congressional-like panel of oil-saturated marine animals, and five weeks later, offering a visual play on Escher-like imagery, titled “After Escher: Gulf Sky and Water,” by artist Bob Staake, which reportedly “lit up the blogosphere,” as Staake cleverly modified the original Escher to include oil-drenched Gulf wildlife, with a pelican at the top and a turtle at the bottom.
Creating The Buzz Si Newhouse
Si Newhouse, buzz-maker.
With the Condé Nast group of publications in the last few decades there is no question that Si Newhouse has left a substantial stamp on contemporary culture. New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Pena, writing on Newhouse in July 2008 observed: “Over three decades, Si Newhouse has built Condé Nast from an elite boutique into one of the largest, most successful American media companies, an upscale arbiter of popular culture from fashion to fiction.” He is sometimes compared to old-line publishers like Time-Life’s Henry Luce or newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst who also pursued personal interests through publishing. But Si Newhouse also became known for focusing on the details of his magazines, and some say he ran his shop like a Hollywood producer, also personally taken with the film industry. Graydon Carter, editor in chief of Vanity Fair, has said that the magazine’s annual “Hollywood issue” was Si Newhouse’s idea. Over at Vogue, whenever Si Newhouse offered advice, according to editor Anna Wintour, “he’s always made the surprising choice rather than the safe choice.” David Remnick, The New Yorker editor, has said much the same, describing Si Newhouse as the Babe Ruth of magazines, swinging for the fences.
Part of the sequence of 20 “celebrity pairs” used in Vanity Fair’s special Africa edition, July 2007.
Si Newhouse enjoys having his magazines at the center of the cultural swirl, no question. As New York Times reporter Richard Pérez-Pena, has observed: “More than almost anything else, acquaintances say, Mr. Newhouse delights in the buzz his magazines routinely create. He welcomes controversies, like the recent brouhaha about the Obamas-as-terrorists cover of The New Yorker. What tickles him often challenges convention, often embraces the new or novel, and often sells.” Anna Wintour at Vogue has made similar comments: “He likes the buzz, there’s no question. If you have lunch with a celebrity or political figure, he’s thrilled to hear about it.” Magazines in the Condé Nast group will sometimes go the extra mile to get attention and create the buzz their leader loves. In July2007, for example, Vanity Fair printed 20 different versions of its cover each featuring a famous celebrity pair. The issue was guest-edited by U-2 rock star Bono and was dedicated to fighting poverty in Africa. Each famous celebrity pair, in varying poses, was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, including: Maya Angelou, Desmond Tutu, Brad Pitt, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush, George Clooney, Iman, Jay-Z, Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates, Muhammad Ali, and a young Illinois senator named Barack Obama. The project was shot at locations around the globe and cost million do. But in the end, it paid for itself, according to Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter, as the buzz resulted in increased newsstand sales.
Hard Times at Newhouse
June 2009: New York magazine ran a cover story on part of the Newhouse empire, subtitled “Si Newhouse’s Condé Nast, a Good-Times Empire in a Hard-Times World.”
In June 2009, New York magazine published a cover story titled, “The Last Old-Media Tycoon,” alluding to changes then assaulting the Newhouse empire. The piece, written by Steve Fishman, focused mostly on the trendy magazine side of the business, referring to it as “Si Newhouse’s Dream Factory,” further elaborating with a subtitle that explained: “Condé Nast’s own stars compare their glossy empire to the MGM of Old Hollywood. But no one would wish it the same fate.”
Yet hard times were taking a toll on the Newhouse publications and the family fortune. In the first three months of 2009, The New Yorker’s ad pages were down 36 percent, and at Vogue and Vanity Fair, around 30 percent. Wired’s were down by almost 60 percent. Between 2007 and 2009 Newhouse had closednearly a dozen magazines, among them: Jane, House & Garden, Men’s Vogue, Golf for Women, Domino, Portfolio,Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, Gourmet, and Cookie. Some of these, however, retained an on-line presence. Fishman’s New York piece explained how Si Newhouse had grown up in the magazine business and loved magazines, and how it pained him personally to close them down. But the nature of the Newhouse business was changing, as Fishman;s piece explained. Some 40 percent of the family fortune now came from its stake in Discovery Communications, which ran cable and satellite TV networks with programs such as Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and TLC.
Cash Cow Blues. Newspapers – the stock and trade of the Newhouse rise – were also in trouble by this time. What was once the reliable center of the Newhouse empire – at least with respect to its revenue-generating power – had become something of an albatross by the mid- and late 2000s. Hit hard by the realities of the internet, some big Newhouse newspapers were bleeding badly. In 2008, the Newark Star-Ledger for one may have lost as much as $40 million. Circulation there had fallen by nine percent to 223,000 copies and newsroom staff cuts of 40 percent followed. In 2009, The Ann Arbor News was reduced more or less to a website, AnnArbor.com, with a print edition appearing just two days a week using a fraction of its former staff to run the website. Revenues for the Newhouse newspaper group plummeted 26 percent in 2009, to $1.3 billion, according to Ad Age. In 2010, the slide continued at some papers, as circulation at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland — one of the biggest of the Newhouse papers — was down 7 percent during the six-months of March-August 2010 to an average of 253,000 copies. More recently, in May 2012, it was revealed that The Times-Picayune daily newspaper in New Orleans, founded in 1837, would be reducing its print schedule, publishing a print edition three days a week while shifting more coverage on-line.
May 2012: The Times-Picayune of New Orleans announces print edition cutback and move to digital.
Painful News Hits. With the newspaper adjustments Newhouse has made in recent years, seasoned writers, reporters and columnists have lost their jobs. Layoffs at The Times-Picayune and three Newhouse-owned Alabama newspapers, for example, were pretty devastating. At The Times- Picayune, 84 people in the newsroom were laid off, including some of the paper’s best-known reporters and columnists. At the Alabama papers, 400 people lost jobs. Some re-hires occurred at the papers, as new digital positions opened, but those positions were not the same. In Alabama, for example, John Archibald, a columnist for The Birmingham News – known for the zingers he leveled at city and state political figures – was told he could return as a “local buzz reporter.” Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for that same paper, was told he could return as a “community engagement specialist.” These are obviously not happy transitions for seasoned news journalists. And given the sizeable contingent of Newhouse-owned newspapers around the country, it is likely this trend will continue in the years ahead. Newhouse newspapers, however, are still capable of turning out nationally-important investigative stories, as demonstrated in 20011-2012 by The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Curiously, among buyers of newspapers recently has been Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor. In April 2012, the Patriot- News and its reporter, Sara Ganim, received a Pulitzer Prize for “courageously revealing and adeptly covering the explosive Penn State [University] sex scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky.”
And at least in certain markets, newspapers still make good business sense. Curiously, among buyers of newspapers recently has been Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who has frequently had a keen eye for what’s likely to make money in the future. His purchase of the Omaha World-Herald, where Buffett lives, may have been “one for the home town.” Yet, his May 2012 acquisition of Media General’s 63 newspapers in the southeast U.S. may suggest that local advertising revenue is alive and well, and possibly more. If nothing else, newspapers offer good bases for digital development and website expansion.
Back at Newhouse, meanwhile, “Advance Digital” is growing alongside of, and in some cases may eventually supplant, much of the company’s newspaper empire. The focus there is to build out a local news and information network of websites, each in alliance with one or more of the 25 Newhouse-owned newspapers presently affiliated with Advance Publications. The Advance Digital websites provide local information, breaking news, local sports, travel destinations, weather, dining, bar guides and health and fitness information. In its pitch to advertisers, showing a U.S. map with links to its 12 websites, Advance Digital says: “We are a leading network of local websites – we are affiliated with over 25 newspapers; we reach over 18.9 million consumers every month; and we have a large and diverse audience of educated and affluent professionals.”
Newhouse & The Web. The Newhouse organization, however, and especially Si Newhouse, have been criticized for not making quicker and better use of the web. Initially, Newhouse kept editors away from the web and viewed it simply as a vehicle for selling magazine subscriptions and little else. For nearly a decade, Newhouse opposed purchasing Wired.com. But after Donald Newhouse’s son, Steve Newhouse, pulled the deal together in 2006, the Wired website actually proved the more valuable piece of the business, outpacing the magazine itself, reaping sixteen times more unique visitors than the magazine had in circulation. Still, according to Advertising Age, by 2008, only about 3 percent of Condé Nast ad revenues came from digital, among the lowest in its class. Steve Newhouse, however, now in his early 50s, has been responsible for some web initiatives that may show the way forward, such as Epicurious.com and Style.com, both conceived as new brands for the company. Other Newhouse managers and executives have also helped bring in iPad applications, which can showcase Newhouse magazine design strengths. In 2010, GQ magazine became the first Condé Nast title available on the iPad. And as mentioned earlier, Reddit.com, the popular user-generated “social news” website, is now owned by Advance Publications, having been acquired by Condé Nast in October 2006 for an estimated $10-to-$20 milion. Today Reddit.com has some 35 million users.
Actor Hugh Grant on the cover of Vanity Fair, Italy (Feb 2010), one of more than100 international Newhouse editions.
More Video & TV. In October 2011, Newhouse created Condé Nast Entertainment, an entity that will produce more video-styled content — including TV shows, web series and films — content derived from Newhouse journalists and its magazines, ranging from Vogue and GQ to The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Having long admired the ways of the Hollywood studios, the Newhouse Condé Nast entities may actually become more studio-like in their outlook and content development. The chase for advertising dollars will be among the key drivers moving the Newhouse entities to more video and digital media.
Whether the Newhouse magazines can make this move with success, however, is an open question, as other publishers have tried similar moves in the past attempting to link to television and film that have failed. One advantage in their favor, however, may be the top-shelf nature of the Newhouse magazines and their premium-brand content, offering strong appeal to upscale consumers and advertisers.
International Business. In the last few years, another Newhouse manager, Si’s cousin Jonathan Newhouse, now in his early 60s, has made Condé Nast International a Newhouse growth area. As of November 2010, he added Vogue in India and GQ in China. Condé Nast International now has more than 100 editions. The division also recently launched Condé Nast Restaurants, which plans to license the Vogue and GQ brands as eateries overseas.
The Newhouse-owned Vogue magazine released its record-breaking, 916-page fall fashion issue in September 2012 with Lady Gaga on the cover.
In the new swirl of media and technological change that is now sweeping through print and publishing, the Newhouse empire is likely to roll on, both as a successful business entity and a continuing force in contemporary culture. It will likely make the necessary digital adjustments and internal management changes to weather the most serious business threats. The Condé Nast magazines, in particular, have been setting the cultural tone among the wealthier classes and avant- garde for the last three decades or more, and will not likely yield much ground in that arena to competitors. Any doubt on that score, and what likely lies ahead, can be seen in the Vogue record-breaking tome of September 2012 – a 120th anniversary edition to boot! At 916 pages, featuring Lady Gaga on its cover, this issue of Vogue suggests – as Washington Post writer Ned Martel put it – “that even in bad times, someone is up for a good time.” In the pages of Vogue, he says, “the forecast is always a little sunnier…” And judging from the number of ad pages – 658, with single page rates in the September 2012 edition going for as much as $165,000 – the Newhouse empire would appear to be holding its own.
For additional stories at this website on newspaper and magazine history, see for example: “Newsweek Sold!, 1961″ (history of the Washington Post’s acquisition of Newsweek, Ben Bradlee/Phil Graham role, and more recent history through Newsweek’s demise and the Jeff Bezos acquisition of the Washington Post); “FDR & Vanity Fair, 1930s”(politics & publishing during the New Deal era); “Murdoch’s NY Deals, 1976-1977″ (Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper & magazine growth, including his takeover of Clay Felker’s New York Magazine); and “Rockwell & Race, 1963-1968,” (exploring Norman Rockwell’s art on this topic at The Saturday Evening Post and Look magazine). Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you see here, please consider supporting this website with a donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Empire Newhouse:1920s-2010s” PopHistoryDig.com, September 18, 2012.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Sam Newhouse Sr. and wife Mitzi, possibly early 1970s.
Vogue magazine, 15 August 1960, about a year after Newhouse acquired it and others.
A sample cover of "Glamour" magazine, January 1971.
March 1981: Actor Jack Nicholson on cover of Newhouse-owned “GQ” magazine.
Actor Clint Eastwood on the cover of "Parade," the Sunday supplement magazine, October 23rd, 1983.
Inaugural March 1991 issue of “Allure,” a Condé Nast publication that focuses on beauty, fashion, and women’s health, now with a circulation of 1 million plus.
November 1992: Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore are featured on CQ’s cover with a story by Gore Vidal – “Gore Vidal Punches the Ticket.”
August 1993 Vanity Fair cover with model Cindy Crawford “shaving” famous lesbian singing star, k.d. Lang in drag, meant as a controversial statement.
Vogue magazine cover with Hillary Clinton, December 1998, a tough time for the First Lady. Click for story.
In 1998, Newhouse gained full control of “Wired” magazine, which focuses on a range of science & technology issues, often with stories in the life style and cultural realms, here featuring Pixar, June 2010.
New Yorker cover of November 15, 2010, titled “Bumped,” by artist Barry Blitt, follows mid-term elections depicting President Obama in the Oval Office with Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), then expected to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Boehner is shown offering his fist, while Obama extends his hand for a handshake.
Milton Moskowitz, Michael Katz & Robert Levering, “Newhouse,” Every- body’s Business, An Almanac: The Irreverent Guide to Corporate America, San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980, pp. 385-387.
“Condé Nast Publications,” Wikipe- dia.org.
“Buys Portland Oregonian; Newhouse Adds Coast Paper to Chain for $5,000,000,” New York Times, December 11, 1950.
“Newhouse Buys Alabama Papers; Publishers Pays $18.7 Million for 2 Dailies, TV Outlet, and 3 Radio Stations,” New York Times, December 2, 1955.
“Newhouse Buys Oregon Journal; Estimated Price is $8 Million for Daily in Portland,” New York Times, August 5, 1951.
“The Newspaper Collector,” Time, July 27, 1962.
“Newhouse Buys Paper in Omaha; $40 Million World-Herald Bid is Accepted by Director,” New York Times, October 30, 1962.
U. S. Congress, House of Representa- tives, “Federal Responsibility for a Free and Competitive Press,” Hearings before the Antitrust Subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary (investiga- tion of monopoly practices in the newspaper industry), 1963.
John A Lent, Newhouse, Newspapers, Nuisances: Highlights in the Growth of a Communications Empire, New York: Exposition Press, 1966.
“S.I. Newhouse and Sons: America’s Most Profitable Publisher,” Business Week, January 26, 1976.
Philip H. Dougherty Advertising; Condé Buys A Men’s Magazine,” New York Times, February 16, 1979, p. D-12.
“Samuel I. Newhouse, Publisher, Dies at 84; …Builder of an Empire in Newspapers and Broadcasting…,” New York Times, August 30, 1979, p. 1.
Carol J. Loomis & Rosalind Klein Berlin, “The Biggest Private Fortune: Media Magnates Si and Don Newhouse Control a $7.5-Billion Empire. It’s a Tightly Private Show, But There’s No Hiding Wealth This Big,” Fortune, August 17, 1987, p. 60.
Herbert Mitgang, “Random House Buys Crown,” New York Times, August 16, 1988.
Geraldine Fabrikant, “Si Newhouse Tests His Magazine Magic,” New York Times, September 25, 1988.
Albert Scardino, “Big Spender at Vanity Fair Raises the Ante for Writers,” New York Times, April 17, 1989.
N. R. Kleinfield, “The Media Business; Heads Have a History of Rolling at Newhouse,” New York Times, November 2, 1989.
Maggie Mahar, “All in the Family,” Barron’s, November 27, 1989.
Milton Moskowitz, Michael Katz & Robert Levering, “Newhouse,” Every- body’s Business: A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America, New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990, pp. 359-361.
Deirdre Carmody, “Tina Brown to Take Over at The New Yorker,” New York Times, July 1, 1992.
Geraldine Fabrikant, “The Media Business; Vanity Fair Is Hot Property, But Profit Is Open Question,” New York Times, July 13, 1992.
In three successive issues of The New Yorker magazine in June of 1962, a series of articles under the title “Silent Spring” began appearing. The covers of those New Yorker editions — June 16th, 23rd and 30th, and one story page — are shown at right. The articles were written by “reporter at large” Rachel Carson, a scientist and published author. Carson by then had worked at the U.S. Department of the Interior and had written earlier best-selling nonfiction books on the biology of the sea and coastal environments – including the award-winning The Sea Around Us of 1951. But the articles she offered in the New Yorker that June of 1962 were more hard-hitting than anything she had previously written. This time, Rachel Carson was sounding an alarm and delivering a critique.
Her articles offered disturbing accounts of how synthetic chemical pesticides – then used widely in agriculture and sprayed elsewhere for insect control – had become, in her words, “elixirs of death,” contaminating the environment, killing wildlife, and threatening human health. Carson’s articles were excerpted from a forthcoming book, also called Silent Spring; a book that would have a profound impact on society, environmental science, and public understanding of the natural world. Within one month of The New Yorker series, Carson and her book were making news and creating an uproar in the chemical industry. On July 22nd, 1962 a front-page New York Times story on the book used the headlines: “Silent Spring is Now a Noisy Summer; Pesticide Industry Up in Arms Over New Book;Rachel Carson Stirs Conflict – Producers Cry ‘Foul’.” The book itself, however, had yet to be released, with a publication date set for late September 1962.
Rachel Carson shown here in a 1950s photograph alongside the cover of her landmark 1962 book, “Silent Spring.”
Silent Spring targeted the dangers of chemical pesticides but it was also a masterful story about the natural world. In some ways, it was one of the first books on ecology to permeate popular culture. Though it was an indictment of chemical abuse, it also told the story of the web of life and the nuances of biology and life-sustaining ecological systems. Chemical pesticides had intruded on these systems, and according to Carson, upset “the balance of nature.” She would show how that was happening, why it should be halted in some cases, and how other alternatives might offer better solutions. At the very least, Carson would argue, much more oversight and “look-before-we-leap” caution were in order. She and her book took on some very powerful interests, as the chemical industry, for one, was then at the center of economic growth; a popular and positive force in society, making all manner of new, chemically-derived goods – from plastics to pharmaceuticals – providing “the good life” and feeding the world. But Carson was not only railing at the chemical industry; her critique also shook up establishment science and much of agriculture as well. Still, despite these formidable bastions of the status quo, Carson and her book would set in motion forces that helped broaden society’s perspective on new technology, while laying the groundwork and popular support for modern-day environmentalism and environmental protection.
What follows here – in this 50th anniversary year of Silent Spring’s publication – is a partial recounting of the book’s history, including pressures brought to bear on author and publisher, how society received Silent Spring, and how it helped change thinking and advance public understanding of ecology. First, some background on Rachel Carson – an unlikely and reluctant crusader – and how she came to the pesticide issue.
1929: College graduate Rachel Carson aboard boat at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory, Massachusetts.
Rachel Carson was born in western Pennsylvania in May 1907. The youngest of three children, Carson had a rugged upbringing in a simple farmhouse near the Allegheny River town of Springdale, northeast of Pittsburgh. As a young girl, she spent time in the outdoors of rural Pennsylvania encouraged by her mother. She had also spent time by the sea during summer visits to the coast of Maine. And as her biographer Linda Lear reports, Carson once found a fossil shell while digging in the hills above the Allegheny River which made her curious about the creatures of the oceans that had once covered the area. But Lear also notes that the town of Springdale was sandwiched between two huge coal-fired electric plants, leaving the area as something of a grimy wasteland, its air and water fouled by industrial pollution. According to Lear, Carson once observed “that the captains of industry took no notice of the defilement of her hometown and no responsibility for it” – a perspective Carson would carry into her later years.
Early 1930s: Rachel Carson photo from Johns Hopkins University.
After Carson graduated from Parnassus High School, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburgh, now Chatham College. It had been her plan to become a writer, starting out in English composition. But biology had always fascinated her and in her junior year, she switched to that field. Following college graduation, Carson spent six weeks in the summer of 1929 at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, becoming a novice investigator in zoology.
That fall, she began graduate study at Johns Hopkins University, where she would also teach for a time, returning to Woods Hole in subsequent summers. By1931 she worked in zoology at the University of Maryland, remaining there for five years. She completed her Master’s degree at Johns Hopkins in 1932 then did some post-graduate work at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole.
1941: First edition of Rachel Carson’s “Under The Sea Wind,” published by Simon & Schuster.
Carson wanted to continue her study and pursue a Ph.D, but there was little money available to her during the Depression and family responsibilities also called, as her father and sister died, leaving her to help support her mother and two school-aged nieces. She was hired part-time by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Baltimore to write radio scripts during the Depression and supplemented her income writing articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun and the Atlantic Monthly.
By 1936 at the age of 29, she had become a junior aquatic biologist at the Fisheries Bureau, only the second woman to be hired by the Bureau for a full-time, professional position.
Writing became a part of what Carson did in her job at the Fisheries Bureau and also for outside publications. In September 1937 she published an article entitled, “Undersea,” in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. This led to her first book in 1941, Under the Sea-Wind, described by Carson as a series of descriptive narratives building in sequence on the life of the shore, the open ocean, and the sea bottom. The book featured the sanderling, a common sea bird, facing the rhythms of nature and an arduous migration. The book was published by Simon and Schuster. However, arriving in bookstores the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, it received little notice. Back at the Fisheries Bureau, meanwhile, she rose to chief editor of publications in 1949.
Rachel Carson, 1944, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
During the late 1940s, in her quest to learn more about the sea, she sought to be taken on a trip aboard the Albatross III, a Fisheries Bureau research vessel at Woods Hole. Her request was denied as women then were not allowed on research ships.
She then contacted the Fisheries Bureau director in Washington and in 1949 was granted permission for a ten-day cruise in the rough waters of the George’s Bank off coastal Maine. That cruise helped Carson in writing what would become her second book, The Sea Around Us. Meanwhile, in 1950, Carson had something of a personal scare as a confirmed breast tumor was found and removed, with no further treatment then called for.
Carson continued to work on her new book about the sea. However, getting to the final product wasn’t easy. A proposed article from the book’s research was rejected by numerous magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic.
1951: Rachel’s Carson’s “The Sea Around Us” became her first bestseller, winning several book awards.
Carson’s work on this book eventually came to William Shawn at The New Yorker, who saw its quality and decided to run much of it as a serial in 1951 under the title, “A Profile of the Sea.” The full book was published in July 1951 as The Sea Around Us. It soon reached the national bestsellers list for non-fiction that September, remaining on the list for 86 weeks, 39 of them at No. 1. By December 1951 the book was selling more than 4,000 copies a day. Carson had shown herself to be a writer of some considerable talent, able to take dry scientific material and turn it into interesting reading suitable for the general public. The Sea Around Us was also excerpted in Reader’s Digest. The book sold over 250,000 copies in 1951 and received numerous awards, among them: the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the John Burroughs Medal, the Gold Medal of the Geographical Society of Philadelphia, and the National Book Award. Eventually, this book would be published in 30 languages.
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea,” she wrote upon receiving the National Book Award, “it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” A film version of The Sea Around Us was also produced as a documentary in 1953, which won the Oscar award that year for Best Documentary. Carson, however, was not happy with the result and would never sell film rights to her work again.
1951: Rachel Carson, Woods Hole dock at Sam Cahoon's Fish Market, just after publication of “The Sea Around Us.” Photo E. Gray, Lear Collection.
During July and August of 1951, while on leave from the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson retreated to Woods Hole where she would respond to the queries she was receiving about her popular book, but also to do some research at Woods Hole that would later appear in her third book, The Edge of the Sea. By 1952, she left her position at the Bureau of Fisheries, spending time at Southport Island, Maine and Woods Hole, investigating the beach, tide pools and coastal ecology there for The Edge of the Sea. She returned to Woods Hole in summer 1952 to continue research and also bought land and built a cottage on the Sheepscot River near West Southport on the coast of Maine, where she and her mother had visited years earlier.
1955: "The Edge of the Sea."
Meanwhile, in 1953, her earlier book, Under the Sea-Wind, was republished and also became a bestseller. Her third and final book on the sea and sea coast, The Edge of Sea, was excerpted in The New Yorker and published in 1955. On the home front at this time, Carson continued to raise her adopted niece and provide care to her elderly mother. She also later adopted her five year-old grandnephew Roger Christie, son of her niece, Marjorie Christie who had died in 1957. Carson moved to Silver Spring, Maryland that year to begin raising Roger, and would share summers with him exploring the rocky coast of Maine. These outings figured in a 1956 magazine article, titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” later expanded and published as a book. But by the late 1950s, Rachel Carson was being pulled into something of a new calling. She and other scientists became worried by what they were learning about synthetic chemicals used throughout the environment.
“Go-Go Chemistry” 1940s-1950s
1955: "Synthetics...why they spell a better life for you." - Union Carbide.
Following World War II, “Better Living Through Chemistry” became one of the touchstone phrases and advertising slogans that told of a beneficent new chemistry that was making life better. Numerous chemical and oil companies – Mobil, Dow, DuPont, Stauffer, Shell, American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, and others – were all enthusiastically engaged in the new chemical cornucopia.
The 1955 magazine ad at right – one of a number of Union Carbide’s “giant hand” ads from that era – touts the benefits of “synthetics” in building the good life. In July 1950, during a Dow Chemical Company open house for the media, the Detroit Free Press gave a gushing review of Dow’s “hidden house of wonders,” describing an amazingly inventive company turning out all manner of products for America’s every need: “The clothes you are wearing, the ice cream you had for lunch, your wife’s permanent wave, the pharmaceuticals in your medicine chest, your children’s toys and your automobile all most likely have ingredients in them which came from Dow.” Indeed, by 1958, Dow was the fourth largest chemical company in the U.S., turning out an array of several hundred chemical and plastic products.
June 1947 Dow Chemical ad for “Dow DDT.”
Chemical pesticides produced by Dow and other companies were among the “wonder” products helping subdue insects and weeds, raise farm productivity, and increase food production for a hungry world. One of the first popularly known pesticides was DDT, an insecticide invented by the Swiss in 1939. DDT was used with much success in combating a typhus epidemic in Italy in 1943, as well as by the U.S. Army in fighting mosquitoes and malaria in the Pacific during WWII. By late 1944, DDT was receiving rave reviews in advance of its first domestic applications. By 1945, chemical companies were also selling herbicides such as 2,4-D, first sold to home gardeners, then to farmers, ranchers, utility companies, and railroads. Pesticide advertising and government brochures helped spread the word. One DDT ad from Dow Chemical Company in 1947 announced: “Freed From Flies, Stock Thrives—Most Pests Surrender to Dow DDT.” By the spring of 1948, some chemical companies were also selling another war research herbicide known as 2,4,5-T. Beyond the farm, DDT and other pesticides sprays were used to fight mosquitos and any number of other pests, some sprayed aerially or by trucks moving through residential communities.
Cover of a March 1947 brochure on DDT from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Throughout industry and government in the post WWII era there was a confident certainty about the efficacy and beneficence of the new products flowing from modern chemistry; little attention was paid to the possibility of any problems. Some observers of that period, such as Cathy Trost, author of Elements of Risk, say the cavalier approach to new products was just part of the culture, the generally-accepted industrial and social creed of the times:
…There was little room in the 1950s for the advocates of the slow, thoughtful approach in any portion of life—business, science, or politics. The country was so firmly in control of itself and had tied technology so tightly to patriotism that to be skeptical, to be Robert Oppenheimer working to “retard” the hydrogen bomb program or an “alarmist” scientist warning of potential dangers of radioactive fallout, was to be a traitor. Nationwide publicity linking cigarettes to heart disease for the first time in 1954 was countered by advertisements that pointed out reassuringly that “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette.” “The deadliest sin was to be controversial,” observed William Manchester in describing a generation that wanted “the good, sensible life” and that was “proud to be conservative, prosperous, conformist and vigilant defenders of the American way of life.” The largest group of college undergraduates were business majors, and industry leaders were lionized (General Motors president Harlow Curtice was Time’s Man of the Year in 1956). A free market, left to its own devices, was thought to be the most efficient path to productivity. In 1957 the Soviets simultaneously launched Sputnik 1 and the space race by taunting Americans with the specter of Russian superiority. Obeisance to technocracy took on patriotic as well as religious overtones.
It was generally in the context of this world view that Rachel Carson stepped forward with her research on pesticides and what effect these chemicals were having on the natural world.
1945: Rachel Carson looking for raptors at Hawk Mountain, Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Rachel Carson did not set out to write a book about pesticides or do battle with the chemical industry. Rather, events of that era had drawn her into the fight, both professionally as a scientist and personally as a lover of the natural world. In her marine studies with the Bureau of Fisheries, she had begun to gather data on the effects of DDT and other pesticides on marine life. Since abnormalities often show up first in fish and wildlife, biologists were among the first to see the ill effects of chemicals in the environment. Carson had also learned about various predator and pest control programs that were freely spreading pesticides in the environment with little regard for consequences beyond the target pest. In one of her earliest forays on the chemical issue, Carson had proposed an article to Reader’s Digest on evidence about DDT’s environmental damage, but the magazine turned her down. Carson at the time was still focused primarily on the ocean and costal environments, and writing her books on those topics.
National wildlife artist Bob Hines and Rachel Carson search out marine specimens in the Florida Keys around 1955. The two spent time in the field for the USFWS visiting Atlantic coast refuges gathering material for agency publications. Hines’ drawings also appear in “The Edge of the Sea.”
By January 1958, however, Carson’s friend, Olga Huckins, sent her a copy of a letter she’d written to to the Boston Herald, complaining about DDT spraying and that many birds had died on her private, two-acre bird sanctuary in southeastern Massachusetts. There had been aerial spraying of pesticides in that area to kill mosquitoes in December 1957 and Huckins hoped that Carson would be able to find someone in Washington who could help stop further spraying. The following month, in February 1958 Carson wrote to New Yorker editor E.B. White suggesting that he write an article about the dangers of pesticides. He, in turn, suggested that Carson write the article. “I think this whole vast subject of pollution, of which this gypsy moth business is just a small part, if of the utmost interest and concern to everybody,” White said in his reply to Carson. “It starts in the kitchen and extends to Jupiter and Mars. Always some special group or interest is represented, never the earth itself.”
With that, Carson then huddled with Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin and then, William Shawn at The New Yorker. She agreed to start work on what might be a magazine piece and possibly something suitable for a chapter in a book on the same subject. That was all she had in mind at the time. She then set out to complete the work by the summer of 1958.
1951: DDT headlines in the “Dallas Morning News” reporting on a Texas scientist testifying in Congress.
Rachel Carson wasn’t the only scientist concerned about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Others had also raised red flags about DDT, some from its earliest days of use. Among those first concerned was Edwin Teale, who wrote in March 1945: “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.” In 1948, the American Medical Association warned that chronic toxicity to humans of most new pesticides , including DDT, was “entirely unexplored.” But such warnings rarely surfaced outside scientific circles. Congress, too, had held hearings on the safety of food additives in 1950 and 1951, during which DDT residues in food became a concern, resulting in some new registration and testing requirements for chemicals. But DDT and other pesticides continued to be used in any case.
Aerial pesticide spraying over livestock, 1950s.
DDT spraying, beach area, in the 1950s.
In 1957, landowners on Long Island, New York – including Robert Cushman Murphy, a retired ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Archibald Roosevelt, a son of former President Teddy Roosevelt – had brought a lawsuit to stop the spraying of DDT to kill gypsy moths in their area. Their lawsuit had some success, but the case went all the way to the Supreme Court which refused to hear it, although Justice William O. Douglas dissented in that decision, feeling the alarms that had been raised by experts warranted the court’s taking the case.
Rachel Carson had followed the proceedings of this case and was the beneficiary of a windfall of documents and scientific contacts that resulted. She was also following the Department of Agriculture’s “fire ant eradication program” which began in 1957 and used two potent insecticides, dieldrin and heptachlor, in a spraying campaign that wildlife experts would later call a fiasco.
Carson had also written a letter to the editor, published in the spring of 1959 in The Washington Post, that attributed a recent decline in bird populations—she called it the “silencing of birds”—to pesticide overuse. In late 1959, a great national furor also arose after cranberries were found to contain high levels of the herbicide aminotriazole, as the sale of all cranberry products was halted. Carson attended the ensuing FDA hearings and came away dismayed by the testimony and tactics of the chemical industry – which contradicted the scientific data she was finding.
“The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became,” Carson later wrote. “I realized that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important.” Carson corresponded and met with other scientists who were documenting the environmental effects of pesticides in their own fields. Her connections with government scientists sometimes yielded confidential information. She also went into the federal agencies and national research libraries to do her digging, such as the Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, and letter writing to other scientists as well.
July 1961: Rachel Carson seaside, examining specimen in jar. Life photo, A. Eisenstaedt.
Carson became the right messenger at the right time, and one who could see the larger picture unfolding in many different corners of the environment, and knew how that story could be told, using the scientific information she could access and compile. She carefully sourced her work, as she and her editor fully expected the book would get close scrutiny by scientists and critics. She had scientists review her chapters as she went. In May 1962, before The New Yorker series ran, Carson attended the White House Conference on Conservation where Houghton Mifflin distributed proof copies to selected delegates. Carson had also sent a proof copy to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who had recently argued against the court’s refusal to hear the Long Island DDT spraying case.
Carson was a careful writer and would later explain that writing was hard work for her, sometimes working in long with difficult material before it was typewritten. By March 1960 a good portion of her book was finished in rough form, but that’s when she had a medical set back. An earlier breast tumor had actually been malignant, leading to a mastectomy in April 1960. Carson, in fact, was plagued by recurring personal illnesses, including arthritis, an ulcer, staphylococcus infections, and a continuing battle with cancer. Still, even as she battled these medical problems, with setbacks in her writing, she persevered through early 1962, working toward completion of the book. After consultation with her editor and agent, she settled on a title for the book – which earlier had been “The Control of Nature,” later changed to “Man Against the Earth,” and then changed again to something else. Paul Brooks, her editor at Houghton Mifflin, suggested using “Silent Spring, ” which he had proposed initially for the book’s chapter on birds. But “Silent Spring” suited the overall theme Carson was trying to get at, with chemicals not only “silencing spring” but also throwing the “balance of nature” out of kilter.
In early June 1962, the first of Carson’s articles appeared in The New Yorker magazine.
July 1962: New York Times front-page story and headlines on Rachel Carson’s then-forthcoming book, “Silent Spring.”
Among the earliest reactions toCarson’s Silent Spring as it appeared in the New Yorker, and prior to the full book’s publication, was thefront-page story that ran in the New York Times on July 22, 1962. “The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author…,” began that story, which proceeded to report how that industry and the agricultural establishment were “up in arms” over what Carson had to say about their chemicals.
P. Rothberg, president of the Montrose Chemical Corporation of California, an affiliate of the Stauffer Chemical Company and then the nation’s largest producer of DDT, was quoted in the New York Times saying that Carson wrote not “as a scientist but rather as a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.” Carson’s New Yorker series had caught the attention of Chemical Week, one of the industry’s trade magazines, as soon as those pieces appeared. On July 14th, 1962, that magazine ran an editorial noting that Carson’s articles could not be dismissed as a “the work of a crank,” but that her technique was “more reminiscent of a lawyer preparing a brief…than of a scientist conducting an investigation.” Some chemical companies had assigned staff to reading the New Yorker articles line-by-line to find possible flaws. But one company, Velsicol Chemical Corporation, went straight to the ramparts.
Velsicol Chemical sent a letter to “Silent Spring’s” publisher.
Louis A. McLean, the company’s secretary and general counsel, wrote to Carson’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, suggesting they may want to reconsider the book’s publication, then scheduled for the end of September. Velsicol’s five-page registered letter arrived at Houghton Mifflin on August 2, 1962 and noted, in particular, the book’s “inaccurate and disparaging statements” about two pesticides – chlordane and heptachlor – then solely manufactured by Velsicol. Houghton Mifflin then decided to have the book reviewed by an independent toxicologist on the points raised by Velsicol. The reviewing toxicologist found Carson’s statements accurate. The publisher then informed Velsicol that the book would be published as planned.
Meanwhile, other reaction to the Silent Spring stories in The New Yorker had been positive. In Washington, Congressman John Lindsay (later to become mayor of New York and a presidential candidate), wrote to Carson telling her he found The New Yorker pieces to be “a persuasive contribution to public awareness of the dangers of our present pest control policy.” Lindsay inserted a portion of the one of the New Yorker articles into the Congressional Record.
President John F. Kennedy, shown here at an earlier January 15, 1962 press conference, did acknowledge Carson’s book at a later press conference, August 29, 1962.
President John F. Kennedy, known to be a reader of The New Yorker, was questioned by a reporter during an August 29, 1962 press conference. In his question, the reporter noted: “there appears to be a growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-term side effects from the use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?” Kennedy answered, “Yes, and I know they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.” A few days later, a special panel of experts was set up to see whether government agencies were doing all they could to reduce or eliminate human and wildlife dangers of pesticide programs.
Also in late August 1962, the CBS television network announced that it was planning to run a show on the book the following year for its “CBS Reports” documentary news show. Newspaper and magazine stories had also appeared reacting to The New Yorker series. In Business Week magazine, a September 8th story used the title, “Are We Poisoning Ourselves?” In Atlantic City, New Jersey, at a September 12th gathering of chemical industry officials and government scientists, Dr. C. Glen King, head of the Nutrition Foundation, charged that “one-sided” books like Silent Spring was whipping up public sentiment “bordering on hysteria.” Silent Spring, meanwhile, had yet to reach the book stores.
Method & Message
Book and Author
Rachel Carson began Silent Spring with a short two-page “Fable for Tomorrow,” describing a fictional pastoral place of productive farm fields, fish-filled streams, and abundant wildlife. But this bucolic scene is suddenly and mysteriously transformed into a desolate place, as Carson describes:
“…There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults, but even among children… There was a strange stillness… The birds for example – where had they gone?… On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched… Anglers no longer visited [the streams], for all the fish had died… [A] white granular power still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon…the fields and streams…”
“Elixirs of Death”
“For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. They have been recovered from most of the major river systems and even from streams of groundwater flowing unseen through the earth. Residues of these chemicals linger in soil to which they have been applied a dozen years before. They have entered and lodged in the bodies of fish, birds, reptiles, and domestic and wild animals so universally that scientists carrying on animal experiments find it almost impossible to locate subjects free from such contamination. They have been found in fish in remote mountain lakes, in earthworms burrowing in the soil, in the eggs of birds — and in man himself. For these chemicals are not stored in the bodies of the bast majority of human beings, regardless of age. they occur in mother’s milk, and probably in the tissues of the unborn child…”
_______________________ Excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2 in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962.
This description, Carson told her readers, was indeed fictional, but the very damages described in the fable had actually occurred in separate instances all across America. Carson then went about showing her readers, chapter-by-chapter, “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America.” She proceeded to show how pesticides were taking their toll on air, land and water, birds and fish, farmers and farmworkers, and public health. Her chapter titles pointed the way, and some did not mince words. They included, for example: “Elixirs of Death”(excerpt at right), “Surface Waters and Underground Seas,” Realms of The Soil,” “Earth’s Green Mantle,” “Needless Havoc,” “And No Birds Sing,” Rivers of Death,” Indiscriminately From The Skies,” “The Human Price,” “The Rumblings of An Avalanche,” and more.
She showed how insufficiently tested pesticides were being widely released into the environment, killing hundreds or even thousands of beneficial species; how the chemicals concentrated or “bio-magnified” through the food chain from plants and earthworms to birds, fish, and larger predators. Carson also showed that the progression in chemical making had gone well beyond pesticidal substances made from minerals in earlier times, and were now man-made substances that were chemically synthesized in the laboratory, and that this might be a problem for the biological world and the human body:
…The chemicals to which life is asked to make its adjustment are no longer merely the calcium and silica and copper and all of the rest of the minerals washed out of the rocks; . . . they are the synthetic creations of man’s inventive mind, brewed in laboratories, and having no counterpart in nature. To adjust to these chemicals would require time on the scale that is nature’s; it would require not merely the years of a man’s life, but the life of generations. And even this, were it by some miracle possible, would be futile, for the new chemicals come from our laboratories in an endless stream; almost five hundred annually find their way into actual use in the United States alone [Note: today it’s more like 1,000s annually]. The figure is staggering and its implications are not easily grasped—500 new chemicals to which the bodies of men and animals are required somehow to adapt each year, chemicals totally outside the limits of biologic experience…
Still, Carson was careful to say early on in her book, and often repeated in later public appearances, “it is not my contention that chemical insecticides may never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm…”
1962: Rachel Carson with microscope on porch at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The genius in Carson’s book – then and now – is that it mixed good science with good story-telling, using specific, real-world examples to make her points, some of which illustrated larger concepts, such as how food-chains and ecological systems work.
In Chapter 8 – “And No Birds Sing” – Carson included the story how DDT spraying of elm trees on the campus of Michigan State University in the mid-1950s to fight Dutch Elm disease was also killing a large number of robins. That spraying was aimed at eradicating the bark beetle which spread Dutch Elm disease. However, the trees’ DDT-coated leaves fell to earth, where they were eaten by earthworms who absorbed the DDT. The worms in turn, were eaten by the robins, a number of which died of DDT poisoning.
Similarly, in Chapter 9 – “Rivers of Death” – Carson used the Miramachi River of New Brunswick Canada to show how a DDT spraying to protect balsam forests from the spruce budworm also killed the aquatic insects that young salmon fish in the river depended upon for food. So then by Chapter 12 – “The Human Price” – she then describes the larger biological systems that society depends upon, she writes:
…For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan, or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence. We poison the caddis flies in the stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die. . . . We spray our elms and following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm leaf-earthworm-robin cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life-or death-that scientists know as ecology…
All in all, Carson’s book was, and still is with few exceptions, a taut 260 pages of reporting with engaging stories, some from everyday people who were dealing with chemical problems in their communities to which Carson would add scientific information and/or further explanation. Her book also had plenty of documentation, with more than 50 pages of mostly scientific citations to support her reporting.
Publication & Reviews
Book-of-the-Month Club edition of “Silent Spring” included a “report” insert by Supreme Court justice, William O. Douglas.
By the time Silent Spring was published in late September 1962, advanced sales had already reached 40,000 copies. The New Yorker series also resulted in more than 50 newspaper editorials and numerous news accounts and other stories. The book became an instant best-seller, and soon appeared on the New York Times’ bestseller list where it would remain for many weeks.
Silent Spring had also been selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club for October 1962, which meant at least another 150,000 copies in sales. Book-of-the-Month-Club selection also meant that Silent Spring would reach rural and Main Street America, an audience well beyond those who read The New Yorker. The Book Club edition also included a special “report” from U.S. Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas introducing the volume.
As Silent Spring arrived in book stores that fall, more news stories and book reviews appeared. CBS television newsman, Eric Sevareid, who would later host and narrate a TV show on the book, published a piece in the Los Angeles Times on September 23rd entitled, “Pests vs. Men: The Big Battle Is Raging Again; Is Pesticide Use Tinkering With Nature Balance?”
Other publicity on the book included a positive editorial in The New York Times. Excerpts of the book were also published in the National Audubon Society’s magazine, Audubon, as well as various newspapers and magazines. Her book was attacked as “biased,” “emotional” and “alarmist.” Others called it a hoax, science fiction, and in a league with “The Twilight Zone” TV show. Carson herself was labeled a communist, hysterical woman, a nature nut, and worse. A Chicago Daily News review stated: “…Silent Spring may well be one of the great and towering books of our time. This book is must reading for every responsible citizen.” But not all the reviews and publicity were glowing.
In fact, critical reviews appeared in popular mainstream magazines of the day, including Time, Newsweek, Life, and The Saturday Evening Post. One Time magazine review of September 28, 1962 deplored Carson’s “oversimplifications and downright errors…Many of the scary generalizations–and there are lots of them–are patently unsound.” Another late September 1962 review by Edwin Diamond appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, stated: “Thanks to an emotional, alarmist book called ‘Silent Spring,’ Americans mistakenly believe their world is being poisoned.” In Chemical & Engineering News ofOctober 1, 1962, under the title, “Silence, Miss Carson,” Dr. William J. Darby, a nutritionist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, wrote: “Her ignorance or bias on some of the considerations throws doubt on her competence to judge policy.” Darby suggested that the public could be misled by Carson’s book. He also added at the end of his review: “The responsible scientist should read this book to understand the ignorance of those writing on the subject and the educational task which lies ahead.”
Monsanto’s “Desolate Year” insect plague story, was sent out to thousands of reviewers, editors and journalists to counter “Silent Spring.”
Life magazine’s reviewer said of Carson and Silent Spring, “there is no doubt that she has overstated her case,” but also pointed out that the chemical manufacturers were just as one-sided in the other direction. And while there were some instances where Carson had strayed or made a weak point or two, those who had carefully reviewed her work found these too little to quibble about, and did not detract from her larger purpose. LaMont Cole, a professor of ecology at Cornell, wrote in Scientific American: “Errors of fact are so infrequent, trivial, and irrelevant to the main theme that it would be ungallant to dwell on them.”
The chemical industry, meanwhile, had been planning their fight against Carson and book even before The New Yorker series had appeared, as word of the book had leaked out early on. Through the summer and fall of 1962, the chemical industry continued its attacks on the book and Carson. The National Agricultural Chemical Association (NACA) doubled its budget and distributed thousands of copies of negative book reviews for Silent Spring, and also issued warnings to newspaper and magazine editors that favorable reviews of the book could result in diminished advertising revenue. NACA reportedly spent more than $250,000 in their campaign against the book. The Monsanto Chemical Co. published a short story titled “The Desolate Year” – an answer to Carson’s “Fable for Tomorrow” chapter. In the Monsanto version, the failure to use pesticides results in an insect plague that devastates America. Five thousand copies of “The Desolate Year” were sent out to book reviewers, science and gardening writers, magazine editors, and farm journalists. “This was, for us,” said one Monsanto man, “an opportunity to wield our public relations power.”
Monsanto was one of the chemical companies to actively campaign against “Silent Spring.”
In November 1962, the Manufacturing Chemists Association began mailing out monthly feature stories to news media that stressed the positive side of pesticide use. In 1963, The Nutrition Foundation, a trade group then comprised of 54 companies involved in food, chemical, and agriculture-related industries, began sending out Silent Spring “fact kits” that essentially contained materials, letters and book reviews that were critical of the book and/or Carson. These kits went out to a wide array of colleges and universities, researchers, state agricultural experiment stations, the membership of the American Public Health Association, librarians, state and county public officials, and nursing and women’s organizations.
In the chemical industry, a few scientists became especially visible in the attack on Silent Spring. One scientist from American Cyanamid, Robert White-Stevens, stated: “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” White-Stevens made 28 such speeches by the end of 1962, charging, among other things, that Silent Spring was “littered with crass assumptions and gross misrepresentations” and that Carson was “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature.”
Another former Cyanamid chemist, Thomas Jukes, also became a critic of Carson and Silent Spring. George C. Decker, an entomologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station who had been a frequent consultant to the chemical industry, called the book a “hoax” and “science fiction,” to be read, he said, “in the same way that the TV program ‘Twilight Zone’ is to be watched.” Other attacks on Carson were more personal, questioning her character or her mental stability; some called her a communist, an hysterical woman, a nature nut, and more.
LaMont Cole of Cornell gave an important positive review of "Silent Spring” in Scientific American magazine.
Throughout the onslaught, Carson remained steadfast and confident in her findings, though somewhat above the fray, choosing not to debate every last detractor, in part because she was then receiving treatments for her battle with cancer. She did, however, take comfort in a series of positive reviews from nationally and internationally known scientists, including: Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania; LaMont C. Cole, professor of ecology at Cornell University; biologist Roland C. Clement of the National Audubon Society; and zoologist Robert L. Rudd of the University of California, among others. And in the court of public opinion, Silent Spring appeared to be doing quite well.
By year’s end 1962, and after less than three months on the market, Silent Spring had sold well over 100,000 copies and continued to appear on the New York Times’ bestsellers list, where it would remain for 31 weeks. In addition, in state legislatures by that date more than 40 bills had been introduced aimed at governing the use of pesticides. But the fight over pesticide policy in Washington, D.C. was just beginning. In 1963, Carson and Silent Spring would receive still more national attention and some important affirmation.
Sample “CBS Reports” title card screenshot
On April 3, 1963, the CBS television network ran a one-hour telecast on Rachel Carson and her book in its highly-regarded documentary series, “CBS Reports,” the news program made famous by Edward R. Murrow. The title of that show was “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” Portions of the show with Carson on camera were filmed at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, with CBS newsman, Eric Sevaried as host. But even before the program aired, a letter writing campaign, orchestrated by the chemical industry, was directed at CBS urging the network not to air the program. When that failed, several advertising sponsors – Standard Brands, the makers of Lysol, and Ralston Purina, a major producer of livestock feeds– withdrew their advertising prior to the broadcast. The show still went on the air in any case.
Eric Sevareid, who became a notable newsman in his own right, hosted the April 1963 show on “Silent Spring.”
In the TV report, Sevareid offered some basics on the issue, noting the rise of the postwar pesticide industry and that each year by then some 900 million pounds of pesticides were being used. Sevaried also read from newspaper and report excerpts and noted that Silent Spring had touched off a controversy: “In Silent Spring Miss Carson stresses the possibility that pesticide chemicals may be working to harm man in ways yet undetected – perhaps contributing to cancer, leukemia, genetic damage. In the absence of proof, her critics concede that these are possibilities but not probabilities and they accuse Miss Carson of alarmism. Yet few scientists deny that some risk may be involved.” Film footage included shots of planes applying pesticides to agricultural fields and kids walking along a street behind a mosquito-fogging truck. During the program, an array of government officials appeared, including: Luther Terry, U.S. Surgeon General; George Larrick, Commissioner of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration; John Buckley, Director, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Research Center; Page Nicholson of the U.S. Public Health Service; Wayland Hayes, a toxicologist with the Public Health Service; and Arnold Laymond, Chief Toxicologist, Food & Drug Administration. A number of the federal officials stated the chemicals were important and helped curb disease and save lives. But some of the public officials seemed to confirm points made by Carson. Dr. Page Nicholson, water pollution expert, Public Health Service, wasn’t able to answer how long pesticides persist in water or the extent to which pesticides contaminated groundwater supplies.
Rachel Carson being interviewed at her home by CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid.
Carson appeared several times, as in one scene shown at right with Sevareid in her study with shelves of books behind her. At the time, Carson was undergoing radiation therapy and was in a weakened state. Some may have noticed a change in her hair style, as during this filming, and other public appearances, she wore a wig due to her treatments. But her message came across nonetheless.
“It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks,” she said at one point. “The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts….” She further explained that “we still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe.” Man’s attitude toward nature, she continued, “is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature…”
Rachel Carson on “CBS Reports,” 1963.
During the show, Carson read selected passages from her book to illustrate how widespread pesticide use was on farms, forests, and home gardens; how the chemicals were “non-selective” in the damage they did, killing good and bad insects as well as birds and fish; and how some lingered in the environment for long periods. “All this,” said Carson, “though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.” Carson emphasized that “the major barrage of chemicals being laid down on the earth” had unknown consequences. “We have to remember that children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth, perhaps even before birth,” she said during the interview. “Now what is going to happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure? We simply don’t know.”
Robert White-Stephens of the American Cyanamid Co. as he appeared on “CBS Reports,” April 1963.
Robert White-Stevens, the American Cyanamid scientist who had already been speaking on Silent Spring around the country, also appeared on camera during the “CBS Reports” show. He was interviewed in a laboratory setting, in white lab coat surrounded by beakers and other lab equipment. “When pesticides, registered pesticides, are used in accordance with label instructions and recommendations, then there is no danger to either man or to animals and wildlife,” he stated at one point. Of Carson and her book he said: “The major claims in Miss Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field. If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.” In the telecast, with Carson and White-Stevens cast as the primary focal points, Carson came across as the more rational messenger, and certainly not the “hysterical woman” she was portrayed to be by some of her critics. The show was seen by 10-to-15 million TV viewers, and was especially important for those who had not read the book or had little knowledge of the pesticide issue.
White House report on pesticides of May 15, 1963 helps vindicate Rachel Carson.
Several weeks later, on May 15, 1963, Carson and Silent Spring received further affirmation when the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) released a report entitled, “The Use of Pesticides.” The PSAC report, which had been instigated in part by Silent Spring, and reportedly urged along by President Kennedy, was the result of eight months of wrangling by the government’s top scientists and regulators, who held a series of meetings with Carson, industry representatives, and Department of Agriculture officials.
The PSAC report concluded that while pesticides were scrutinized thoroughly for their agricultural effectiveness, they generally were not given the same level of review for environmental and public safety. And for many pesticides in use, the PSAC report found there was little knowledge of chronic effects over a lifetime.
The report also acknowledged that “until publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.” The PSAC report recommended that pesticide residues be tracked and monitored in the environment – in air, water, soil, fish, wildlife, and humans. Importantly, the report also stated that “elimination of the use of persistent toxic pesticides should be the goal.”“Until publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides.” - PSAC Report, 1963.
On the day following the report’s release, the headline in The Christian Science Monitor newspaper declared, “Rachel Carson Stands Vindicated!” In that evening’s CBS news telecast, commentator Eric Sevareid referring to the report, said that Carson had succeeded in her stated goals, one of which was “to build a fire under the government.” Dan Greenberg, writing for Science magazine, found the PSAC report to be a temperate document, carefully balanced in its assessments of risks versus benefits, but that it “adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis.…” Greenberg added that “Carson can be legitimately charged with having exceeded the bounds of scientific knowledge for the purpose of achieving shock; but her principal point—that pesticides are being used in massive quantities with little regard for undesirable side effects—permeates the PSAC report and is the basis for a series of recommendations…”
June 1963: Rachel Carson testifying, U.S. Senate.
In June 1963, on two separate occasions, Carson testified before Senate committees holding hearings on the pesticide-related issues – once on June 3rd at Senator Ribicoff’s hearings before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee of Government Operations, and then three days later on June 6th before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce.
In her appearances before the two committees, Carson generally called for establishment of a “pesticide commission” or some type of independent regulatory agency to protect people and the environment from chemical hazards. In her testimony, Carson asserted that one of the most basic human rights was the “right of the citizen to be secure in his own home against the intrusion of poisons applied by other persons.” In her appearance at Senator Ribbicoff’s hearings, Carson called for strict control of aerial pesticide spraying, reduction and eventual elimination of the use of persistent pesticides, and more research devoted to non-chemical methods of pest control.
Some of what Carson had to say before the Senate Commerce Committee on June 6th is offered below in rough transcription:
“…The most disturbing of all such reports however concerns the finding of DDT in the oil of fish that live far out at sea… Oil from some of these marine fish contains DDT in concentrations exceeding 300 parts per million… All this gives us reason to think deeply and seriously about the means by which these residues reach the places where we are now discovering them… No one can answer this question with complete assurance…Upper atmosphere may be carrying chemical particles and the pesticide contamination of such remote places may be the result of a new kind of fallout…. If we are ever to solve problem of contamination we must begin to count the many hidden costs of what we are doing…A strong and unremitting effort must be made to eliminate pesticides that leave residues…No other way to control rapidly spreading contamination…”
Rachel Carson, 1963 hearings.
Before both Senate committees, Carson acquitted herself with a high degree of professionalism, presenting her arguments carefully and rationally, demonstrating again that earlier charges of “hysteria” and being an “emotional woman” had no basis in fact. Still, that did not stop some at those same hearings from leveling remarks at Carson. Dr. Mitchell R. Zavon, a professor of Industrial Medicine at the University of Cincinnati, and a consultant for the Shell Oil Company, stated: “Miss Carson is talking about health effect that will take years to answer. In the meantime, we’d have to cut off food to people around the world. These peddlers of fear are going to feed on the famine of the world…”
Carson’s appearances before the congressional committees were among her last in public. In December 1963, she received some national recognition with her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and she also received the National Audubon Society Medal.
Paperback editions of “Silent Spring” sold through the 1960s
By the close of 1963, the more vitriolic attacks on Silent Spring had begun to subside. The book was now available in paperback editions, adding to its circulation. However, in Carson’s personal life she was losing her battle with cancer. On April 14, 1964, less than a year after she had testified before Congress, Rachel Carson died in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was 56 years old. Carson biographer, Linda Lear, has noted one poignant story about Carson in her final days:
…Shortly before her death, Sierra Club director David Brower played host to Carson in California, fulfilling a dream of hers to visit Muir Woods and see the Pacific Ocean. Brower recalls that he took Carson down to the shore at Rodeo Lagoon where he first gave her several handfuls of Pacific beach sand which she examined minutely commenting on the different colored crystals. Then as Brower pushed Carson in her wheelchair around a beach cove they came upon the biggest flock of brown pelicans he had ever seen. The birds had only recently been near extermination. Brower later said it was as if the pelicans were there that day to thank Carson…
Carson’s funeral service was held in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral and among her pallbearers were Stewart Udall, U.S. Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Senator Abraham Ribicoff.
Only weeks before Carson’s death, the U.S. Public Health Service had announced that the periodic huge fish kills on the lower Mississippi River over the previous four years had been traced to toxic ingredients in three kinds of pesticides. The chemicals had drained into the river from neighboring farm lands. Yet even today, more than 50 years after Carson’s warnings, there is still abundant evidence of chemical toxicity in the environment and beyond. In recent years, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia has been tracking chemicals found in human blood and urine. The Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, for example, issued in 2009, measured some 212 chemicals in humans, 75 of which CDC measured for the first time.
Rachel Carson’s Legacy
1961. Rachel Carson at the seashore. Life photo; A. Eisenstaedt.
In 1962, there was no “environmental movement” to speak of – at least not as that term came to be understood in more modern times. There was, of course, and had been since the days of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and others, a conservation movement. And while conservation had its champions and feisty warriors, the primary focus was about conserving and managing natural resources, often for the purpose of sustaining industrial growth, as in sustained timber yields and soil conservation for agriculture. Some of the latter efforts had grown out of the Dust Bowl era and New Deal programs of the 1930s. Another wing of conservationists focused on parks and wildlife, setting aside special places for permanent protection. But building popular concern for an environmental ethic and a broader defense against environmental and ecological threats – that was something quite new. And it was Rachel Carson who helped lay the groundwork for that with Silent Spring.
Although birds and wildlife were a prominent focus in Silent Spring, Carson made clear the connection between what happens in the environment and all of life – all the way to humans. Moreover, Carson was the first to signal, in a popular way, a new kind of pollution, the unseen kind; the chemical toxicity that could infiltrate biology at the cellular and molecular levels, and along with it, bring cumulative and generational harms to birds, fishes and us. Carson’s ecological tableaus showed that “we’re- all-in-this-together;” that the fate of beneficial insects was also our fate. Silent Spring “set the table” as well for a new kind of thinking about the environment, so that soon-to-come major incidents such as the burning of the Cuyohaga River, the Santa Barbara oil spill, and recurring smog alerts would each add weight and galvanizing force to embedding a more permanent environmental ethic in society. And by linking environmental and human health in her story, Carson helped elevate the political standing of environmental issues; she helped popularize and politicize environmentalism.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” helped create the EPA in 1970.
Silent Spring produced tangible results, too. Of the 12 pesticides mentioned in her book eight were eventually banned in the United States – DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin, toxaphene, pentachlorophenal, and benzene hexachloride. Two more remain severely restricted – heptachlor and lindane. And one, parathion, is considered severely hazardous. In the wake of Silent Spring, new environmental organizations were born as well. In 1967 the Environmental Defense Fund took form following the Long Island fight against DDT and soon went national, bringing lawsuits to “establish a citizen’s right to a clean environment.” And not least, in 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed, which not only established the White House level Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), but also required that all major federal actions that could affect the environment first conduct “look-before-you-build” environmental assessments – known as environmental impact statements. By April 1970, the President’s Commission on Executive Reorganization issued a report recommending the establishment of an independent federal agency to deal with environmental matters. A plan for that agency was submitted to Congress in July 1970, and by December that year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. Carson and Silent Spring were not the sole actors in all of this certainly, but they provided a critical and timely push.
Frank Graham’s “Since Silent Spring” was published in 1970.
Numerous honors have since come to Rachel Carson, some beginning a few years following her death. In Maine, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, consisting mostly of coastal salt marsh, was dedicated in 1970. More journalists took up the pen for environmental causes as well, including some already established nature writers such as Frank Graham who didn’t want Carson’s hard work to go for naught. Graham wrote Since Silent Spring in 1970, the first book to bring the story of how and why Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, as well as what had happened in those first eight years after the book’s publication.
In 1972, Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin published The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. In July 1973, CBS rebroadcast its 1962 CBS Reports TV show, “The Silent Spring Of Rachel Carson.” By June 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Rachel Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, inscribed in part: “…she created a tide of environmental consciousness that has not ebbed.” The following year, a Rachel Carson postage stamp was issued in her honor, part of the Great Americans Series.
1981: Rachel Carson stamp.
As for Carson’s book, one year after its release, Silent Spring was published in 15 countries, and would also have an impact on pesticide oversight in those countries. By October 1987, after being in print for 25 years, Silent Spring had sold some 165,000 hardback copies and 1.8 million paperbacks. In 1991, Rachel Carson’s former residence in Silver Spring, Maryland, was named a National Historic Landmark, and today houses the Rachel Carson Council, a pesticide watchdog group.
A number of conservation areas, trails, schools, and landmarks have been named in Carson’s honor – a 650 acre conservation park in Montgomery County, Maryland; a bridge in Pittsburgh; an estuary in North Carolina; an elementary school in Sammamish, Washington; among others.
In 1993, the documentary “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” was produced for the PBS American Experience series, with actress Meryl Streep narrating the voice of Carson. And through the 1990s, several books on Carson appeared, including Linda Lear’s 1997 biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.
DVD cover for 1993 PBS TV special, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” in the American Experience series.
In later editions of Silent Spring, prominent Americans and renowned scientists have added new commentary on the book and its history. Former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, wrote the introduction to the 1994 reissue of Silent Spring, and in 2002, eminent Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Edward O. Wilson, wrote an afterward that included his expert observations on the fire ant problem, noting that Rachel Carson was right about that fiasco.
Silent Spring, meanwhile, may never be out of print, and certainly in e-book form it will likely travel well into the future. Print copies, nonetheless, continue to sell at a rate of about 20,000 or so a year. The book has been included on a number of lists compiling the “100 most influential books of the 20th century,” and Carson has been named to various lists of “most influential people,” including Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.”
In 1993, when PBS ran its American Experience TV show on Rachel Carson, historian David McCollough’s introduction summed up Carson’s impact: “A single book changes history only rarely. There was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed. And then there was Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. . . Rachel Carson changed our lives, changed the way we think about the world and our place in it.”
“The Gentle Storm Center: Calm Appraisal of Silent Spring,” Life, October 12, 1962, pp.105-106.
Ovid A. Martin, “Agriculture Defends Use Of Chemicals,”Washington Post/Times Herald, October 19, 1962, p. A-7.
“Review of Silent Spring,” The Economist (London), October 20,1962, pp. 248-251.
Robert L. Rudd, “The Chemical Countryside: A View of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” Pacific Discovery(California Academy of Sciences), Nov-Dec 1962, pp.10-11.
LaMont C. Cole, “Rachel Carson’s Indictment of the Wide Use of Pesticides” (Silent Spring Book Review), Scientific American, December 1962, pp.172-180.
Jean M. White, “Rachel Carson Hints Industry Filters Facts,”Washington Post / Times Herald, December 6, 1962, p. A-13.
“The Furor Over Pesticides,” Senior Scholastic, December 12, 1962.
Robert C. Toth, “Pesticides Study Found Difficult; U.S. Panel Trying to Assess Chemical Perils to Body, But the Facts Are Few; Poisons Work Subtly; Dangers in Compounds Must Be Scaled Against Their Benefits, Expert Says,” New York Times, December 7, 1962, p. 41.
Clarence Cottam, “A Noisy Reaction to Silent Spring,” Sierra Club Bulletin, January 1963, pp. 4-5,14-15.
John Davy, Weekend Review, “Menace in the Silent Spring,” The Observer (U.K.), February 17, 1963, p. 21.
Val Adams, “2 Sponsors Quit Pesticide Show; Withdraw From TV Report on ‘Silent Spring’ Book,” New York Times, April 3, 1963, p. 95.
Jack Gould, “TV: Controversy Over Pesticide Danger Weighed; ‘C.B.S. Reports’ Gives Both Sides of Dispute ‘Silent Spring’ Author Answers Her Critics,” New York Times, April 4, 1963, p. 95.
The Paley Center for The Media (video), The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson, CBS Reports, 1963 (show is offered in three video segments).
Daniel S. Greenberg, “Pesticides: White House Advisory Body Issues Report Recommending Steps to Reduce Hazard to Public,” Science, May 24, 1963, pp. 878-879.
The White House, “Use of Pesticides,” Report of The President’s Science Advisory Committee, Washington, D.C., May 15, 1963, JFKlibrary.org.
“Pests and Poisons: Rachel Carson Before Senate Investigative Subcommittee,” Newsweek, June 17, 1963, p. 86.
“Biology: The Pest-Ridden Spring,” Time, Friday, July 5, 1963.
Rachel Carson, “Rachel Carson Answers,” Audubon, September 1963, pp. 262-265.
E. Diamond, “The Myth of the ‘Pesticide Menace’,” Saturday Evening Post, September 28, 1963, pp.16, 18.
“Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer; ‘Silent Spring’ Author Was 56,” New York Times, April 15, 1964.
Bruce H. Frisch, “Was Rachel Carson Right?,” Science Digest, August 1964, pp. 39-45.
Frank Graham, Jr., Since Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.
K.S. Davis, “The Deadly Dust: The Unhappy History of DDT,” American Heritage, February 1971, pp. 44-47.
Christian H. Krupke, Renée Priya Prasad, and Carol M. Anelli, “Professional Entomology and the 44 Noisy Years Since Silent Spring,” Part 2: Response to Silent Spring, American Entomologist, Spring 2007, pp. 16-26.
“Rachel Carson,” Bill Moyers Journal, PBS.org, September 2007.
Thalia Assuras, “The Price Of Progress” (video), CBSNews.com, September 19, 2007 ( video on Rachel Carson’s impact, with footage of early spraying and excerpts from 1963 “CBS Reports” show; run time: 9:43).
Frank Graham, Jr., “Nature’s Protector and Provocateur,” Audubon, Sept-Oct 2007.
Peter Matthiessen (ed.), Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson, Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007, 208 pp.