YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Sidney Harman: Man of all trades

The businessman who recently bought Newsweek and merged it with the Daily Beast founded an audio company, was a federal appointee and served as a college president. He's now putting the finishing touches on a new academy at USC.

December 04, 2010|By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times

In May, Barbara Harman, a retired Wellesley College English professor who runs her family's philanthropic foundation, got a call from her father.

"Do you get the New York Times?" asked Sidney Harman, audio pioneer, arts philanthropist and self-described "trophy husband" of Jane Harman, the Democratic congresswoman from Venice.

Take a look at the business section, Harman told his daughter. A story about potential buyers of financially imperiled Newsweek mentioned Harman as a suitor. That evening, Barbara Harman shot her father an e-mail: "So … is it true?"

"Of course not," he replied. "I'm 92."

"I thought to myself: He is totally interested," said Barbara Harman, "because he never uses age as an excuse."

A few months later, Sidney Harman became the owner of the flailing, indebted American institution, hoping to make it good, maybe even great, again.

In November, after a tango of attorneys, advisors and egos, Harman merged the visually drab Newsweek with the livelier Daily Beast, the 2-year-old online magazine owned by Internet mogul Barry Diller. Harman would be partners with Diller, but more important, he would get the Daily Beast's founder and editor, Tina Brown, to return to print as editor of the new entity, to be unveiled at year's end.

Besides shuttling between Washington and New York for the merger, Harman has been in Los Angeles for meetings at USC, where he is a professor, to put finishing touches on a project he's long desired: an Academy of Polymathic Study. (Polymaths are experts on many subjects.)

Just before Thanksgiving, Harman sat at a desk in his expansive office on the third floor of his modernist concrete-and-glass home on Venice's Oceanfront Walk. A member of his household staff ushered a visitor into a tiny elevator on the ground floor of the art-filled home, where a glass staircase seemed to float in the entry.

Harman's blond-wood office was filled with books, a big flat-screen TV and dozens of photos. Many show him with Jane, just reelected to her ninth term.

"When we first married, someone said to him, 'Have you no sense of mortality?'" said his wife, who is 27 years his junior. His response: "If Janie can't make it, she can't make it."

Aside from his success in industry, Harman has been a top federal appointee, a college president, and an innovator in worker/management relations. According to Jane Harman's disclosure forms, the couple are worth between $150 million and $435 million, making her the second-wealthiest member of Congress.

Despite enormous wealth, Harman operates without the trappings of a cosseted corporate chieftain. He flies commercial. He doesn't have a PR person to fend off reporters. He gives out his cell number and e-mail address.

In his office, Harman, in a pale lilac cashmere sweater and perfectly polished black shoes, was on the phone untangling a merger-related misstep.

Daily Beast president Stephen Colvin, chief executive of Newsweek Daily Beast Co., had apparently jumped the gun when he told the New York Times that would be shuttered, prompting an anguished online response from an anonymous employee. Harman seemed distressed.

The conversation sounded delicate; would he like some privacy? He shook his head.

A few minutes later, Harman pulled up a chair in a sitting area with sleek leather furniture.

"It's a fun time for guys who get paid to be snarky," he said, stung by some of the coverage of the Newsweek deal. "Nobody ever suggested this would be a walk in the park. I never did. But it is damn well worth the effort."

When it was suggested that he had just been dealing with some of the problems that come with splicing an old media icon with a new media upstart, Harman bridled.

"I had frankly thought that a) you could not hear, and b) you would make it your business not to hear," he said. "But I don't mind telling you we are dealing with the entrails of a business of great complexity. I think you ought to treat that in total confidence. It's totally irrelevant."

(Also presumably irrelevant: details from Tina Brown's contract for "equity appreciation rights," which he accidentally pasted into an e-mail and sent to a reporter in response to a question about his family.)

"Sidney doesn't have journalism experience, but he has business experience," said Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive of the Washington Post Co. who admires Harman's business acumen but was surprised when he made the pitch for Newsweek. "I didn't take it terribly seriously because I didn't know how serious his interest was.... Sidney may end up being very good at it."

Harman attorney Robert Barnett said he bought Newsweek because he is public-spirited. "He said publicly he wasn't buying it to make money," Barnett said. "You don't see that much in this world anymore."

Harman technically paid $1 for Newsweek and agreed to put in $25 million in operating capital right away. The Washington Post Co., according to reports, kicked in $20 million more.

Los Angeles Times Articles