A New Portfolio
With print in general and business publications in particular facing stiff challenges, magazine giant Condé Nast launches a business monthly. Portfolio is banking on heavily reported narrative journalism and sophisticated design to prevail in a competitive media landscape.
By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (email@example.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.
It seems like the most counterintuitive (not to say craziest) media venture of the decade. At a time when print is fading, when business magazines are struggling, when monthly frequency seems glacial in an age of digital speed, magazine giant Condé Nast is preparing to launch a...monthly business magazine. Nearly two years in the making, Condé Nast Portfolio will hit newsstands with its first issue in days. Its very existence seems to raise a defiant question: Can top-shelf narrative journalism, plus posh photography and design, overcome the forces arrayed against it?
Portfolio has been the buzz of New York's gossipy media and advertising circles for months, despite, or maybe because of, the secrecy surrounding it. The magazine's staff has guarded the first issue's contents as if it were an unannounced corporate takeover offer. The semiofficial line is that Portfolio will be a kind of hybrid of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair (both, like Portfolio, part of S.I. Newhouse's privately held print empire). In other words, Portfolio will be exhaustively reported, literary and slick-–a business magazine for people who don't like to read business magazines.
For $100 million, would you expect anything less? That's the bankroll supposedly behind Portfolio's editorial staff of about 70 (the number will eventually grow to about 90), and the kind of heart-quickening figure that has helped stoke all the buzz. While Condé Nast rarely does anything on the cheap, the $100 million figure could stand a little more context. Portfolio's publisher, David Carey, acknowledges that Condé Nast may indeed spend that much to promote and sustain the magazine and its Web site (www.portfolio.com), but over the course of six years. Still enough to buy fine things, but more like a Lexus than a Maserati. So far, the money has purchased a first-class editorial roster. The first--and most important–-hire was Editor-in-Chief Joanne Lipman, formerly one of the Wall Street Journal's rising stars. Since leaving the Journal in October 2005, Lipman has gone up and down Broadway, cherry-picking talent. Her first draft choice came from inside Condé Nast; Blaise Zerega, the managing editor at Condé Nast-owned Wired, became Lipman's No. 2. Then came two deputies: Jim Impoco, formerly editor of the New York Times' Sunday Business section, and Amy Stevens, who had edited the Journal's lifestyle-oriented Weekend Journal section. Another Journal vet, Ken Wells, is a senior editor.
The writing staff includes a trio of veterans from Fortune magazine: Betsy Morris, Dan Roth and Katrina Brooker. The other big-name writers are former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald and Matthew Cooper, late of Time magazine, who will be Portfolio's man in Washington. The list of contributors has such glittering names as author Michael Lewis ("Moneyball," "Liar's Poker"), The New Yorker's John Cassidy and ex-Journal writer Roger Lowenstein.
A strong start, but now what?
Almost everyone agrees the answer depends largely on how Lipman, 45, shapes the magazine. Condé Nast is known for employing editors with distinctive signatures, such as David Remnick at The New Yorker, Anna Wintour at Vogue and Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. The difference in this case is that Lipman isn't inheriting a title with a long editorial history and unique voice. She won't be tweaking the magazine's tone; she'll be creating it.
Lipman says there's "a big white space" in the business field for a magazine that is in-depth, investigative and lavishly illustrated. It's a niche, she says, that isn't filled by the category's Big Three-–Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek-–or by smaller competitors such as Smart Money, Business 2.0, The Economist or Inc. "We'll be different than any of the other magazines out there," she promises. "There's no reason to go in and say, 'We're going to be just like magazine X but better.' That's not a reason to do a magazine. The reason is, the approach we're taking, the way that we look at a business story and the way we define what a business story is.
"We're not here to try and kill someone else," she adds. "We're here because we're true believers that there is a new way to look at business coverage and there's room in the marketplace to do that."
Lipman presides over Portfolio from a corner office in the Condé Nast building at the foot of Times Square. She moved into Condé Nast's intimidatingly elegant midtown offices after spending 22 years, her entire professional career, at the downtown Journal. Her new environs are all cool surfaces and modern trappings that instantly put a visitor in mind of Runway magazine, the barely fictionalized version of Condé Nast's Vogue in "The Devil Wears Prada." Downstairs, there's Condé Nast's famous Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria. Outside, there's blinking neon and mobs of tourists. Lipman herself wears an elegantly tailored dark suit and calf-high boots on this early February afternoon. She's friendly, but a little distracted; she's just returned from the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and she's in danger of falling behind as launch day looms.
A longtime newspaper rat, Lipman, 45, fell in love with the Journal and business journalism as a teenager. She'd read the paper during bus rides into Manhattan from her home in New Jersey with her father, an executive of a manufacturing company. As a junior at Yale, she landed an internship at the paper ("It was my goal in life," she says), and was hired immediately after graduation.
After launching the Journal's first advertising column in 1989 and pregnant with her second child, she was close to burnout when Paul Steiger, now the paper's top editor, suggested she join the Journal's elite page-one editing staff. Lipman emerged as one of the bright lights of that group and was handed a series of ambitious projects: the launches of Weekend Journal in 1998 and Personal Journal in 2002, the paper's redesign that year and the start of its Saturday edition in 2005. Indeed, the paper's transformation over the past decade was largely overseen by Lipman.
The success of each undertaking moved Lipman a little higher up the short list to succeed Steiger, who will retire this year. It also made her one of New York's most courted editors. "You couldn't walk into Michael's [a noted New York media haunt] without seeing her having lunch" with a rival publisher, says a longtime Journal colleague. Condé Nast won her over not only by giving her control of her own magazine but also a salary that reportedly exceeds that of her mentor, Steiger.
In many ways, she recognizes, it's a dream job. "There's a wonderful feeling when you can sit in a room and do this blue-sky thinking, [asking] 'Who would be the best writer for this particular story?' And you can throw out any name and know that you can approach that person and know you have the ability to do that," Lipman says. "That's a great thing about Condé Nast. You get the resources that are necessary."
The larger questions, however, are why this magazine, and why now? Portfolio's launch comes during a period of real heartburn for the major business titles. Fortune-–whose editorial approach is probably closest to Portfolio's-–saw its ad revenue shrink 4 percent last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau, and parent Time Warner has instituted a series of morale-sapping layoffs throughout its magazine division (see "Finding A Niche"). The trend since the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the September 11 terrorist attacks is even more chastening. Between 2002 and 2006, BusinessWeek lost 18 percent of its ad pages. Advertising at Fortune and Forbes is off 14 percent and 3 percent respectively during this same period.
This makes some observers skeptical about Portfolio's prospects. "Is there a market for it? I'm not sure anyone knows," says Adam Penenberg, a journalism professor at New York University (and a contributor to Portfolio competitor Fast Company). "They've hired great people, but just because you have an all-star team it doesn't mean you're going to be successful." It's conceivable, he says, that Portfolio could have "a Katie Couric experience"-–its first few issues will attract a lot of excitement, which will translate into curious readers and eager advertisers. But as the buzz dies down, the magazine could slump with it.
Another question mark: Penenberg says Lipman's background in newspapers makes her "in some ways a curious choice to lead a new magazine. Does she have a magazine vision or not? I don't know the answer to that."
Magazine guru Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi, finds the Portfolio launch "intriguing" because the magazine is "going back to what print does best-–narrative journalism that deepens the story and photography that makes you say 'wow.'" He uses this analogy: "There are plenty of places these days where you can get a piece of chicken. What you can't find everywhere is a five-course meal."
Husni notes that "people say this is the wrong time to start a magazine. The economy isn't good [for magazines], and everything is moving online. Well, Fortune was started in 1930, in the middle of the Depression. It cost $1 an issue, which was a huge sum. So, from a historical point of view, some of the best magazines have been launched in tough times. The beauty of Condé Nast is that they can afford to put this into practice."
The impetus for Condé Nast's business magazine was, in fact, business. Despite a well-rounded stable of magazines, the heart of Condé Nast's money machine is its two fashion titles, Vogue and Glamour. Both have overwhelmingly female readership and a base of advertisers that are primarily in the fashion and beauty-product businesses. Vanity Fair, another hugely profitable title, and The New Yorker also have strong female audiences. Business magazines attract men. Ergo, Condé Nast is counting on Portfolio to expand the number and kind of advertisers that the company attracts. (Publisher Carey says Portfolio is seeking about 60 percent male readership.)
The company also has relatively modest goals. Portfolio's first issue will guarantee advertisers a circulation base of 300,000, about a third that of the Big Three. In five years, it is aiming to sell 650,000 monthly copies, still about two-thirds the size of the big boys. Of course, Portfolio doesn't have to take over the market; it just has to get a piece of it. And the market is large. Even with their recent declines, Forbes, Fortune and BusinessWeek still ring up a total of about $950 million in annual ad revenues.
Lipman and Carey argue that publishing monthly will enhance rather than diminish the magazine's appeal to readers and advertisers (Portfolio will go monthly in September, following a four-month hiatus and shakedown after its April 24 debut). They offer an intriguing theory to explain why: At a time when the flow of information is accelerating, contemplation and deliberation are becoming more valuable, not less.
"Newspapers are on a faster cycle because the news that they used to break tomorrow is now being broken instantaneously," Lipman says. "So the newspapers are working faster to keep up with the Internet. And weekly and biweekly magazines"-–that would be the Big Three--"are working faster to keep up with the newspapers. The news cycle has been sped up to such an extent that we felt there was an opportunity to step back and survey the landscape and put everything in context, to spend the time on reporting that both goes in-depth on stories that might be treated as triage in other publications, and to think about the big stories of our time... It's not counterintuitive, it's complementary to what's happening in the rest of the news cycle."
Lipman is gracious about the competition. Not so some of her colleagues, who can't help engaging in some trash talk. Carey, for instance, says the other business magazines "try to inform their readers. They have all those charts and tables-–a hundred of this and 200 of that. And in some ways it's kind of interesting, but by the time you've read the fifth edition, it's all about the same. People are looking for something that doesn't kind of feel like homework. They don't always want to just eat peas and carrots. We don't want to just inform an audience, we want to captivate them. That's why a monthly is better."
Adds Eichenwald, "Business journalism doesn't have to be boring."
Portfolio's journalists say they hope to break news, but it's more likely to be the kind that comes from prolonged reporting rather than daily news flashes (Portfolio will have a Web site for that). Zerega, the managing editor, says some stories will be the product of a year's worth of reporting, a luxury few news organizations can afford. He describes a magazine that in important ways will be like his last one, Wired. Just as Wired views technology through a cultural prism, he says, Portfolio will apply a similar filter to business. "There's almost no story that can't be a Portfolio story," he says. "Every story at some level, quite frankly, is a business story.... Balzac said, 'Behind every fortune lies a crime.' Well, let's tell that story. Let's capture that drama."
That is the editorial philosophy that several of Portfolio's writers say attracted them to the magazine (it didn't hurt either that Condé Nast paid top dollar, well into six figures, for its stars). "I've got to be honest. I had my doubts," says Eichenwald, who spent 20 years at the New York Times. "I was afraid I'd come over to Portfolio and they'd say, 'Let's do a story on the new technology on General Motors' assembly line.' At which point I'd be running back to the Times."
Instead, he says, "they started talking about a vision for a business publication that closely aligns with my own." For example, Eichenwald says he was recently listening to a report on National Public Radio about the spread of AIDS in China's Hunan province. The story noted that Chinese health workers were using blood obtained from an underground market where peasants were secretly paid for their blood, resulting in rampant transmission of the virus. At Portfolio, Eichenwald says he might conceptualize the story this way: " 'Let's look at the global blood-brokering business.' That's a lot different than writing about the next challenge for Ford."
As the magazine's Washington correspondent, Matt Cooper says he hopes to avoid "lobbyist adoration," which he says occurs frequently in business coverage of the capital. "I think the business press gets wowed by these guys in Brioni suits," he says. "A lot of it is not as magical as it appears." Cooper, who was a central figure in the Valerie Plame/ "Scooter" Libby leak investigation while he was at Time, says he considered writing a story for Portfolio about how former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner became rich in the cell-phone business. He dropped the idea when Warner took himself out of the 2008 presidential race. But the approach, he says, might yield more insight into Warner than a traditional angle like, "What does Mark Warner mean for business?"
Eichenwald argues that many business magazines "have limited their scopes far too much. Far too often, they've defined the story as, 'What's the best investment to make?' When you make that the be-all and end-all, you automatically exclude huge portions of potential readers. What always bothered me about some business reporting is that too many [financial journalists] saw their jobs as holding up a mirror to business and saying, 'Take a look at yourself.' But it's still just showing them themselves."
Eichenwald recognizes that Portfolio will have to perform its own balancing act, appealing simultaneously to core business readers and to readers who are less committed to the subject. "The problem with too many publications is that they write to one target audience," he says. "If my local sports section wrote just for me, who doesn't care about sports, they'd lose sports fans, and for good reason. But if you balance it, if you broaden it to tell me about the people and the personalities and drama behind the games and the scores, you're not going to lose anyone."
Back in his office off Times Square, Blaise Zerega uses an illustration to demonstrate what Condé Nast hopes Portfolio will be-–and what it's hoping not to be. He spreads the latest issues of BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, The Economist and Business 2.0 across his desk. Then he lays a mock-up of Portfolio next to them. Portfolio's logo is distinctive and curly, softer than the competition's hard block type. The cover is a sepia-toned rendering of a cityscape, looking outward from a low angle across a dense field of rooftops. It looks more New Yorker than Fortune. More important, it looks nothing like the other business magazines.
"You don't have to be a white male in a blue suit behind a desk to read a business magazine," Zerega says. "If you have a job, a business, a 401(k), an IRA, a mortgage, a college fund, some investments, you're a businessperson, and there's a new business magazine for you. It's that simple."
At least that's the idea. It may even be a big one.