A New Portfolio: With Print in General and Business Publications in Particular Facing Stiff Challenges, Magazine Giant Conde Nast Launches a Business Monthly. Portfolio Is Banking on Heavily Reported Narrative Journalism and Sophisticated Design to Prevail in a Competitive Media Landscape
Farhi, Paul, American Journalism Review
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 Conde Nast is preparing to launch a ... monthly business magazine. Nearly two years in the making, Conde 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 Conde Nast rarely does anything on the cheap, the $100 million figure could stand a little more context. Portfolio's publisher, David Carey, acknowledges that Conde 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 Conde Nast; Blaise Zerega, the managing editor at Conde 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. Conde 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. …