'Portfolio' Website Struggling In Beta Until Fall

Portfolio's website has mostly avoided the intense scrutiny that the Condé Nast magazine itself has sustained. True, it's still in Beta. (But so is Google Mail, and it's been around for ages!) We wondered whether the website would prove to be fulfilling the magazine's purported mandate of "serious business journalism."

The website's tagline is "Breaking Business News and Opinion, Executive Profiles and Careers." So what did they break today? There's a piece about Hugo Chavez forcing oil companies out of Venezuela; a much longer and thoughtful piece ran on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today. There's a perfunctory (330 words) update about the Rupert Murdoch-Dow Jones takeover. There's an article about business spending that essentially summarizes a Bloomberg article about the same thing, and another about the Bear Stearns hedge fund bailout that's also a takeaway from a Bloomberg piece. Their fifth lead story is about the pricing plans for the iPhone, with zero analysis or new insight—just a list of prices and features. There's nothing terrible really. None of these are must-reads, or unique stories that the average business executive hasn't already read when he picks up his WSJ in the morning.

Also on the front page today is a story about art market hedge funds, including The Art Trading Fund, which isn't that dissimilar from that outfit's mention in the Economist last month.

And as the magazine spends the next month closing its second issue, are any of the staff writers going to have stories for the web? Not likely. It's like a more serious version of the Radar effect: The more stressful the magazine closing, the less content there is on the website.

Okay. So the Breaking Business News is a wash. How about those much-vaunted bloggers? Well, a couple of them are doing some decent stuff. Veteran technology writer Kevin Maney, who used to write a tech blog on USAToday.com, has a serviceable general-interest technology blog, but it's a far cry from anything you can find on, say, Wired.com. Felix Salmon seems to be updating his Market Movers finance blog the most out of any of the Portfolio bloggers, and it's probably the best one on there. Matt Cooper's politics blog is, surprisingly, mostly a snore, and Lauren Goldstein Crowe's fashion blog suffers in comparison to the others out there. Or to reading Lucky.

What should be a huge red flag, though, is that almost none of the posts—on any of the blogs—are getting comments. Are the bloggers writing into a void? Each post has a big orange link to "Start the Conversation" at the bottom, but no one seems to be taking them up on the offer.

Salmon didn't seem particularly troubled by this when we spoke to him yesterday. "I absolutely don't worry about that," he said. "The way I'm looking at it at the moment is that if people feel like they have something to add to what I'm saying, then leave a comment." Blog posts, Salmon said, are not edited, and bloggers have freedom to write about whatever they want.

Most of Condé Nast's magazine's websites fall under the umbrella of the company's online division, CondéNet—to the growing displeasure of some magazine staffers, who resent the control CondéNet has over their magazines' sites. But Portfolio's website is an experiment: It's managed by Portfolio, and not by CondéNet. Still, the print magazine and the website have little crossover; insiders say that magazine editor Joanne Lipman is almost entirely hands-off, leaving the operation of the website to managing editor Chris Jones, who was a reporter and editor at Wired and Yahoo before coming over to Portfolio.

"The magazine had months of people sitting around and working on it," Salmon told us. "With the website, they were basically hiring people at launch. It was all very last-minute." Hence, beta! Of course, that's a slightly odd state of affairs; the original announcement about the launch of the magazine, in August 2005, included the information that there would be a website that Lipman and publisher David Carey would be developing.

The website still has some kinks—in addition to the uneven content—to work out. "The site will be cleaned up," a source at the magazine told us. "Right now it's hard to find some stuff." There are also little things that make us think that no one's minding the store; the five articles on the Most Emailed Stories list were all published at the beginning of May, which raises two questions: Is that feature broken? Or is no one reading the site? (Also, letting Portfolio contributor Deborah Schoeneman pimp Hampton Style, which she's editing, on the site is pretty tacky.)

According to Portfolio spokeswoman Perri Dorset, the website will be moved out of beta in September, when the second issue of the magazine comes out, and at that time several new features (she declined to say what they were) would also be rolled out.

The website's advertising structure mimics the print magazine's; according to Dorset, the website sold 10 packages "for this first beta testing" period, from April to September, and advertising for the fall is being sold now. "People are very interested," she said.

Traffic information would not be available until September, Dorset said. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the website did not hit Nielsen's reporting threshold of 360,000 unique visitors in May. By comparison, neither did business-related websites like Dealbreaker.com and TraderDaily.com. More established sites include Forbes.com, which pulled in over 6.4 million uniques in May, while BusinessWeek Online had just over 2.3 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.