Portfolio, 2007-2009

Conde Nast, Manhattan's most lavish magazine publisher, was once able to subsidize expensive and monumental magazine launches with newspaper profits. But now the last of its kind, Portfolio, is dead.

Just last week, Portolio's publisher was assuring media reporters that if they didn't think the magazine was doing well, they weren't looking at the big picture. Wrong. Portfolio's April issue was the smallest magazine Conde Nast had ever published. Conde's magazine division had a uniformly bad first quarter, and Portfolio was among the worst performers.

These sort of losses were once tolerated — see Vanity Fair and The New Yorker — in print journalism's Valhalla. Privately held, Newhouse Newspapers doesn't release its financial figures, but like every other newspaper publisher it must surely be suffering and now there are signs of a cash crunch at Conde. Company president David Carey finally acknowledged the direness of the situation: "I thought we had until the end of the year," Carey said, "but it was hard for us to imagine the shape of a recovery that would put us on the path" to meet ad page numbers. "The gap between where we are today and our expectations for 18 months was too large."

Conde Nast committed an estimated $100 million to launch Portfolio, which was a big deal.
It's highly likely we'll never see another glossy magazine launch of its size again. It was the last gasp of the "Spare No Expense" model. The magazine hired the best business writers in the country, and paid them huge salaries (for relatively little output). It aimed to be the New Yorker of business, and the plan—as far as you could tell—was to bust its way into the territory of Fortune, Forbes, and Businessweek through sheer glossiness.

It never really worked. Portfolio's editor, WSJ veteran Joanne Lipman, never inspired much love amongst her staffers. By the time the second issue came out, she'd already fired her second-in-command. Other disgruntled staffers started leaving soon after. Ad pages declined immediately after the launch, and kept on declining. Lipman's editorial judgment was questionable at best.

A year ago, it was perfectly clear that Portfolio was in trouble, and that Lipman was not doing a great job. Despite widespread speculation that she'd get canned, Conde Nast's overlord, Si Newhouse, supported her to the end.

Last October, the magazine laid off 20% of its staff and cut back to ten issues per year. That was the beginning of the end. Its terrible first quarter was the middle of the end. The question was always: how long was Si Newhouse willing to subsidize a huge, money-sucking magazine investment? Historically, Conde Nast been willing to do it for decades for prestige titles. But Portfolio was a terribly timed launch—especially in retrospect—and that, along with spotty execution, killed them.

Two years. That's what $100 million gets you these days. Portfolio had plenty of great writers, and its bloggers, like Jeff Bercovici and (the recently departed) Felix Salmon were worthwhile right up to the end. But Conde Nast, it seems, is not fucking around any more.