Inside Fort Polio: A Former Staffer on What Went Wrong

Paul Smalera, a Portfolio staff writer who was laid off before it shut down today, argues that it was hubris and an obstinate editor — not the economy — that doomed Conde Nast's business mag.


I worked at Portfolio for the first 17 issues of its 21 issue run, first as a fact checker and then as a staff writer. I was there for four months before the debut issue came out—four months characterized by sparse work and ample free food and beverage. After that issue came out, we sat around for another three months as we took the summer off, waiting to start our monthly publishing schedule in September 2007. Well, I'm sure market research, advertiser meetings and focus groups were all being conducted, and we had office supplies to order, but the vast majority of the nearly triple digit staff mostly sat around and waited for September.

I was a computer geek for several long years after college, and though I enjoyed it, it wasn't my calling. So I moved to New York and decided to become a journalist. (For anyone whose jaw drops at my insouciance here, may I remind you, journalism schools were quite laughable for much of this century, and many graduates of them still say their main value was to network and learn the business, not the craft.) After writing some freelance articles and getting a foot in the door at another Condé Nast magazine, I found my way to Portfolio.

Knowing little about the media world, I was suitably impressed with the pedigrees of everyone I worked with. Their resumes were dotted with long-term assignments from Time, The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times and other A-list publications. The most popular being the Wall Street Journal, the former home of editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman and much of her top staff. I never questioned why anyone would leave those places for something new. It's in a writer's ethos to create—who would choose to to keep cranking out story widgets at a dying gray broadsheet over the chance to sketch the lines of a new magazine funded by the glossiest media company in the world?

In the early days, there was a torrent of optimism in the still spacious halls of the 17th floor. But almost from the beginning, there were undercurrents of dissent. From what I knew of media, maybe from what I imagined of media, or saw in the movies, dissent was good, or at least not bad. It helped sharpen the premise and focus of an editorial product, helped those in charge of creating it to beta test it (to borrow a phrase) before it met public scrutiny. Would there ever be scrutiny. But if you have to say one thing about the failure of Lipman to create a successful magazine, it would be that dissent was not brooked by her. Not ever.

First, let me amplify, the magazine was a failure. It was not market conditions or the general economic meltdown that forced Si's hand, it was a failure to create something that people wanted to read. I harbor no personal ill will towards her or anyone I worked with, but Si's best editors-in-chief all have one thing in common, which is they know how to channel and predict the predilections of their readers and turn at least a couple issues a year into can't miss propositions. Lipman, a reporter from middle class suburban New Jersey, like me, who was savvy enough to climb to the top circle of the Wall Street Journal hierarchy, and did a good enough job there to be poached for millions by Si Newhouse, did not have this particular talent.

When others at the magazine tried to inject their talents into the dialogue by questioning the wisdom of certain articles, certain cover choices, word choices, headlines, etc., Lipman was not interested in hearing from them if their ideas about those things differed from hers. Editorial meetings evolved from an initially respectful differing of opinions among equals into contentious, adversarial affairs. When Lipman took any advice at all, it usually came from the top deputies she brought with her from the Journal. Yet despite her tight grip on the magazine's editorial content, there was the obvious scattershot, disconnected mix of stories and covers, and the pendulum swung wildly from issue to issue. Lipman's means of survival and ascension at the Journal soon became clear with firings and departures and freeze outs at Portfolio: they had less to do with editorial acumen and more to do with knowing how to squash revolutions and power plays.

A fine way to run an empire, and clearly a page from the cutthroat world of high finance that every Journal staffer knows intimately. But it was never her empire to run, nor was it really an empire at all. The rulers were ultimately the readers, because readership leads to advertisers. And readers were given short shrift at Portfolio. Fine, they got a bound magazine each month, with elegant covershots of hideous men, pretty and expensive photography inside, and very beautiful design. It looked pretty important, except maybe the one with Dov Charney on the cover. But its beauty was, at its best, skin deep.

When readers opened to the articles in Portfolio, they got a cruel shock. They got stories by the biggest names in the industry, but they got their leftovers. I ask you, if you were Michael Lewis (until his last, best piece for the mag before going to Vanity Fair) or Roger Lowenstein, would you submit your best stories to Portfolio, or to the much bigger and more important Times Magazine? Readers got some articles written by really good writers who could've become A-listers, had their articles not been edited within an inch of their lives and rewritten mercilessly, as if not by magazine editors but rewrite men at the New York Post City Desk. They got some articles chock full of good raw reporting that should've been re-worked into something readable by those same rewrite happy editors. And they got some utter crap, written by hacks that should've never been there to begin with.

As for me, like a lot of the younger writers there, I was never really able to do much damage, or earn much praise. There were easily half a dozen writers under 30 there whose role was to be seen and not heard. Despite our hustling and trying to curry favor with our editors, in the hopes they could sell us to Lipman, we were up against the faceless contract contributors for space, and we — especially me — usually lost that battle.

When I was laid off, I couldn't feel too bad about it right then, because the writing had been on the wall. I surely took the prize for the least output by a salaried staff writer, ever, due to a variety of faults, many my own, some not. (Well there were those legendary New Yorker writers who kept offices for decades after their one and only contribution to the magazine was published, but that's a different era.) But I did feel bad about the past. About watching scads of competent people get frustrated and leave, or get fired, about watching new people come in and quickly find they were expected to butt their heads against a brick wall all day for every original idea they hoped to contribute, and mostly about the promise that was completely unfulfilled thanks to the way the magazine was run. That day, when I polled some of the remaining staff, no one gave the place more than a year to live.

It was an insane idea to launch a print magazine in 2007, one so crazy it just might've worked. We were given everything we needed to succeed— late deadlines, a bottomless (well, maybe not) pile of cash, and a mandate to get the best people in the business on our team. A website that started out wobbly became relevant. Yes, the economy exploded, but Fortune launched in the Great Depression. The economy falling out should've been a new business magazine's Pearl Harbor, not its Waterloo.

It was a peculiar thing to run out the string at a magazine destined for the scrap heap, even if I ultimately got my release before it tanked, as did, of all the deserving people there, most of the ace website staff. It was at that point that I knew Portfolio would go down with Lipman at the helm. Her reign was as tumultuous as, I'm sad to say, Gawker made it sound. You need a certain insulation from things like Gawker, I think, to keep your eye on the ball, especially when we stumbled so badly so early. But Gawker's observation of the spectacle did not create it. I wonder, though, if hubris mixed with defiance may have led the company to prolong Lipman's reign, in hopes of vindication, far past the point of reason. Yet in too many ways to enumerate here, we did not operate in what I fondly call a reality-based environment. In Lipman's meetings, firings were never firings, stories were never bad or ill timed, mistakes were never made. The air had long been sucked out of that room, and few staffers seemed to believe anymore in the mission of the place, despite a collective desire, and I mean this, to do as good a job as they could do, given the circumstances.

Early in my time there, I saw a Deputy Editor I learned from and respected be run out on a rail for his insouciance, his belief that the magazine could be a great thing. I wondered, as those early undercurrents of dissent began to swell, why no one was pointing out the empress had no clothes. Wasn't this journalism, capital J? Didn't it matter when seasoned vets thought we were going about things in a haphazard, disjointed, unfocused and fundamentally wrong way? Yes, but. These were also jobs, capital J. And as is now clear, no one, inside or out, was ever going to save Lipman from herself.

And who knows, as her faltering became apparent, what kind of pressures Lipman faced from her boss, and his boss, and Newhouse himself, that further distorted the title? Essentially, it's hard to take principled stands when you work pretty much at the beneficence of a billionaire. And if you're wondering what's wrong with journalism these days, that's pretty much it.

Paul Smalera is a freelance writer at work on a book.

If you're a former Portfolio staffer and you'd like to give your take, we'll print it here. Just email me.