Media: Why Portfolio Magazine Failed

After a too-brief two-year run, Portfolio, Condé Nast's business magazine, has closed. (For the ultimate metacoverage, read Portfolio media blogger Jeff Bercovici.)

So, what went wrong at Portfolio? I mean: What went wrong aside from the worst magazine advertising climate in a few generations?

Four things.

First, while Portfolio was supposed to be a thoroughly modern magazine, complete with jazzy Web site, there was something retro about it. Portfolio was modeled after Vanity Fair, which resurged to prominence under Tina Brown in the 1980s. And Portfolio's launch indeed felt more 1987 than 2007. It hired '80s iconic financial writer Tom Wolfe to write the cover story for the inaugural May 2007 issue. (I wasn't crazy about Wolfe's hedge-fund piece.) Portfolio seemed to operate on the presumption that the application of capital and the hiring of boldface names could instantly establish a thriving media brand in a crowded and fractured marketplace. It spent huge sums of money, a reported $100 million. In an age when the blogosphere is increasingly creating media stars, Portfolio was old school. It went out and talked to every established business writer (including this one) and paid a premium to hire the ones it thought worth it (not this one), starting a mini-arms race for financial columnists and feature writers, which was great while it lasted.

Second, Portfolio was too Condé Nast for its own good. Portfolio didn't have the attitude of a hungry startup, which it was. Instead, it rolled like an established Condé Nast property, such as stablemates The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, Condé Nast Traveler, et al. Portfolio was plagued by the same chronic over-assigning of articles, the same overstaffing, the same vicious internal politics, and the same long lead times that define Condé Nast's monthlies. Instead of flying coach like our scrappy sister site The Big Money, Portfolio went first-class: the most expensive writers, photographers, and paper, as well as car services, first-class travel, and expense accounts. In the spring of 2007, a Portfolio editor called me to arrange a lunch at … the Royalton, which was the Condé Nast canteen before there was a Condé Nast canteen. (Oh, and he was booked solid for lunch for the month.) That type of spending doesn't make the difference between survival and death. But it doesn't make it easier.

Third, Portfolio's attitude toward the Web was somewhat retro. In 2007, a person launching a magazine for the long haul had to recognize that over the next five to eight years, the Internet would be a huge part of the business and that within 10 years it might provide the lion's share of revenues. That's simply where the eyeballs and ad dollars are going. Portfolio had a stable of bloggers, many of them quite good, including Felix Salmon. But the magazine was clearly the show. It regarded the Web the way many magazines did in the 1990s—and some still do today—as a stepchild, a consolation prize. A piece isn't quite good enough to make the final cut for October? Just put it on the Web. But given what was going on—the furious pace of change, the global financial meltdown, the quick reaction time of the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and a gazillion bloggers—Portfolio needed to make as many waves on the web as it did at Michael's.

Finally, while Portfolio mimicked the free-spending habits of its neighbors at 4 Times Square, it didn't tap into another resource that should have been at its disposal: Condé Nast's resident editorial talent. Before Portfolio existed, one could have assembled an excellent business magazine from coverage by other Condé Nast properties. Vanity Fair has plenty of good business material—see Bethany MacLean on the Fortress Group or Seth Mnookin on Bloomberg. Felix Salmon's recent piece in Wired was as good an explication of the origins of the Wall Street mess as any. The New Yorker has several good business writers, and Gourmet publishes excellent work on the food business. Why didn't any of those articles also appear in Portfolio? It may sound heretical, but in an era when most great magazines articles are available for free on the Internet, why not share some content? Or use some of the extra reporting for one magazine for a tweaked version in a different magazine? Readers wouldn't notice. And it would have saved a lot of money and editorial effort.