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The only surprise in Portfolio’s closing Monday was that it took as long as it did. Chatter predicting the death of the magazine, launched in 2007 after a 20-month incubation period, began not long after the first issue appeared in April 2007. And from the moment editor in chief Joanne Lipman and publisher William Li broke the news to their staffs on Monday (with Lipman getting a round of applause from hers at the urging of deputy editor Kyle Pope), the postmortems were swift and often downright vicious.
Lipman is leaving the company, and a spokeswoman said, “While we try and place people if we can, so far there is no placement identified for William Li.” The Web site will also be shuttered sometime during the second quarter. Details of severance packages for the roughly 85 employees were not revealed.
This story first appeared in the April 28, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The reasons for the closure were evident: while bullish when the planned title was unveiled in 2005 — and despite its being one of Condé Nast’s most expensive launches ever — Portfolio had pinned its business model on the sectors most bruised by the economy. As group president David Carey, who launched the title, pointed out, they were financial services, business-to-business branding, business travel, luxury goods and automotive. The title’s ad pages were down 60 percent in the first quarter, 40 percent when adjusting for reduced frequency. In October, when the company (which also owns WWD) nearly gave up on the title, Carey managed to strike an 11th hour deal by cutting costs with 10 issues a year and layoffs. Meanwhile, he has steadily grown his stable of magazines away from a day-to-day involvement with Portfolio to include oversight of the golf titles, The New Yorker, Wired and Condé Nast Traveler.
Both Carey and editorial director Tom Wallace told WWD the controversial Lipman had retained the company’s confidence until the end. “Maybe the bloggers sent fewer valentines to us than elsewhere, but everyone was very pleased with the magazine’s editorial,” said Carey. And Wallace said, “Joanne Lipman was the right editor. She garnered the respect of her staff, its readers and of the handful of advertisers in Portfolio.” Portfolio won a National Magazine Award last year for its front-of-the-book section. Lipman herself said the magazine’s short life was “nothing but a great experience for everybody.”
Many current and former staffers disagreed, often publicly and on the record. (Paul Smalera, a staff writer laid off last fall, took to Gawker: “It was not market conditions or the general economic meltdown that forced [Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr.]’s hand, it was a failure to create something that people wanted to read,” he wrote.) Much of the first round of hires, a mix of Wall Street Journal veterans like Lipman and names designed to draw buzz, visibly turned over in the first year of the magazine, voluntarily or otherwise. Around then, some Portfolio staffers compiled a running list of Lipman’s “greatest hits,” noting incidents and comments that painted her as out-of-touch, stubborn or capricious.
Longtime Condé Nast watchers note the company has not fired an editor in chief since GQ’s Art Cooper in 2003; editors of problematic magazines have instead left with the closure of the title. One insider said that by the time the company considered replacing Lipman, the economy was too dismal to imagine it would do any good.
In the past year, though, things quieted, and while the magazine remained a favorite whipping boy for featuring cover subjects like Dov Charney and Sarah Palin, fewer people cared when the carnage in the media world was so widespread. The triumphalism of the financial boom, as well as the luxury goods consumption that went with it, had rapidly disappeared. All of the magazines launched to reach those hedge fund guys — Doubledown Media properties like Trader Monthly; Best Life, and, at Condé Nast, Men’s Vogue, where Portfolio’s Li was first publisher — didn’t last either. And while the introduction of Portfolio was decidedly out-of-sector for the fashion/travel/food/design focused Condé Nast, the magazine’s struggles were far from an anomaly — business titles as a category remain more troubled than ever. Fortune’s ad pages have fallen 38 percent to 358, while Forbes is down 18.8 percent in advertising year-to-date, to 596 ad pages, and BusinessWeek is down 38 percent to 384 ad pages.
As James Ledbetter argued on “The Big Money,” the Slate business site he edits, print business titles face fundamental challenges that even narrative and glossy photography can’t cure. And indeed, Portfolio’s demise was first confirmed on its own Web site by its media blogger, Jeff Bercovici, who was told by his editor to post it. Around that time, rumors had already surfaced on blogs like Business Insider and Dow Jones’ All Things D. “Still,” said Bercovici, “I got the Drudge link.”