NEW YORK — Any new business venture — from manufacturing couture gowns to baking cupcakes — will have a rocky road at the start, and Condé Nast Portfolio’s first year was no different.
The much-hyped business magazine with a reported $100 million investment and an all-star roster of editors and writers landed with a thud on newsstands last spring. But the launch hasn’t been without its share of turmoil — high-level defections, a tepidly received first issue, anemic sell-through on the stands over the last seven months, internal bickering and, of course, criticism of the woman at the top. Face it, editor in chief Joanne Lipman is the new piñata of publishing, with barely a day going by without some swipe at her in the media press or blogs. Gawker.com, for example, has taken to calling the magazine “Fort Polio.”
“I think people get blinded by the fact that it’s a Condé Nast publication, and they have to be critical of the magazine and the amount of money they’re spending, instead of looking at the content of the magazine,” said Samir Husni, aka Mr. Magazine, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi who recently named the title one of his 30 most notable launches of last year.
“Any person who would have stepped into the job as an editor challenging a group of aging legacy titles would have found themselves under immense scrutiny,” said David Carey, the launch publisher of Portfolio (which, like WWD, is owned by Condé Nast Publications) who is now group president, publishing director.
But as its May issue, marking a year in publication, hits newsstands, Lipman remains confident about the progress made so far. “I’m pleased with the way we’re going,” she told WWD. “With every issue you see more of the personality of the magazine coming through. Portfolio itself is hard-hitting and counterintuitive, the reporting is in depth and it has a voice.”
Executives on the 11th floor of Condé Nast appear to agree, praising both Lipman and the magazine. “We love her,” said editorial director Tom Wallace. “She’s an ingenious editor and a capable manager. She’s produced a magazine that’s engaged her audience and won the respect of the industry it covers and the respect of its peers.” To wit, Portfolio’s Briefs section was recognized this year by the American Society of Magazine Editors. “It was nominated for a National Magazine Award…that ain’t nothing,” Wallace said proudly.
He also argued that the amount of early tumult at Portfolio was on par with that of any launch. “In Condé Nast Traveler’s first year, the entire design staff turned over and the executive editor left,” said Wallace, who eventually became editor in chief of the title. “I came in January 1989 and soon after I got here, the managing editor and the features editor left. And then there were more changes.”
Even then, said Wallace, “I don’t remember anybody saying Sir Harry Evans [Traveler’s then editor in chief] was a weak manager or a poor judge of talent.”
Lipman herself talks about Portfolio as if she’s oblivious to the chatter. First there were the reports about the constant turnover when Lipman’s early hires defected, including deputy editor Jim Impoco. That began the countdown to when Lipman would be replaced (with one blogger suggesting Condé Nast replace Lipman with former Vanity Fair editor in chief Tina Brown). Then came the talk that the magazine’s newsstand sales were soft — low even for a start-up that has yet to find a core audience. Reports speculated the magazine was losing $5 million a month.
But the pace of departures has since slowed. As for circulation, official numbers won’t be available until the summer, but internal sources say newsstand sales are around 30,000 per issue, with a sell-through in the high teens. Wallace denied the $5 million figure, saying it was too high. As for the people who are counting the days until Lipman’s dismissal, Wallace responded: “I hope they can count to a very high number.”
Lipman dismisses reports of turmoil at the magazine as “noise.”
“You have two phases in your launches. One where every single thing you do is brand new. That settles into an operating organization. We really have been up and operating with really excellent systems with the right group of people that have fun together and have excellent ideas. That has been true since the fall,” Lipman said. Those staffers have included new managing editor Jacob Lewis, who joined from The New Yorker, and Dan Golden, senior editor, who joined from The Wall Street Journal.
Since the magazine has operated on a regular monthly schedule, the staff has seen fewer late nights and last-minute decisions. Also helpful was the recent decision by Lipman and the top editors to sketch out story ideas for the rest of the year, which makes planning future issues smoother. “We were working issue to issue for the first few issues. Now we’re working on three at a time,” said senior editor Kyle Pope. “It really clicked about a month ago, where we thought if we had to do this today, what would be the story lineup through the end of the year. We have the biggest backlog now than we’ve ever had.”
But over the next year, there’s still some work to do. For one, many observers remain skeptical of Portfolio’s premise as a monthly magazine, questioning its immediacy among business Web sites and weekly publications. Fortune publishes biweekly, Business Week and the Economist are weeklies and Yahoo Finance and cnnmoney.com are 24/7, up-to-the-second news sources. Lipman argues there is a need for an analytical approach to the economy in a long-form outlet.
“The whole news cycle has sped up,” said Lipman. “And for real-time news on the Internet, that’s great. For print, what we lost as a reader were the deeply reported pieces that gave you some perspective, that took the incremental news stories from the day and put them together.” Couple that with a cutback in resources to financial reporting and the increased intersection in business and culture, and you have more outlets reporting more headlines of business news as opposed to in-depth reports.
“The business publications with their reduced staffing, their increased demands on the staffers and the pressure of filing constantly and never being able to dig deep — what that meant was nobody was connecting the dots with the business community and the impact at large.”
Lipman argues that Portfolio fills that void. But it still has to establish the brand recognition of most of its competitors — which is another goal over the next 12 months.
“My goal is to raise our profile in the rest of the business community,” Lipman said.
To help orchestrate more face time between Lipman and top executives, the magazine brought on events director Courtney Dolan. “We’ll have a series of lunches and coffees where we’re meeting ceo’s,” said Lipman. “I’m getting out more. In the first year of a launch I worked close to the ground. Now we have a great bench.”
And it isn’t as if Lipman has been oblivious to the criticisms — especially of the magazine’s covers. While prelaunch the hype was that Portfolio would marry in-depth reporting with beautiful photography, the conceptual covers have left many scratching their heads. The May issue, out Monday, will be the first to have an identifiable personality on the cover, to illustrate its “Brilliant” package (Hannah Montana was considered for the cover, but was not chosen). Another addition is a new back-page column called Exit Interview, where a prominent executive leaving his or her job will give pithy details on their tenure. EBay’s Meg Whitman will be the inaugural subject.
Though speculation continues to rage over Portfolio’s future, higher ups at Condé say the magazine is meeting expectations. “We’re extremely pleased with Portfolio,” said Wallace. “It is all or more than what we hoped it to be and the same is true of our Web site. The newsstand sales and subscription growth are right where we want them to be, the ad side is tracking to solid growth and the size and performance of the Web site are way beyond what we expected.”
Portfolio plans to raise its rate base again in the fall from 350,000. Advertising has grown to 226 pages so far this year, including ads from new clients Mercedes-Benz, Dolce & Gabbana, Walt Disney Corp. and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts (travel is one of Portfolio’s fastest-growing categories). Comparatively, Fortune’s ad pages have fallen 15 percent to 428 pages, and BusinessWeek’s have fallen 24 percent to 430 ad pages through March 31, according to Media Industry Newsletter. And its Web site, overseen by Dan Colarusso, has seen traffic increase to 3 million unique page views a month.
Outsiders agree that Portfolio is on the right path. George Janson, managing partner, director of print for media buying agency Mediaedge:cia, said, “The magazine is still finding its way editorially. I think they’ve had some covers that have missed, like the hamburger [February’s cover], but I think they’ve had some very superb writing. The big challenge would seem to be attracting a subscriber base. I would love for this magazine to succeed — it would be good for the industry.”
Looking back at the title’s first year, Portfolio’s growing pains weren’t as difficult compared with another launch Lipman oversaw at The Wall Street Journal, where she spent 22 years before joining Condé Nast. The 2002 redesign of the entire paper and the introduction of the Personal Journal section was under way when the 9/11 terrorist attacks destroyed the Journal’s offices across the street from the World Trade Center. Months of work was lost in the damaged offices, and the staff was displaced to South Brunswick, N.J. The Personal Journal, Lipman said, “was conceived in coffee shops on the Upper West Side.” Soon after that launch, Lipman found out she had breast cancer, and underwent simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation treatments. At that time, WSJ. managing editor Paul Steiger gave Lipman another project: exploring a new Saturday edition for the paper.
So in comparison, all the hubbub — good and bad — around Portfolio’s launch has been a breeze. “Breast cancer was a total surprise,” said Lipman. “The scrutiny that we have experienced in the last year was not a total surprise because it’s Condé Nast, so there’s a little bit more preparation.”