Portfolio Staff Gets a Gag Order on Quiet Launch

032607 article otr1 Portfolio Staff Gets a Gag Order on Quiet LaunchWhat goes into Portfolio’s new business journalism? Mr. New Journalism himself, for starters: “I’d been poking around on the subject of hedge funds,” Tom Wolfe said, “so I agreed to do 2,500 words.”

The hyped-yet-secretive new Condé Nast business magazine is sending its first batch of pages to the printer this week, in order to get the 300-plus-page debut issue onto newsstands by April 24. Editor Joanne Lipman, who came to the startup from The Wall Street Journal in a roar of publicity, has put a gag order into effect—ordering the people assembling Portfolio on the 17th floor of 4 Times Square not to breathe a word about it in the hallways.

“People understand why they want secrecy, but it’s also frustrating,” said a Portfolio staffer. “You have to shut up in the elevators.” And—especially?—the cafeteria.

Speaking of shadowy processes, senior writer Kurt Eichenwald—late of The New York Times—has written a lengthy feature about terrorism for the inaugural issue.

It’s one of five or six chunky (say, 5,000-word) features packed into the long-gestating Portfolio. But then, the first issue will have to keep readers occupied for four more months before issue No. 2 appears.

Mr. Wolfe reported from Greenwich and New York for his piece, which will run outside that crowded feature well—even though he filed long. (“It’s always catastrophic,” Mr. Wolfe said. “I’d guess it’s closer to 25,000.”)

Mr. Wolfe said he was recruited by Portfolio staff writer Alexandra Wolfe. Ms. Wolfe has a front-of-the-book piece in the launch. “It’s kind of like a father-daughter field entry,” Mr. Wolfe said. “It’s like when you have two horses in the same stable.”

For a boxed famous-journalist exacta, the issue also includes work by New York Times writer and best-selling author Michael Lewis, of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball fame.

Mr. Lewis turned down a bid from Ms. Lipman to join Portfolio as a staffer, back when the editor was raiding top publications for talent. That didn’t deter Ms. Lipman from making him one of the established writer-brands contributing to Portfolio’s own equity.

Ms. Lipman declined to be interviewed for this piece. She did grant an interview to the American Journalism Review, for a story that named Mr. Lewis, former Journal writer Roger Lowenstein and The New Yorker’s John Cassidy as contributors.

Mr. Lewis and Mr. Cassidy both wrote one-off columns for the issue. Mr. Cassidy’s is about economics; Mr. Lowenstein wrote a book review.

With more than a year between inception and publication, Ms. Lipman has taken advantage of the magazine-industry practice of over-commissioning. One staffer said there are plenty of pieces that may not fit, despite Ms. Lipman’s best efforts to “avoid breaking hearts.”

On March 12, the magazine sent out an eight-page newsletter, sponsored by Visa’s Signature line of luxury rewards cards, to offer a peek into the project. It included Q&A’s with Ms. Lipman and Washington bureau chief Matt Cooper, a piece looking at “The Power of Infographics” and a timeline of innovations—starting with Leonardo’s helicopter designs in 1452 and concluding with the first film premiere inside Second Life, in 2006.

“We wanted to have something that had a bit of a personality to it,” said David Carey, Portfolio’s publisher and head of Condé Nast’s business group. “There are other novel fun facts. You could go to your cocktail party and say when pinstripes were created.”

(1660, according to the pamphlet.)

Mr. Carey has already overseen the launch of SmartMoney, the relaunch of House & Garden, and the early David Remnick years at The New Yorker. In his publisher’s welcome statement in the newsletter, he printed his business card and urged subscribers to contact him directly.

Three dozen of them have e-mailed him, by his account. Mr. Carey said that he often responded personally within 20 minutes over this past weekend, and that people were “surprised, because they think we’re a monolithic company.”

A creative-services professional wrote to ask if the magazine was hiring, Mr. Carey said, while another person advised him that the magazine should look beyond major cities in its coverage.

And a stockbroker, Mr. Carey said, inquired about buying subscriptions for his clients.

The premiere issue has 95 advertisers, according to Mr. Carey, with 53 of them financial companies. Despite reports of slow ad sales, Mr. Carey said there will be more than 150 ad pages.

Mr. Carey was free to handle subscriber correspondence, because the bulk of the ad-side work was complete.

Things were not so leisurely on the editorial side. On March 16, Ms. Lipman e-mailed the staff to tell them that the St. Patrick’s Day weekend was a “working weekend.” The Condé Nast cafeteria remained closed, but the company paid for food, with most staffers ordering in from a nearby diner.

Even writers who’d filed pieces weeks before had to be on hand to look over the finished pages. The last batch is supposed to be delivered by the end of the month.

Two staffers who were present said that Ms. Lipman didn’t appear at the weekend session till 5 p.m. on Sunday. One of them described the staff as irate.

During the race to the finish, Ms. Lipman phased out editorial meetings, replacing them with sessions with editors of individual sections or features.

In the art department, multiple staffers described friction between Ms. Lipman and a design team that includes magazine-design guru Robert Priest and art director Grace Lee. While this past weekend was the first that writers were asked to come in, the art-department staff has worked several weekends.

Ms. Lipman, with her newspaper background, is “not very visually sophisticated,” one staffer said.

Ms. Lipman, according to this staffer, “changes her mind constantly,” is not allowing Mr. Priest enough leeway, and hasn’t allotted enough time for the design side of the magazine.

Despite the long nights and weekends, there will be no big launch party to blow off steam.

“We kind of kicked it around a little bit,” said Mr. Carey, about the idea of doing a lavish party.

“Renting out some cavernous space and getting Bon Jovi to play didn’t feel right,” Mr. Carey continued. “So we’re not doing that.”

A staffer said that employees expect a small employee get-together after the first issue hits newsstands, similar to the holiday party at the Brandy Library in Tribeca.

A rumor circulated around the office that a large-scale launch party would take place in September.

It’s not the only thing deferred till autumn. When the Web site launches in April, it will be officially kept in beta through the summer, according to a staffer. The monthly publishing schedule doesn’t start till fall as well.

A staffer said that the Portfolio team is practically treating the first issue as a “quasi-beta launch,” regardless of how much scrutiny it receives.

“I imagine that there will be some degree of evolution between the debut issue and when we go monthly,” said another Portfolio staffer. “I imagine that when this issue comes out, they’ll take the feedback and come back with some more focus on what the magazine should be.”

Mr. Carey said that there will be no large party in September, either.

Instead, he said that future events will resemble the Feb. 8 lunch at the Four Seasons, which was held principally for potential advertisers. There, Ms. Lipman interviewed G.E. chief Jeffrey Immelt, a session that was converted into half the magazine’s pre-launch online content.

“We will be doing a series of lunches, cocktail parties and dinners with charter advertisers in key markets—more intimate affairs in nice private spaces,” Mr. Carey wrote in an e-mail. “That felt more appropriate for the brand we’re building—smart, thoughtful, high-road.”