Money Mags Quietly Mull ‘Business World’s 9/11′

otr1 1 Money Mags Quietly Mull Business Worlds 9/11What did Dov Charney do in the financial crisis?

Readers of the November issue of Portfolio, Condé Nast’s lavishly produced business monthly, might well ask the question of their magazine’s cover star this month.

Of course, there wasn’t much time between the dark day when Lehman Brothers went all Cloverfield on American finance and the printer’s deadline for the magazine’s November issue.

But at Portfolio, as at most business magazines, it seems, the mood is less newsroom frenzy than quiet contemplation. And meetings.

“We’ve had more meetings,” said the magazine’s editor, Joanne Lipman. “And one of the things we did is we made a list of every writer we had and what stories they’re working on, and asked how their pieces are relevant, and has the landscape changed in a way to reshape their stories.”

The world that they’re covering is convulsing and you’d imagine that all hell is breaking loose on the 17th floor at 4 Times Square, but …

“It is a benefit to be a monthly,” Ms. Lipman said. “It’s been a major benefit—what we’re always trying to do is look ahead and we’re always thinking thematically, and that’s why we’ve been able to be ahead on the crisis. We’re not caught up in yesterday’s headlines and we’re thinking about what the impact is going forward.”

Operating between the screaming financial pundits on the two-headed cable-financial-news dragon of CNBC and Fox Business Network, who have to correct themselves on the Dow mid-sentence all day long, and the cool daily dispatches coming out of The Times, the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, it would seem time for the business magazine to step up and tell us what’s actually going to happen.

It’s probably a question whether the business magazines—which have for some time now only had to race for “gets” among CEOs who would agree to sit for smug, arms-crossed portraits, to be printed next to “how’d he do that?” Genius Profiles—have the metabolism to do that, especially on lead times stretching to weeks, in some cases.

But can anybody tell us what’s going to happen?

Two weeks after Lehman Brothers went under, a blown-up picture of Henry Paulson’s face, looking not so smug, was plastered across the cover of the biweekly Fortune with the cover line: “Paulson to the Rescue.” On Oct. 23, an image of former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg in sunglasses took the cover, weeks after AIG went down.

Fast work? Not so much. Mostly luck.

“We had those sticks in the fire already, which was great,” said Andy Serwer, the managing editor of Fortune. “That was something in the works for a while and it fell into place perfectly.”

Their most recent cover, on GE, was another feature story that was on their sked for months, and was reshaped just so that it could be used in the crisis as well.

Because, after all, weren’t all of the events that have happened since Sept. 15 somewhat … predictable?

Inside that Dov Charney issue of Portfolio, three stories in fact focused directly on the crisis. Two were columnist entries; but a third, on JPMorgan, had been assigned long before Lehman Brothers fell.

“We’re in a weird situation as a monthly—how much do you devote to this? And to this story?” said a Portfolio source. “People have other things on their mind, too, you know. It’s a question of balance.”

“There’s not a sense of urgency,” said another Portfolio staffer. “There’s no rip-up-the-magazine, all-hands-on-deck atmosphere.”

And what would it serve them, after all? Can the magazine commit to a broad analysis so soon into the crisis, when not everyone even agrees whether we’ve hit bottom yet?

Maybe in the next issue! Michael Lewis, the current superstar Portfolio contributor, is preparing a piece to run in the magazine’s December issue on Wall Street. The piece was assigned months ago as well, but now there’s time to make it really stand up and work for the magazine. Because once it’s finished, one of the country’s most important long-form financial journalists is packing his bags and moving upstairs to Vanity Fair.

At Fortune, Mr. Serwer said that he’s kept a news slot open in the magazine.

“It is the business world’s 9/11,” he said. “Nine-eleven was such a big story that there was nothing else going on. The first issue we didn’t write about anything else, in the next issue 95 percent about 9/11, and in the next issue 68 percent 9/11. And the same thing is happening here.”

When a Fortune writer was asked whether there was a breaking-news mentality around the magazine’s office, the staffer said: “What are you going to do? Run around and shriek? There’s not a sense of a pervasive crisis.”

“When you leave New York, it’s different—things feel more dire here,” said Mr. Serwer. “I was traveling in Arkansas, Texas and California, and a lot of people are concerned, but they are not concerned to the degree we are.”

Other features, generally tied in with long-committed ad agreements, have continued to run. In its Hank Greenberg issue, Fortune included its “Most Powerful Women” feature. In its Charney issue, Portfolio included a top 50 list of the world’s most generous billionaires. On Sept. 17, Forbes released its Forbes 400 issue of the world’s richest people. Certainly not a “Sept. 11” mentality.

And Forbes, a biweekly, is now at newsstands with a cover portrait of a man in a hard hat, which is a tie-in to their annual feature on the 200 Best Small Companies.

“If you look at the cover—it combines the elements of the best small-business review and a look at the economy and looks where we’re going,” said Bill Baldwin, Forbes’ editor.

He said the magazine’s next issue, which will hit newsstands on Oct. 24, will focus primarily on the crisis, including a six-page essay by Steve Forbes that he predicts will take off.

More so than the others, and probably by virtue of its format, BusinessWeek has been responding week to week with its cover stories.

“We’re not fundamentally a long-form feature magazine,” said Steve Adler, the editor of BusinessWeek. “We’re like a newsroom where we’ve scrambled everybody. We cover businesses and beats all over the world.”

jkoblin@observer.com