At Portfolio, Prehistory Was Prologue

Now she was going to work for a glossy where news value took a backseat to magazine concepts, packaging, workshopping. Perplexingly, Ms. Lipman often discouraged beat reporting—the underlying product she so successfully packaged and sold to casual readers for the Journal—when she got to Portfolio.

“They were reluctant to ask anyone to pursue a beat,” said one staffer who had been with the magazine before its launch. “Even people with specific backgrounds were discouraged from developing a special area. They kept saying the writers should go with what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about. It sounded good in theory, but you wound up having very fancy writers who were flailing around and spending their time trying to come up with something.”

When Portfolio did manage to break news, or break a perception about business into the mainstream, the magazine seemed incapable of capitalizing on the success.

A piece written by Jesse Eisinger in the April 2007 issue of Portfolio—headlined The $300 Trillion Time Bomb—was really first on the credit-default swap disaster. In the February 2008, John Cassidy profiled a world in which the government had to engage in massive bailout of the big banks.

“Our coverage has been prescient,” said Ms. Lipman. “In terms of the mission of the magazine, it has served us extremely well. What you have here is the right magazine at a very unfortunate time. The timing was bad—the timing in terms of the economy.”

And that wasn’t just a problem for advertising—it became an editorial problem, too. Suddenly the magazine had to chronicle a completely different world, one no prelaunch workshop could have prepared them for, even as the collapse was itself predicted in the pages of Portfolio.

“At first we were all high-end, we were thought leaders,” said a staffer. “Early on, our stories were about the biggest house, the biggest hedge-fund member, or if you can only own one jet, what should you buy? All top luxury brands. Then we had to shift the magazine to: How fucked are we.”

Wouldn’t it be a downer to advertise in a magazine with Bernie Madoff on the cover? Ad pages dropped 60 percent–which readjusted is actually 46 percent after you consider they had one fewer issue—in the quarter and the title (magazine and web site included) lost close to $35 million last year, according to a person familiar with the title’s finances.

Perhaps too much had changed since that lunch at Si Newhouse’s place. Perhaps Condé Nast was no longer the right place for a business magazine—a magazine where banking is sexy and consumption is both topic and selling point.

“I love the magazine,” said Mr. Wallace, the company’s editorial director. “I think Joanne was the exact right editor for it. I’ve said this publicly already. She eventually surrounded herself with a great team. And she made the magazine that we wanted her to make.”

Perhaps that was the problem:  The magazine with the incredible staff and the luxury publisher and the important topic, after laboring for two years to brew the combination, suddenly found itself operating in high-altitude conditions.

“In the end,” Mr. Impoco said, “it was the big engine that couldn’t.”