It turned out to be a dreary, rainy day back in 2005 when Joanne Lipman, the superstar editor from The Wall Street Journal, made her way to answer a summons to lunch at Si Newhouse’s apartment on the East Side of Manhattan.
A personal invitation from the venerable chairman of Condé Nast was unheard of in Ms. Lipman’s world; she was excited.
When she got to his apartment, which is within spitting distance of the United Nations, he answered the door and she was struck by his total lack of pretension: he was wearing a tattered green New Yorker sweatshirt. The apartment was not an Architectural Digest showpiece (though it had a dramatic view of the United Nations building). No servant presented the lunch. Mr. Newhouse simply led her to the dining-room table where they sat down to eat.
Mr. Newhouse started immediately.
“Condé Nast is thinking about starting a business magazine,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Oh my God, yes!” she blurted out in response. “Not only should Condé Nast start this, but Condé Nast is the only company that should be starting this magazine.”
They spent the next two hours talking about a business magazine and what Condé Nast could do. Beautiful photos. Smart stories. A well-paid staff.
She wasn’t offered a job, and she had no immediate intention of leaving the Journal, but when she got out onto the street, she was walking on air. Trying to hail a cab in the rain, she thought to herself, I could be hit by a truck right now and I would die happy.
The conversation meant that much to her. After all, she just had the rapt attention of Si Newhouse—that inscrutable, mysterious, press-shy leader of Condé Nast. She had met him once years before, when she scored an interview with the famously reclusive press baron.
Even in 2005, she barely knew a soul at 4 Times Square—or for that matter, outside of the sometimes almost cultish confines of the Journal. Her resume could have been rendered in a stipple portrait.
She had dreamed since teenhood of an internship at the Journal. Not knowing much about business then was not a barrier to this fantasy: she loved writing, and whenever her father left an extra copy of the Journal laying around, she was awed by the writing in the front-page stories.
She scored that internship, as a Yale undergraduate, and then got a reporting job there. From a daily column she jumped to the position of Page One editor, and she was involved in the creation of two special sections for the Journal: Weekend Journal and Personal Journal.
She rose so fast that when the year 2007 started to loom—the year managing editor Paul Steiger would reach his mandatory retirement age of 65—her name was often spoken of in connection with his job.
It wasn’t to be, though, because when she got back to her office in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan, an email from Si was waiting for her.
“Let’s do it,” it read.
The magazine that resulted from that lunchtime chat closed its doors on Monday, April 27, some four years after that lunch at Mr. Newhouse’s, or two years after the first issue of Portfolio, as the magazine was called, printed its first issue.
After 22 years at the Journal, and nearly four years with Condé Nast, Ms. Lipman has found herself not only without a title to edit, but fully without a job. She no longer works for Mr. Newhouse. The story Ms. Lipman told about a dozen staffers on Monday was that the magazine folded because the economy it was built to cover collapsed.
And that’s true, but it isn’t the whole story.
WEEKS AFTER MS. LIPMAN WAS HIRED by Condé Nast in 2005, David Carr wrote in The New York Times about Condé’s new project and said, “Given that the company hired Joanne Lipman, the Wall Street Journal’s innovator in chief who helped conceptualize its Personal Journal and Weekend Journal sections, it will be a smart package, if nothing else.”
“Who could resist a chance to take part in the Last Great Magazine Launch?” asked Jim Impoco, who served as Ms. Lipman’s No. 2 editor until he was fired in August of 2007. “It was a chance to work with tremendous talent. Working with Robert Priest was like taking a graduate course in magazine art direction.”
Early mock-ups of the magazine’s cover obtained by the Observer, made over a year before its launch, displayed the perfect abstract representation of an unbeatable business magazine.
There: an intimate portrait of Rupert and Wendi Murdoch in a deep embrace—Rupert is wearing a black turtleneck, Wendi in a white sweater, the East River churning behind them in the background.
“Murdoch She Wrote” reads the coverline across the bottom of eight different cover designs with eight different titles. Then: “NEWS CORP. CEO’S WIFE HAS BIG PLANS FOR HIS COMPANY—AND THEY DON’T INCLUDE HIS KIDS.”
Wow. Seduction! Sex! Succession! Scandal!
What other imaginary headlines made up the unconscious dream of Portfolio?
“Gucci Gulps: Turmoil at The Fashion House.” “Fast Times at Morgan Stanley: Inside the Sex Harassment Scandal.” “Ipod Killer: Cell Phones Bite Apple.” “Terror Inc.: Corporate America’s Secret Ties to the CIA.” “Private Jets, For the Rest of Us.”
Names being tried out on this cover treatment included SCOOP, with the two O’s blacked out to resemble nothing so much as a pair of boobs like the ones in the posters for the movie Amarcord; Advance (Hi, Si!); currency (note punctuation!); the file (once again!); liQuid (OK!); The File; and SPARK.
The make-believe stories were the perfect intersection of business with everything else, as Ms. Lipman liked to say. That is, business was never enough of a topic on its own for a story.
So how could it hold together a magazine?
The appeal of these early dream-versions of Portfolio is rather obvious. Condé Nast gets to penetrate a mostly male ad market with a magazine that could sometimes look like a woman’s magazine.
But even quite close to the launch, some insiders saw signs of trouble.
During a first interview with Ms. Lipman and a group of editors before the launch, one staffer was trying to get a sense of the magazine.
“None of them could clearly explain what the magazine would be. They just said ‘It’ll be really good, it’ll do what the other magazines don’t do. It’ll be Vanity Fair meets Fortune.’ But none of them had a clear idea or had an inspiring answer. I kept pressing them for a piece in another magazine that ran that they’d like to run and none of them had a good example.
When I asked what would be in the first issue, they were incredibly reticent.”
At the beginning it seemed to have a strange if untested sort of appeal.
Tina Brown, the former queen of Condé Nast (and someone familiar with losing one’s magazine), wrote her Portfolio counterspin on the Daily Beast that she was disappointed to see Si Newhouse close down the magazine: “I think I was one of the few media snobs who liked the first Portfolio cover, an arty photograph of the New York skyline by Scott Peterman,” she wrote. “Even though experience told me it was not the kind of cover that would exactly leap off the newsstand, it showed vitality and sophistication. Love it or hate it, at least it wasn’t the usual portrait of some spruced-up suit peering over a high-concept prop that tends to be the solution of choice in publications aimed at the boys’ club sector.”
But Ms. Brown’s assessment was rare: Ms. Lipman seldom caught a break for her work on Portfolio. As the magazine was launching, and Mr. Newhouse was lavishing money on her and her staff, bloggers stacked up the books beneath Ms. Lipman so her fall would be that much more dramatic to depict.
In fact, inside Condé Nast, a lot of Portfolio‘s apologists blame the demise of the magazine on Internet schadenfreude, a sure sign that their faith in the magazine’s robustness was never very real to begin with.
Once the magazine was launched, its personality lurched in different directions. At first, only conceptual covers could be used. Then that was scrapped and the majority of the magazine’s cover stars were CEO’s in power poses: Tim Geithner, Sumner Redstone … Dov Charney?
Almost to a person, editors, writers and other staffers who worked with Ms. Lipman on the magazine, instead of rallying around her in her final days and toasting her ambitious and ultimately failed project, blamed many of the magazine’s failures on her. Over and over, they cited a lack of vision for the magazine, the lack of a coherent sense of what the thing was as a whole.
“Joanne was never interested in ideas,” said Nancy Hass, who was hired to write the text of the prototype and who later signed a contract (that was eventually dropped) and who is married to Bob Roe, an editor who was fired from the magazine. “She would say things like, ‘Let’s do charticles!’ She wanted lots of those. That’s what she thought was an idea.”
“My criticism is that she didn’t have a strong vision,” said a current staffer. “She might have had a vision, but she didn’t have the courage of her conviction to carry it out. She was always buffeted by the last person she talked to.”
“You’ll hear from one corner of the world it didn’t work out as an editorial product,” said David Carey, a group president at Condé Nast who used to be the magazine’s publisher. “All of our evidence and data and from what we hear say the opposite.”
“The vision of the magazine has been consistent since day one,” Ms. Lipman said. “In fact, since the first meeting I had with Si, we set out to create a magazine with first-class narrative journalism that’s smart, substantive and has some sex appeal. Our DNA all along has been to be counter-intuitive.”
LAST YEAR, MS. LIPMAN WAS DESCRIBING HER halcyon Journal days to an audience at Columbia University.
“So Joe White is this brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive reporter in Detroit,” she was saying at a lecture, where she also first publicly described her luncheon with Mr. Newhouse. “I said, ‘Joe, what does your brother-in-law want to know?’ And he said, ‘My phone rings every day and everyone has the same question: My kid turned 17 and just got his license and I want to buy him a crappy used car, but I want to make sure it’s safe.’ And I said, ‘Fantastic! Write about it.’ And he did.”
“Similarly, Alexandra Peers, who covered art from a financial perspective, said ‘Everyone calls me and says ‘I want to start collecting art, but I have a really tight budget.’ And I said, ‘Fantastic, write about it.’ And those stories were the germ for what became Weekend Journal.”
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.”