At Columbia, the Inadvertently Boldface Joanne Lipman Sticks to the Script

Last night, at Columbia’s journalism school, Joanne Lipman said that three years ago she got a call from Si Newhouse. She met with him, had lunch, and loved the conversation so much she would have been perfectly satisfied with her life even if she’d been struck by a truck on her way out the door of his apartment building.

“I remember I showed up at his apartment,” she said. “He opens the door, he’s wearing his New Yorker sweatshirt, he leads me to this table. Very small, no butler service, nothing fancy. We sit down to lunch and he opens the conversation by saying ‘Condé Nast is thinking about starting a business magazine. What do you think?’

“My answer is hell yeah. It wasn’t hell yeah, but I think I said, ‘Oh my God, yes!’ I said not only should Condé Nast start this, but Condé Nast is the only company that should be starting this magazine.”

She went on to explain why the company—given its other publications and its commitment to journalism and photography—is perfectly suited for it.

“So we have a conversation,” she continued, “it goes on for two hours. It’s just this amazing conversation. I have no idea where it’s going, I’ve had no intentions of leaving the Journal, I didn’t even think it was a job interview, it’s just this great conversation. So I left this lunch just walking on air and I remembered standing there and thinking I could be hit by a truck on my way back to the office and I could die happy. I made it back in one piece and by time I got back there was an email waiting for me saying ‘Let’s do it.'”

Ms. Lipman was speaking to a crowd of a few dozen graduate students—to as many open seats as filled. The person sitting next to Media Mob was tapping away at his laptop with some hip-hop bleeding out of his headphones (which was heard by people at least four rows in front of us based on the stern looks headed his way). The two girls sitting behind were gossiping and laughing.

Ms. Lipman briefly touched on the well-publicized controversy Portfolio has faced in its first year by saying: “I have to say I found the attention to really, really be a head-scratcher.”

Condé Nast, she explained, is different because when you run a start-up there you suddenly become a bold-faced name with some “extraordinary, colorful epithets” attached to your name, though her mother in New Jersey finds it all pretty amusing.

She explained the high level of turnover at the magazine thusly: “Some people were hardcore business journalists. And then other people, who were great magazine journalists, had zero business experience. So it was not always a comfortable mix. Not everybody worked out. We took people out of their comfort zones.”

These lectures at Columbia are generally a time for editors to loosen up a bit; but Ms. Lipman was scrupulously on-message. There were two questions—both pretty thoughtful ones that perhaps were designed to provoke—that she dodged. One was whether she would ever accept a glossy magazine job with Rupert Murdoch.

“Someone else got that call and I’ll be watching with interest.” She meant Tina Gaudoin.

What about the $100 million price tag so famously attached to Portfolio? Is that too high, or too low, Ms. Lipman? “Condé Nast is committed to investing in the long term.” At Columbia, the Inadvertently Boldface Joanne Lipman Sticks to the Script