At Portfolio, Prehistory Was Prologue

The appeal of these early dream-versions of Portfolio is rather obvious. Condé Nast gets to penetrate a mostly male ad

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.”

At Portfolio, Prehistory Was Prologue