Conde Nast Shutters Portfolio. Why It Failed

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 27, 2009

Conde Nast Portfolio, the very big and glossy bet on a monthly business magazine made by the very big and glossy magazine company touted in its title, was shuttered today. Editor In Chief Joanne Lipman informed staffers of the news at an all-hands meeting hastily called at 9:45 AM. Lipman had been informed of the company’s decision earlier this morning at a meeting with Conde Nast Chairman Samuel I. “Si” Newhouse.

A Conde Nast spokeswoman said essentially the entire 85-person staff of Portfolio and Portfolio.com, including Ms. Lipman and Publisher William Li, will be leaving the company. (UPDATE 5/4: Contrary to what Conde Nast spokespersons said about Li leaving the company, today Li signed on as Associate Publisher of the company’s Conde Nast Traveler.)

In an utterly digital-mad media environment, there was something almost appealingly atavistic about the boldness of the Portfolio launch in the spring of 2007. The company spent big to put out a new monthly magazine, and lured in major talent—poaching Ms. Lipman, to cite but one example, from a top position at the Wall Street Journal. It launched a Web site so ambitious that, as one company insider familiar with the details put it, the cost of launching Portfolio.com alone far exceeded the cost of most print magazine launches. (In October of last year, the company severely scaled back the scope of Portfolio.com and cut the frequency of the magazine from monthly to 10 issues per year.)

The common pricetag placed on Portfolio was "over $100 million." But in a November 2004 interview I conducted (which is locked up behind Ad Age's subscription wall) with Conde Nast CEO Charles O. Townsend, he implied it takes at least $150 million to launch a Conde Nast-styled magazine:

JF: Say I have a check for $25 million and [I] say, ``Start up a magazine.''

Mr. Townsend: (Laughter) First of all, $25 million doesn't begin to prime the pump.

JF: OK. It's four times that.

Mr. Townsend: Make it six times that. If I got a check for six times that, I would start Domino [the shelter magazine launched in 2004 that Conde Nast shuttered earlier this year].

Running a business title had long been a dearly held notion for both Mr. Newhouse and Mr Townsend, who's commonly called "Chuck." They thought there was a hole in Conde Nast's portfolio (sorry) of magazines, which primarily targeted upscale women. They believed that a business magazine--when added to fashion titles GQ and Details and its smaller golf magazines--would significantly bulk up its audience of upscale men. They had pursued Forbes at one juncture, and, when I spoke to Townsend in 2004, the idea of a business title was clearly on his mind. When I asked him what one magazine he would like to buy, he answered "BusinessWeek."

But a neat idea for a monthly magazine doesn't always translate into marketplace success. Portfolio's editorial product was regularly run through the media-on-media spanking machine, but, while inconsistent, it had more to offer readers than it was commonly given credit for. The problem is that neither readers nor advertisers responded. According to it most recent circulation statement, which covers the last six months of 2008, more than 20% of its total circulation of 449,000 came from what's known in the magazine trade as "verified subscriptions." "Verified" circulation involve the cheaper kinds of subscriptions that place magazines in doctor's waiting rooms and in nail salons; it is a circulation form viewed with skepticism (if not outright scorn) by advertisers. Having verified circulation account for 20% of total circulation is an unusually high percentage, even for a new-ish magazine.

While all business magazines--including BusinessWeek--have been hard hit by the recent ad downturn, Portfolio's numbers were by far hurt the worst. In the first quarter of 2009, its ad pages dropped over 60%, on an ad page base that wasn't particularly large to begin with. Conde Nast staffers correctly pointed out that this drop compared two issues on '09 to three in '08--but even adjusting to an apples-to-apples comparison resulted in an over 40% falloff at Portfolio, steeper than any of its competition.

Conde Nast made a classic mistake of spotting a consumer magazine "opportunity" based on advertising and demographic considerations, not actual reader demand. (And judging from the last few years' worth of ad pages at most business titles, there may have been too many of them on newsstands even before Portfolio launched.) It debuted at the end of a business boom, not at the beginning of one. It came at a time when business is a moment-by-moment bloodsport uniquely unsuited to being chronicled by a leisurely monthly frequency.

The shuttering of Portfolio, among other cutbacks at Conde Nast, means that not even a magazine company well-known for keeping struggling titles alive (generally for reasons that are more personally-driven than market-driven) can elude current media realities. Conde Nast's ad pages were especially hard-hit in the first quarter of this year, as consumers slammed purses and wallets shut and avoided the kinds of high-end purveyors that grace its magazines.

The simple calculus of this moment in media is that a magazine with no demonstrated reader or advertising appeal cannot survive. (Don’t laugh. In flusher times, many such magazines lived on for years.) Portfolio came to the game with all the advantages a magazine could hope for—a deep-pocketed owner; a place at the table of a big company that specializes in assembling cross-magazine ad deals; run by a company that values the primacy of the printed page above all else. And it couldn’t make it into its terrible twos. Portfolio ultimately proved that sometimes a great notion turns out to be pretty not-great when exposed to the harsh light of day.

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Reader Comments

Dean Rotbart

April 27, 2009 11:27 AM

Portfolio was a great magazine and web site and will be sorely missed. This spells the end of major new ink and paper publications. Look for many more publication obits in the weeks and months to come.

yoooo

April 27, 2009 12:12 PM

Dumb decision to launch this business before the credit bubble burst. Consumers are tapped out. Subscriptions are often the first item to go when a consumer cuts back on spending. Additionally, ad spending cutbacks probably put the nail in the coffin.

asdf

April 27, 2009 12:16 PM

so many spelling errors...

Tim H

April 27, 2009 12:27 PM

Very unfortunate event for this great magazine. I just received my latest May copy two days ago and now I got this news via newswire. Who will be next? I have BusinessWeek subscription as well. Hope they will continue to delivery through this rough time.

Michael Wool

April 27, 2009 12:39 PM

This is unfortunate news. In an era of scurrilous behavior, Portfolio's forthright reporting and analysis was among the best. Its sad that trashy media thrives and quality productions like Portfolio struggle.

Jim

April 27, 2009 12:41 PM

i will miss portfolio.

asdf

April 27, 2009 12:48 PM

the writing was on the wall considering the quality of writers esp mr salmon Felix

JB

April 27, 2009 12:49 PM

One magazine explaining the demise of another is not great journalism.

Glenn

April 27, 2009 12:49 PM

Der.
Who reads newspapers or magazines anymore?
It's the 21st century, come, join us.
It's called the Internet. Information and opinion on demand.
Why carry a book around with you all day when you can just log in and view what you want when you want it?
Print media is going the way of facial hair. It looks good, but who needs it when you have central heat and air?

Mike G

April 27, 2009 12:50 PM

Incredible. They make this huge investment, lure top talent, construct an amazing web site, and then bail as soon as the going gets rough with this start up. Conde Nasty is Conde Dumb.

stacystyle

April 27, 2009 12:55 PM

Was not Portfolio set up with a shaky business model and perpetuated by egos rather than advertising dollars? The support of Portfolio should have gone to a more viable title—Domino.

Mark Schwartz

April 27, 2009 12:57 PM

I am sorry to see Portfolio go. I enjoyed it enough to subscribe and get the very cool, interestingly aromatic overnight bag. The analysis was refreshing for a business magazine in that it regularly poked holes in the hypocrisy of the free market fetishists

Ken B

April 27, 2009 01:00 PM

"Portfolio came to the game with all the advantages a magazine could hope for..."

All except one: substance. Every time I glanced at the magazine or website, I was appalled at all the fluff.

Steve

April 27, 2009 01:03 PM

And then there were the Former "Men's Vogue" subscribers forced into unwanted subscriptions to this rag.
Where did they get the idea it was a similar readership?
I won't be sorry to see this stop showing up in my mail.

Phil B.

April 27, 2009 01:05 PM

As a subscriber, I am sorry to see it go. It promised a fresh take on business news - and although it flailed as if failed, it provided some thoughtful writing and perspective.

It had an ill timed launch. Don't know it means anything to more established publications under stress.

Stan

April 27, 2009 01:13 PM

Who reads magazines and newspapers?? well let's see those of us who don't want to lug around a laptop to read what's going on in the world.

Broadway

April 27, 2009 01:13 PM

Portfolio was a real good read. Not duplicative if you are already reading Bloomberg, WSJ, etc. (as BW too often is). I think bailing out so quick is shortsighted because I was happier to renew this one than the others. Wonder if the corp just didn't have the liquid capital to keep going, because Portfolio filled an unfilled niche: non-right-wing, non-industry-insider perspective, and a better educated reader than the BW reader.

FWL

April 27, 2009 01:18 PM

It was garbage. Conde Nast is totaly out of touch with its traditional readership. I gave up on them years ago. They sent me Portfolio I guess as a come-on/come-back ploy. No dice.

Harry

April 27, 2009 01:23 PM

Too bad, I really enjoyed Portfolio. Although I never had a subscription, it was a regular acquisition during my travels and will be missed.

Bill Gore

April 27, 2009 01:29 PM

the idea for this tired magazine was flawed from the start and it has NOTHING to do with the economy

JP

April 27, 2009 01:30 PM

I guess if you bash the financial industry, you won't attract them to become advertisers.

Anne Mollegen Smith

April 27, 2009 01:32 PM

Fine's summary on magazine rationale is exactly right. But it's a painful story all the same, from the publisher's wallet to the editors' hearts and the readers' expectations.

Lindley San Francisco

April 27, 2009 01:36 PM

First, I subscribed to Men's Vogue then it went out of business and they switched the balance of my subscription to Conde Nast Portfolio. I liked it so much that I recently renewed Portfolio for one year (I haven't even received the May issue yet). Now they shuttered it! This proves that most publications (if not all) have been in serious trouble all along. They just tried to keep it under wraps. I'll miss Portfolio and do feel sorry for the people who'll lose their jobs.

brainstem

April 27, 2009 01:36 PM

I subscribed to Portfolio the first year and did not renew -- glossy, empty calories -- not worth my time, which was in limited supply -- had one good article an issue as it matured -- but a lot of meaningless graphics and info"facts".

Anon

April 27, 2009 01:38 PM

Broadway, I would add "non-left-wing" too, because BW is so left-wing. I liked Portfolio and will miss it (reading this article made me think it was the web site that may have been a big issue-- as was of course the bad timing. I never went to the web site and hardly knew it existed. Ironically, maybe costs would have been better by sticking to print). It was balanced in having right AND left. I have started calling BW Anti-Business-Week.

Richard Turner

April 27, 2009 01:38 PM

I had hoped they might hire me one day. Despite my differences with Ms. Lipman, I think now more than ever there is a place for long form journalism, well thought out and finely edited. There are fewer places that offer it and we are the worse for it.

Jacob

April 27, 2009 01:49 PM

A "dumbed down" Bloomberg Magazine. I'm sure the folks at BizWeek shed a tear to see it go.

Ray Lopez

April 27, 2009 01:51 PM

cyber books people. c'mon get with the program. ebooks. the kindle. zines. google groups. and why bother reading? you'll hear it on the grapevine soon enuf. nuff said.

SEM

April 27, 2009 01:55 PM

The one biz magazine I most looked forward to. Both entertaining and in-depth. I'd paid for my subscription, too.

chad

April 27, 2009 01:56 PM

I will miss my Portfolio subscription. I think Conde Nast knows more about the future of advertising than we can possibily imagine. Why would they pour $100 million plus and close up shop just 2 years later. Everyone in business knows that it takes at least 5 years to begin to build a viable business. They probably just saved themselves millions in future losses.

Joe

April 27, 2009 01:59 PM

I canceled my subscription after suffering four issues of their left wing propaganda that had almost nothing to do with an actual portfolio. It was like reading the NY Times a month late.

Joe

April 27, 2009 02:03 PM

We need tress, and we don't need the plethora of magazines and newspapers ! What we do need is Internet Magazines. That's the Ticket ! ! The rish should be made to pay an Uber-Premium for their "Magazines"...

Joe

April 27, 2009 02:03 PM

We need press, and we don't need the plethora of magazines and newspapers ! What we do need is Internet Magazines. That's the Ticket ! ! The rish should be made to pay an Uber-Premium for their "Magazines"...

Joe

April 27, 2009 02:05 PM

(Corrected Comment...)
We need trees, and we don't need the plethora of magazines and newspapers ! What we do need is Internet Magazines. That's the Ticket ! ! The rish should be made to pay an Uber-Premium for their "Magazines"...

Charles MacKay

April 27, 2009 02:11 PM

First the towne crier, and now print media - what's next, the demise of buggy whips?

COME ON! Even at the tender age of 54, I get all my reading on my smartphone - now my PCs are starting to collect dust!

Erika

April 27, 2009 02:17 PM

Glenn, there are a good many people who still appreciate the delicacy of pen and ink publications. Just because a portion of the population would rather stare at digital media till their eyes dry up and drop out does not mean that the rest of us would. I, for one, will miss Portfolio and really do hope that no other magazines are forced to follow this route. I will still continue to subscribe to the magazines I like and support them how I can.

WJM

April 27, 2009 02:24 PM

Portfolio was a first class quality publication and will be missed. It is one of the few magazines that I read cover to cover.

German Cordoba

April 27, 2009 02:26 PM

Will I get my money back??? O paid for a year suscription!!

andrew Morganti

April 27, 2009 02:28 PM

too bad. this was my alternative to forbes.

sirreal

April 27, 2009 02:29 PM

Stan,

I don't need to lug a laptop. I read my news on a hand-held. I can also make calls on it, check my voice mails at home and at work, program my DVR, watch movies, place orders, check inventory, do financial analysis, order tickets to the ballet, send gifts, etc., etc., etc. The world is moving forward and the print media is not because they believe in romance instead of reality. Time to wake up and smell the burnt coffee. The message? Adapt or die.

Robt

April 27, 2009 02:40 PM

The angst in this article comes in trying to find out who is more ignorant; those who funded this turkey or Ms Lipman for thinking she is a miracle worker.

I can't imagine being stupid enough to leave the WSJ for anything, much less a frigging business mag. aimed at women during the age of the internet. Hey I have an equally smart idea - a knitting mag aimed at men with a webinar that runs weekly during football season on Sunday afternoons.

I would instantly have doubted Ms Lipman's IQ, business savvy, common sense, and mental stability at the very moment she accepted my offer if I was hiring her.

Oh well, what's a couple hundred million between Ivy League elitist?

vaporland

April 27, 2009 02:43 PM

There is a place for well written journalism. I personally prefer the permanence of print to the web's ephemeral presence. I am amazed at the quality of writing in The New Yorker (another Conde Nast publication) and don't mind paying a premium to receive it in print at home.

The subscription comes with access to the web version, which I've never even looked at.

Remember the "memory hole" in Orwell's "1984"? With the internet, post-revision posting means never having to say you're sorry, or even that you were wrong - it just "disappears"...

tiddle

April 27, 2009 03:00 PM

I have not been impressed by Portfolio. I read its articles on portfolio.com when it first started out, which gave me this distinct feeling of an also-ran of Fortune. (It had the similar titles, even same interviewee list, as Fortune, but none of Fortune's investigative depth to the reporting. How unfortunate.) While I'm one of its supposedly target demographics, I cannot say I enjoy it. I checked it out maybe for its first few months, and never went back. Its closure is just a matter of time.

Dimitri Fresno

April 27, 2009 03:25 PM

Magazines, newspapers later TV channels will be things of past. Monopolies will be broken up, less commercials "brain washing" thanks God for that.

Samuel Kim

April 27, 2009 03:33 PM

My heart goes out to the talented and hard-working staff of this fine magazine. I read most business titles, and Portfolio was hands-down the higest-caliber magazine in its entertainment value, journalism, creativity, and cutting-edge insights and had rare interviews not covered anywhere else. I'm an optimist, but this is a sad day for business journalism.

I wonder if the sudden and complete shut-down was the wisest thing to do.

From corporate/investor perspective, obviously cutting the loss quick was probably in accord with their financials, but keeping the website going with interactivity would have been a potentially great option.

However, this is an opportunity for all aspiring media entrepreneurs to learn lessons from the rubbles and start something like Portfolio. The audience is still here!

Greg

April 27, 2009 03:52 PM

Erika, as the years go by and the younger generation becomes increasingly important, the minority's appreciation for the delicacy of pen and ink publications wont really matter since businesses follow the money and advertisers follow the audience. Lets not forget, right now you are commenting on the digital form of a magazine not worrying about the eye strain.

Julio Garcia

April 27, 2009 03:56 PM

maybe they failed because of the content. I felt the articles were tilted too far to one side of the political spectrum in the vast majority of cases

JT

April 27, 2009 04:00 PM

Ave Portfolio. I really enjoyed its freshness and quality journalism. Thank goodness for Monocle which I'll rely on even more now.

Trevor Butterworth

April 27, 2009 04:18 PM

To the dimwits asking "who reads newspapers and magazines anymore," the answer (at least in terms of newsprint) is fifty million Americans each day. Plus, newspapers are far from dead in other parts of the world. If a phone or PDA is all you need to get your news, news isn't much a commodity for you to begin with, and you're evidently happy with superficial data points instead of information and analysis. Plus, cognitively, you are almost certainly rewiring your brain to the detriment of executive function. Hence, that's why I refer to you as dimwits.

Jimbo

April 27, 2009 04:36 PM

I subscribed because it was cheap and I barely read any of the last six issues I received. There is way too much business content out there including BW, Forbes, Fortune, CNNMoney, Fox Business, CNBC all online so it's hard to even notice Portfolio.

LV

April 27, 2009 05:43 PM

Portfolio was really a quality magazine. It`s really pity.

x man

April 27, 2009 05:46 PM

good riddance. The sarah palin cover did it in

AnAnalyst

April 27, 2009 05:52 PM

If you're someone who doesn't follow the world of business and finance closely, Portfolio was a good read. Otherwise, it was just another business magazine that didn't offer up anything timely or deeply analytical, albeit one with an impressive masthead.

As for the rest of the crowd; I fear their days are numbered. It's not just the dearth of ad pages, it's the content.

Forbes covers the same subjects and companies over and over again, and Fortune is often indistinguishable from Forbes. BusinessWeek - no offense to you Jon - is sort of a joke, offering virtually nothing new in terms of ideas or analysis. The rest of the bunch aren't even worth mentioning, with one notable exception.

Bloomberg Markets is a fantastic magazine that is often ahead of big stories and more often overlooked. More than once I've read about subject in Bloomberg Markets and then read about it months later in another publication.

The key difference between Bloomberg Markets and other business magazines is that the journalists at Bloomberg Magazine are well-versed when it comes to complicated economic and investing ideas. I really can't say the same about journalists at other magazines, many of whom have a hard time fathoming some rather basic concepts such as reading a balance sheet or understanding how short-selling works.

James L Kaufman

April 27, 2009 09:04 PM

Portfolio was a business magazine that I enjoyed immensely; it made reading about business' interesting. I think it's a sad, sad day for journalism & quality publishing as a whole. I will definitely miss getting the issue in the mail. Sigh...

KS

April 27, 2009 09:13 PM

I read print publications if they are substantive, not too biased and high-quality. CN Portfolio had a couple of good articles per issue, a left-wing slant and a lot of high-quality fluff. It was written for a really narrow segment of the population - upscale males - on the assumption that they would be flattered to be told "you are one of us" every time they read it. It was in some ways a running commentary on what's wrong with a certain segment of American society.

EVR

April 27, 2009 10:01 PM

I note Jon Freidman's article on Market Watch suggests that Business Week may be the next business magazine to close down. In my view, Business Week will survive as it offers a seamless and open forum for readers to respond to various business issues without many of the roadblocks present on many other business related web sites.

Jackie Kuehl

April 28, 2009 07:34 AM

I subscribed to Portfolio the first year, but didn't the second. I certainly looked beautiful, but the content was not great. Mostly 'so what'. After the first year I predicted it wouldn't last. I think it was way too expensive a venture and as a marketing professor, I wondered who they were targeting as it wasn't clear. Perhaps trying to be too much to too many.

Michael

August 10, 2009 07:55 AM

For those who liked Portfolio: What other magazine would you recommend? I liked Portfolio for the "light" touch, you could read it from cover to cover and not get tired of too much analysis. In fact, you can not deliver too much up to date analysis if you have 10 issues. So difficult to compare to all those bi-weekly papers.

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The media, entertainment and marketing worlds continue to shapeshift on a near-daily basis, as new forms arise and old assumptions erode. Where is it all going? No one really knows. But on this blog BusinessWeek’s media writers Tom Lowry and Ron Grover promise to provide ample helpings of scoop, provocation, and sharp analysis as they track and annotate this constantly changing terrain.

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