No one paying attention to the media was surprised that Portfolio magazine was shut down Monday by Conde Nast. The monthly business magazine was losing money.
As David Carey, Condé Nast’s group president and publishing director, told the New York Times, the five main categories of advertising that kept Portfolio afloat — financial services, business-to-business, automotive, travel and luxury goods — are all sinking at the moment.
Portfolio’s media blogger, Jeff Bercovici, wrote about the news in a short and to-the-point post: "Our editor in chief, Joanne Lipman, just broke the news to staff, saying the decision had been made ‘because of financial reasons at Advance,’ Condé Nast’s parent company. ‘It’s not anything that the company wanted to do.’"
In the magazine’s two years in existence, it never managed to quell the complaints that a monthly magazine offering "deep reads" about and for the business community was off target in today’s minute-by-minute, digital-speed world.
If anything, though, those "deep reads" too often didn’t go deep enough, despite a masthead packed with talented writers and editors. Portfolio always read to me like a newspaper person’s idea of a magazine, with too much jaunty attitude, too little context, and not enough of the flavor of actual, lived life that a good magazine should give you.
Portfolio had energy and verve, but it rarely seemed to be trying to shape your thinking on a subject.
Felix Salmon — who broke through as a blogger at Portfolio before jumping to Reuters just a few months ago — points out another problem with the magazine’s approach to features:
"Insofar as I had a problem with the Portfolio approach to magazine journalism, it wasn’t with the emphasis on narrative, so much as it was with the emphasis on conflict. There was a strong desire for every story to have a protagonist and an antagonist and to be able to boil things down into two opposing camps, when finance is of course generally much more subtle and complicated than that.
"Financial journalism should try hard not to oversimplify matters, especially when you have the luxury, as Portfolio did, of long lead times and lots of space."
Lipman, who made her name at the Wall Street Journal, seemed out of touch with these kinds of subtleties, which are in the end what separates an editor like, say, my former boss, the New York Observer’s soon-to-depart Peter Kaplan, from the heap. As Kaplan once explained it to me, "It helps if people are pissed off." But the conflict itself can’t be the entire point of a story.
Lipman told the New York Times, “I’m tremendously proud of the magazine and the talented people who worked here,” she said. “We were ahead of the financial crisis, we broke news, and the staff has done exactly what we set out to do.”
Broke news? That’s what the web is for now.
And so the only puzzling aspect of the decision to kill Portfolio is that the website — which produced a few must-reads, like Bercovici and Salmon, and was a timely and polished presence in the web business space — must go down, too.