NEW YORK People have been writing Conde Nast Portfolio’s obit even before its costly launch in the spring of 2007.
The title, staffed by a who’s who of writers with former Wall Street Journal editor Joanne Lipman at the helm as editor, once promised to revolutionize the business category by presenting business coverage in an engaging, Vanity Fair-esque style.
But critics were skeptical from the start of the concept of a magazine that could combine business and lifestyle and in doing so attract a male-female audience and appeal to business and non-business advertisers alike. Its nontraditional concept cover choices also drew criticism. With the faltering economy that’s particularly hard on new launches, the question on many people’s minds became not if but when Portfolio would go under.
Now, those critics are being proven right, as the company today pulled the plug on the magazine and its Web site. The signs were adding up: the title achieved a circulation of 449,005 in the second half of 2008, per the Audit Bureau of Circulations, but 91,493 of those copies were free, public-place distribution, and newsstand sell-through was 15.5 percent, which is particularly low for the industry.
Last fall, the company scaled back Portfolio’s monthly frequency to 10 times in 2009, reducing its costs by 17 percent and cutting the staff by 20 percent. This year through its May issue, ad pages plummeted 59 percent to 119 versus the same period last year (when the title published one more issue), per the Mediaweek Monitor. By comparison, the business/personal finance category declined 32 percent.
The May issue will be the last and the Web site will close sometime in the second quarter, a company spokeswoman said. More than 85 people who worked on both entities will leave the company, including Lipman and William Li, the publisher. “The revenue projections needed to continue the publication did not exist at this time,” the rep said. “The challenges facing this launch proved to be too great.”
“For this high-profile, 21-issue launch, the recession has helped and hurt the brand,” David Carey, group president at Conde Nast with responsibility for Portfolio, wrote in an e-mail to Mediaweek.
“While the unprecedented nature of these times has made business and the economy the main topic of conversation, it has also led to high levels of uncertainty and a tremendous reduction in ad spend in the five key sectors Portfolio’s business model depends on,” Carey said.
Carey said in an interview that the challenged economy was a double-edged sword in that it generated consumer interest in the topics covered inside, as evidenced by subscription performance, but the downturn also struck deeply at the magazine’s key ad categories, including automotive, financial and travel.
“Some of those categories will lag, even when the economy is recovering,” he said. “Ultimately, especially for a new product, we needed a robust ad market.”
As for the harsh media spotlight that often shone on the magazine, Carey said that the net effect was probably positive, given the exposure it gave the publication. “Everyone knew of Portfolio,” he said.
While some publishers have kept the Web sites of defunct print magazines going, Carey said that approach wasn’t seriously considered. “We believe in an integrated model,” he said.
Scott Daly, executive vp and executive media director at Dentsu America and an early supporter of Portfolio, said the magazine just didn’t live up to its promise. “The concept sounded good — a deep dive supplemented with online,” he said. “As a business executive, you’re looking for context. But I would see a lot more interesting business articles in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. While Portfolio had some success, I just didn’t think they did it on a consistent basis.”
Daly added that Portfolio’s demise isn’t necessarily good news for surviving business titles, either. Mainstay business magazines are suffering as readers’ interests turn to politics and core advertisers increasingly look to the Web and non-business publications like The Atlantic and The Week to connect with audiences. “It’s not a no-brainer that you’ll be [advertising] in business publications,” he said.