article

04.27.09

The Quake at Condé Nast

The closing of Condé Nast’s smart business glossy Portfolio is a terrible loss for the media business. But saddest of all is the unprecedented sight of the magazine world’s last big believer, Si Newhouse, throwing in the towel.

Portfolio, Condé Nast’s business magazine, got the ax today. This is terrible news. It’s not just that the cratering ad market has claimed another victim. Condé Nast chairman Si Newhouse had been admirably supportive of Portfolio for the last two years. The fact that he elected to close it, as suddenly as he folded Domino, Men’s Vogue, and the men’s fashion trade mag DNR suggests a worrying element of panic engulfing the steadfast publisher I worked for so comfortably for 17 years at Tatler, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker.

Si Newhouse had a strong hand in the idea for Portfolio’s inception and wanted it to succeed. It was to be expected that not all the other well-coiffed 800-pound gorillas at the publisher’s upscale monthlies would be happy about Lipman’s status as Si’s new favorite.

You certainly can’t say that media commentators encouraged Newhouse to give Portfolio more time. Press coverage of the two-year-old magazine was relentlessly snotty. No one eats their young (or themselves) more hungrily than journalists.

It always baffled me why so many on the sidelines rooted so eagerly for Portfolio to fail. Its editor, Joanne Lipman, who was already a star at The Wall Street Journal, came out of the launch gate in April 2007 with a self-assured, smart competitor in the suit segment of boring business books. She ran some first-class narrative journalism such as Lloyd Grove on Sumner Redstone as King Lear and “ Boomtown, Iraq” by Denis Johnson and reinvented Michael Lewis as the most influential commentator on the current economic meltdown. I remember being especially impressed by Robert Priest’s art direction. When I was flailing around at the start of Talk magazine six years before, it took me about 10 issues to get layouts that looked as crisp as the ones in Portfolio’s first issue. 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. 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.

And yet rumors about Portfolio’s being “troubled” plagued Lipman from the outset. Every petty little hiccup that beset its launch was magnified as an index of its chronic malfunction. Some of the malice, no doubt, was spread from inside Condé Nast itself. The court of the Sun King is a rats’ nest of competing favorites who jostle for the 81-year-old supremo’s attention. Si Newhouse had a strong hand in the idea for Portfolio’s inception and wanted it to succeed. It was to be expected that not all the other well-coiffed 800-pound gorillas at the publisher’s upscale monthlies would be happy about Lipman’s status as Si’s new favorite.

Some of the unpleasantness was just the usual destructive hostility to process from blogosphere critics that now seems to accompany anything new. Everyone knows that it takes time to get something right, yet the inevitable trial and error of doing so is accompanied by a such a snarkfest of leaks and jeers that it distracts the staff, frightens off new contributors, and panics skittish advertisers.

Lipman shouldn't have too hard a time getting another job. She is an accomplished business journalist with a lot of fans. And most of her big-ticket writers will wind up with book deals or other Condé Nast writing gigs. But for a lot of the talented galley slaves who polished and sculpted and fact-checked and researched and copy-edited Portfolio and made it a slick and solid piece of work, it’s going to be a tough summer.

That’s sad. What’s even sadder is the unprecedented sight of the magazine world’s last big believer, Si Newhouse, exhibiting what looks like signs of throwing in the towel.

To own magazines or newspapers (or movie studios for that matter), you have to love what you own with almost impractical passion. Such passion was shyly evident in the owner of The Atlantic magazine, David Bradley, in a piece by Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post. The story discussed Bradley’s coveted off-the-record dinners with top Washington players like Tim Geithner and Rahm Emanuel. The dinners, it is clear, play no real business or journalistic purpose. Bradley started them, he admitted to Kurtz, “for the romance.” Owning magazines has always been the sexiest calling card in pursuit of a more interesting social life.

Si, to his credit, never much liked going out, but he’s always loved the vicarious thrill brought to him by entering his magazines’ worlds. That, as much as commercial success, was always the prime return on his investment. It was his passion for the smarter, edgier, more adventurous glossies like Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler (founded by my husband), The New Yorker—and, dare I say it, Portfolio and Domino—that kept him patient for profit.

But that was then and this is now. Today the great Newhouse empire originally built on newspapers no longer looks impervious to downturn. (The Internet has never seriously interested Si—it’s too granular, too physically insubstantial.) He’s a great collector of art, and it’s not surprising that he prefers the sensual luxury of his glossy pages. Until now, he was always the media emperor who could live and do as he chose.

But there has been a lurching inconsistency to the way he closed down clever, promising Domino (and then, I am told, experienced regret when he read its glowing obituaries) and cut back Portfolio’s excellent Web site while vowing to keep the magazine alive—only to close it anyway. All this is so unlike Si that it’s a scary sign of how desperate the times are for the magazine-publishing business.

And worse, without Si, there are few other options.

Domino was a beautiful bauble, but its disappearance was a fairly minor loss to the wider culture. Portfolio had the potential not only to help us understand the complex issues of the volatile economy but help police the business world and keep (or make) it honest. Now we have to trust the Obama administration to be on that particular case. When Si Newhouse bought The New Yorker, though, he took upon himself the responsibility for an institution that is part of the nation’s cerebral cortex. Let’s hope this pitiless economy doesn’t force him to cap his noble career by performing a lobotomy.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .