After Just 600 Days ...

It Was a While Coming, but Nat Ives Likes What He Sees in Portfolio's Debut

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On pages 284 and 285 of the first issue of Portfolio, which hits New York newsstands today, are a couple of hundred words on Stornoway Diamond CEO Eira Thomas. But this isn't your average mining story, given Ms. Thomas poses for a photo by Ralph Mecke, resplendent in a strapless, shirred, emerald-green silk chiffon gown by Nicole Miller and jewelry by Tiffany & Co. The fashion credits are on page 327.
Finally! Editor Joanne Lipman and Group President CEO David Carey
Finally! Editor Joanne Lipman and Group President CEO David Carey Credit: Darryl Estrine

Welcome to Conde Nast's attempt to plug a hole it perceives among business magazines. "The reason to do the magazine in the first place was because we saw white space in the market," said Joanne Lipman, the editor in chief, showing Advertising Age the pages last week in a room marked with a warning to keep the door shut. There's room not just for more, better narrative business journalism, she argued, but for coverage that reflects the true reach, color and life of business today.

"The business world has really evolved," Ms. Lipman said. "When I started out, it was 9 to 5, and Dad comes home. We have evolved into a world in which business pervades every aspect of our lives. We think it's important to talk about business as a cultural phenomenon. You don't need to wear a suit or sit behind a desk to enjoy business. You're welcomed into the magazine no matter what."

Now available
That premise will get its first real test today, 600 days after Conde Nast Publications poached Ms. Lipman from The Wall Street Journal and moved David Carey from The New Yorker to run a nascent business-magazine group.

And it is certainly a test, given the state of existing business books. Fortune, part of Time Inc., reported average paid and verified circulation of 849,488 for the second half of last year, up 0.3% overall but down 16.5% on the newsstand, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. BusinessWeek got newsstand sales up 25.4% but still fell 6.8% overall to 921,334. Forbes held steady at 926,833.

But if the wait for Portfolio was long, the interval before we know how it's really doing will seem interminable. It won't go monthly or even publish a second issue until September, giving it time to absorb criticism and reaction. The company is also game to spend some $100 million over five or six years to support the launch. One measure will be reader demand, but Portfolio won't say how many subscribers it has so far; all we know is it guaranteed advertisers paid circulation of 300,000.

Casting a large net
Conde's true sights are much higher. Executives were already talking about a business magazine more than two years ago, when Thomas J. Wallace became editorial director. "The question was, what did we need to make a successful Conde Nast publication?" Mr. Wallace said. "If we could reach 700,000 circulation and 1,400 pages of advertising, we would have a profitable Conde Nast magazine."

Ad Age was able to view the first issue but did not have time to read its features or linger over the departments. It's a fat, glossy compendium of business lite, business heavy and business from unexpected angles, down to a cartoon using monkeys and bananas to explain credit default swaps.

The cover avoids business-mag staples such as men in suits or, in the case of Silicon Valley-born books, guys in hoodies. Instead it's an absorbing, gold-hued cityscape by photographer Scott Peterman. With cover lines cleanly presented and left-aligned on a flap over the image, the cover has a touch of The New Yorker, and it's certainly original -- though one Ad Age staffer claimed to spot a resemblance to high-end real-estate brochures.

Those all-important cover lines: "The New Masters of the Universe, by Tom Wolfe"; "The Scariest Man in Media, by Gabriel Sherman"; "A Tiger Woods I.P.O.?, by Michael Lewis"; "The (Only) Women of Private Equity, by Sheelah Kolhatkar"; and "Can The Fords Hold On To Ford?, by Betsy Morris."

Little traditional business journalism
Little, if any, service- or chart-based journalism appears inside. A photo essay, "Weapons of Mass Production," examines the goods that mean big money in wars, from guns and Oakleys to bomb-sniffing robots. A section called "The Gold Standard" wants to roll product porn into short news items about product sectors. One, on watches, is titled "Big Swinging Ticks."

Not everything feels quite so new, however. The Ford article examines a topic that Fortune, among others, has checked out repeatedly. A Q-and-A with Mel Karmazin reveals he doesn't always say the nicest things about Sumner Redstone -- not exactly the stuff of breaking news. The Gallery shows TV's upfront buyers, including Procter & Gamble's Jim Stengel (who some in the marketing business will note isn't really an upfront buyer); minus the original photography, BusinessWeek hit that topic with headshots and blurbs in its April 2 issue.

And a piece on BlackRock CEO Larry Fink's investment in Octone Records expands on a story first reported by the New York Post in 2004.

Then there's "Valerie, Scooter and Me," by Matthew Cooper. It's far from clear how much appetite remains for the Plame affair.

New tricks
But more than enough of Portfolio appears fresher than the usual diet. The "scariest man in media," Bruce Sherman, who forced the Knight Ridder breakup and is not an easy get, was persuaded to cooperate for the article. Book reviews skip management and leadership stuff in favor of fiction, art books and whatever else might appeal to readers. We look forward to reading "The Kid Pays for the Picture," about Ryan Kavanaugh, the 32-year-old middleman bringing private-equity and hedge-fund money to Hollywood.

The website, which went live late this weekend, looks like a not-necessarily essential stop for busy corporate leaders but a fun one if they do come.

On the practical side, there's "Top Five Stories" and an aggregator with headlines from the Journal, The New York Times, The Financial Times, the BBC and the International Herald Tribune. And no interstitial ads get in the way, said Ari Brandt, general manager for digital media. "That's a bad user experience."

Visitors will also find innovative blog bait -- such as a topographical map of New York that reveals whether Kenneth Chenault or Carl Icahn sits in the higher office, then re-forms to reflect who earns more. The Resources tab houses unusual bits on handling boardroom leaks or finding a plastic surgeon attuned to C-suite needs. Then again, a corporate-speak glossary may be trying too hard; it defines "deck," for example, as a "new word used in presentations; also lets your audience know you can afford a boat."

Grab for ad revenue
If Portfolio and its website are attempts to fill "white space" in business coverage, they are equally a grab for ad revenue from marketers that haven't paid into Conde Nast before. Of the 101 advertisers in the first issue, 53 are business advertisers, and 20 of those are new to the company. In addition to pure-play business advertisers such as Barclays Capital and Travelers, the 185 ad pages represent brands including Ralph Lauren, Lexus, Hermes, Grey Goose, Porsche, Sub-Zero and Calvin Klein.

That could prove valuable to the rest of Conde; already Mr. Carey has introduced a new advertiser, CIT Group, to Conde Nast Media Group, which persuaded it to run ads in Golf Digest, Wired and The New Yorker.

That does not mean Mr. Carey's unit is about to become a group in more than name -- say, by absorbing Golf Digest or Wired. "My job is to run Portfolio," he said. But for Conde, it clearly sets the stage.

Critics have questioned the wisdom of starting a magazine in the business category, but "it's obviously going to deliver a great audience," said Jack Hanrahan, U.S. director-strategic print communications at OMD. "The first people who subscribe to something that's never existed are certainly a group of early adopters." "The advertisers," he added, "should follow the reader." The question now is: Where will readers lead?

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