Conde Nast's Portfolio Can Be Saved -- And Here's How

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Conde Nast's Portfolio can be salvaged.

I know, I know. I'm presenting a contrarian's irrational exuberance for the business publication because so many think that Portfolio's recent actions indicate that Conde Nast, its owner, has lost confidence in the magazine's prospects to survive, much less to enjoy a long-lasting success.

Dogged by the depressing advertising climate and the gloomy economy, Portfolio recently announced that it would be publishing 10 issues a year, down from 12. It's also scaling back dramatically the scope of its Internet operations at a time when the Web is said to be the salvation of the media industry.

When Portfolio was launched last year, it was promoted with the hoopla of a major motion picture. But who could have suspected that the comparisons would ultimately be such bombs as "Gigli," "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate?"

And yet ...if Conde Nast is willing to continue to sink millions of dollars a year into Portfolio, it can be saved.

New blood

If Conde Nast decides to replace founding editor Joanne Lipman, it should look inside its ranks, specifically at two magazines that epitomize the kind of wit (Wired) and pedigree (the New Yorker) that Portfolio desperately aspires to.

In publishing, as in everything else in the media, it's all a matter of applying a creative solution to a problem.

Conde could tap a rising star at either magazine to turn around Portfolio. Then again, it could go all out and attempt to lure Wired Editor Chris Anderson, a dedicated amateur musician, to move from his home base in San Francisco by arranging for him to jam on the stage of Madison Square Garden.

Or, the publisher could try to tempt the respected New Yorker Editor David Remnick to come to Portfolio by hiring Bob Dylan to play at his next birthday party and giving Remnick season tickets to the new Yankee Stadium, thereby combining two of his obsessions.

Water-cooler appeal

Portfolio must produce -- and soon -- at least one killer story or cover design to show progress and take the pressure off its highly public woes. It needs to come up with a story with mammoth water-cooler appeal so everyone will start talking about "that great story in Portfolio," and not the layoffs or the start-up snafus or the dissension.


Unfortunately, when I think of Portfolio, the piece that leaps to mind is what I regarded as a hatchet job about George Steinbrenner, the now-feeble New York Yankees owner who was virtually ambushed by one of Portfolio's writers.


Cover glory

The magazine has to work harder on concocting memorable, thematic covers. New York and Time magazines have been especially adept in recent years at publishing thought-provoking covers that remind me of some of the most evocative work of fabled magazine designer George Lois.


For reasons I cannot fathom, Portfolio especially in the early issues, was bent on presenting esoteric covers that bordered on the psychedelic quality of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" and "Wish You Were Here" albums of the 1970s.

Surprise

The surest way to make a good impression on readers is to surprise them. Portfolio should exhibit something other than the standard take on the usual suspects of business and political icons, such as Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and (heaven help us) Bono. Portfolio has to find a way to be identified as the anti-Fortune, the Time Warner magazine it most closely resembles.

A break

Maybe the gossip hounds can ease off for a bit and give this troubled magazine an opportunity to find its footing. I don't exactly feel sorry for a magazine that reeked of arrogance early on and all but anointed itself with the undeserved gold dust of Vanity Fair, Fortune, Wired and the New Yorker. But enough's enough.

Paul Carroll, a former reporter for the Wall Stree Journal, is the co-author of the new book, "Billion-Dollar Lessons."


Carroll had this to say, in an email message, about Portfolio's prospects: "If you look at where business writing is going, it's headed more and more online and even onto mobile devices. Within several years, loads of people will consume most of their news on iPhones , Blackberries and Kindles . Neither of those trends plays to Portfolio's view of the world."

Carroll adds: "Still, there will always be room for long-form journalism of the sort that The Wall Street Journal, Fortune and a few others do so well. We all need to be able to step back and reflect on situations from time to time, rather than just process the headlines. The question is whether Portfolio can step up its game and be much more compelling than it's been to date."

Personally, I hope it can hang in there. It has both a lot of potential and a staff of dedicated, talented individuals. It would be unfortunate if Portfolio was ultimately remembered strictly as Conde Nast's failed and much-ridiculed attempt to capture a portion of the luxury goods advertising market -- and not as a good magazine.

If Portfolio can't turn it around, my point -- how to save it -- will be moot. Then the relevant question will become: When will Conde Nast put Portfolio out of its misery?

What do you like or dislike about Portfolio?

Join the online community of Media Web readers by posting comments directly to the MarketWatch.com site.


By Jon Friedman
  • CBSNews

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