Portfolio preview

I was given an exclusive preview of the web site for Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine, which has had all its business-publication competitors buzzing, wondering what they could be up. It’s set to launch online and on newsstands next week. I

But before I tell you what I saw, I need to unravel my Gordian knot of disclosures, conflicts, and caveats in this story: I worked for 11 years for Conde’s parent company, often with CondeNet (which is not running Portfolio’s site). I had lunch with the Portfolio guys early on, giving them free — meal aside — political advice. I still consult for titles at Conde and Advance. Portfolio is working with Inform, a competitor to Daylife, a venture where I work. I ended up pitching the professional education services of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, where I teach. And I know people working for all their competitors. Because of all that and the grain of salt the size of Utah you’d have to take with my views — and because I didn’t get to dive into the site on my own but was guided by Portfolio.com Managing Editor Chris Jones and General Manager Ari Brandt — I won’t review it so much as give you a preview.

logocn-portfolio.gifMy first reaction is that it’s very content-y, very magazine-y: stories, pieces, photos, their stuff as the value, the center of the universe. I understand that, but for this new magazine — and others that are for various reasons breaking away from old partnerships and rebuilding (e.g., Hearst, post iVillage) or losing their print companions (e.g, Premier, post profit) — I think there is a tremendous opportunity to reinvent the magazine relationship with the people formerly known as the audience, to enable the wisdom of the crowd, to put them at the center. But that’s my agenda (another caveat). Besides, there isn’t a community here yet.

Having said that, Portfolio is doing some things quite right. Start with the fact that all the content of the magazine, with the exception of a few difficult-to-translate graphics — will come online the same time that the magazine goes on sale. That’s just not done at many magazines and that hurts them every time a new reader comes to find an article. In Portfolio’s case, they’re all new readers. The site creates lots of content just for online. It also enables comments on every article and every blog post with community powered (like a fair number of other sites lately) by Pluck. They have a stable of bloggers, three of whom write for the magazine, the rest don’t, in areas such as politics, technology, entertainment, travel, and fashion. (Yes, they cover fashion. It’s Conde Nast, remember.) One of their bloggers is a name we blog people know: Felix Salmon. He’s the one who will still blog outside. (I would have set up a loose network with a score of Felixes, all writing wherever they write; that’s the beginning of the community I was looking for earlier.) The site does not try to replicate the news that business readers already know but links out to news elsewhere at Portfolio’s competitors; for this, they are using Inform to display headlines from top sources in various slices. They seem to know what they’re not; they’re also not offering portfolio services (yes, it’s a name challenge). Another Advance division, American City Business Journals, is providing local business coverage with stories hosted at Portfolio. And they are using Nielsen Buzzmetrics to track blog talk about top executives — though, oddly, you can’t then link out to that talk (yes, of course, I looked askance at that). For a big, albeit new magazine, I’d say that’s a decent collection of reasonably web-smart decisions.

So how do the site and the magazine view business? From what I can tell, in buckets of my own labeling, I see equal doses of executives-as-celebrities and business-as-lifestyle with some efforts to add in some business-y data with magazine-y voices. Here, it’s OK to both earn and spend a lot of money. In fact, it’s encouraged.

Though all those buzzing competitors wonder what room is left in this crowded and — in ad terms — shrunken field, David Carey, the head of the business, sees an unmined opening. I’ll need to see a few issues to decide whether I agree, but at the outset, I don’t disagree. My prescription for Wired magazine years ago (pre-Chris Anderson) was to make it an online, digital lifestyle magazine from the kind of taste-making perch Conde Nast always occupies: travel as lifestyle (CN Traveler), food as lifestyle (Gourmet, Bon Ap), overpriced furnishing as lifestyle (AD), sex and thin thighs as lifestyle (Glamour). Is there room for business as lifestyle with executives as celebrity role models? Maybe there is. Will there be plenty to ridicule among the recently rich? I hope so.

When you come to the site, you’ll see what they say are the five top stories shaping the market now. With it, they boast, will be a Conde-class photo. They’ve emphasized photography from the beginning. I have to say I still don’t quite get that. Yes, in its day, Fortune had magnificent photography, much of it iconic to its age. But now, in the post-post-post Life Magazine era, I’m not sure photography is so universal in its topical appeal. There’s only so much you can do with craggy-faced moguls. On the home page, you’ll see what they call a well — magazine-y talk — promoting their features, online and print, and promos for their blogs. Inside, they cover executives with feature stories, videos, and a nice little feature annotating what’s in a mogul’s office. (Pardon me a moment’s nostalgia: In the prototype for Entertainment Weekly, we had a similar feature explaining everything that dressed the set of Murphy Brown. It was always the thing that made people say wow. This is equally fun but now it’s all Flashed up.) They have spottings of CEOs on the red carpet. They have resource links for the overcompensated (my adjective) CEO — plastic surgeons, security firms, and white-collar prison-prep firms that executives recommend — and survival guides to plugging boardroom leaks and more modern-day inconveniences. Executives are busy, so they don’t review but summarize books — c-level CliffsNotes. They have profiles of 100 top executives and of 1 million companies. They cover careers — job of the week, profiles of headhunters. They work with Conde Nast Traveler (not CondeNet’s Concierge) to provide travel guides to more than a dozen cities aimed specifically at the first-class road warrior. And, given that this is Conde, they cover culture and lifestyle: food, arts, sports, and stuff (when you have $400 to burn on a shirt, here’s where to light the match). All this is sprinkled with cute Flash aps, slick video, and, again, photos.

The first issue of Portfolio, the magazine, comes out next week but the next doesn’t come out until September. This, Carey explained, enables them to better sell advertising into early issues and to sell subs; it’s how Conde launches magazines lately. But between the first and second issue, Portfolio’s site will keep churning all summer. And it has plenty of people to churn: 15 edit staff, 15 tech staff, 15 business staff, plus lots of freelancers. That’s huge. I guess it takes big money to cover big money.

I’ll be curious to see your reviews when the site and magazine come out next week.