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.

  • jens

    i like the cn (online-)strategy – clever and daring.
    the german vanifty fair was just launched with an accompanying website and numerous blogs that shake up the national blogosphere quite a bit.

    the navy fighting in pirate-style.
    only that they are much better looking and they have all these wonderful resources at hand and easily integrate some outside bloggers too

    a very self-confident way of embracing new seas – which are in fact – “blue oceans”. – it is a lot of free advertising. and it definitely is a way to build a media brand.

    two thumbs up.

  • Some follow on thoughts (eg in relation to Monocle) here

    I am wondering whether a cloud of bloggers can be really helpful in building a community for a monthly publication. The gap in periodicity is a real issue. A daily newspaper and the hourly business-news cycle give conflicting demands — and the monthly publication cycle is very slooooowwww

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  • J.

    serious competition for Monocle?

  • Todd

    I, like Jarvis, must make my own disclaimer, that being that I worked alongside Ari Brandt at Yahoo!

    Portfolio will be interesting for many reasons, not the least of which the amount of muscle behind the Digital side – and the double-barreled approach Conde is taking to bringing it to market. And it will be a bit of a betting man’s game to see which side of the house prospers.

    Knowing Brandt’s history at Yahoo! makes me curious to see what will be rolled out in the weeks and months to come. Experience suggests it will be more than shovel/brochure ware as the one thing that Yahoo! instills in its people, despite some other shortcomings, is understanding advertiser’s needs and bringing those advertisers the audience they desire.

    This leads me to believe Portfolio (Digital) may be the tail that wags the dog and will help bring some of the more high end consumer goods marketers into the online realm. And as the luxury goods market is yet to really explode on the web – Portfolio, among other things, might be the digital home for all the LVMH and PPR brands that want to reach the Alpha Consumer/Overachiever in the comfort of their own boardroom or luxury suite.

    And that might be a good thing for Conde Nast’s portfolio.

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  • Great post as usual. What I find curious is that I find it hard to think of a single web property started by mainstream media that has really succeeded in a big way. Maybe I am being dense but all I can see is lots of money spent and little achieved. We’ll see though. Good luck.

  • Jake

    I hope I’m wrong, but this looks like an expensive flop in the making, the web side anyway. Building a presence on the web is completely different than in any other environment, and whenever established companies–specifically their marketing people–try to deliberately create another (or yet another) new place for people to go, they seem to have a lot of trouble as Zach wrote above. I think that part of the problem is that there’s what I would describe as a “broadcast” mentality at work, in which people think that a strong brand (which clearly Conde has no trouble developing) is capable in of itself of packaging together disparate pieces of content to attract a sustainable level of traffic.

    That may work fine for a magazine, newspaper, or TV show, where competition is limited & barriers to entry are high, but the web is an altogether different animal. I realize that maybe part of this thinking reflects a dependency on longstanding brand advertiser relationships and/or ad agency sloth and conservatism, but web audiences–or perhaps more accurately, the interests of each person on the web–could simply be too fragmented for this approach to work.

    I notice that there’s been no discussion of Conde Nast’s teen-oriented Flip site (288,000 visitors in March according to ComScore), which granted has only been around for a little while. On paper it looks like it could be a winner (though it is a little derivative) due in part to the emphasis on UGC, but the question is always how do you get people to go there when so many other sites out there do the same thing just as well if not better–and are run by ten people with no overhead and no marketing budget?

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  • I am grateful to have found this site. Keep up the good postings.

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