My initial reaction to last week’s news that Conde Nast Portfolio was closing down was so selfish that it kept me from blogging on the subject: Roger Lowenstein was gonna review my book in the June issue. And now there won’t be a June issue. What a travesty!
Well, now I’ve read John Koblin’s epic telling of the Portfolio saga in the New York Observer, and can comment more dispassionately. Koblin’s piece is very well told, and smart. But its thesis—that Portfolio failed in large part because it never quite figured out what it was about—doesn’t tell the whole story. New magazines almost always take a while to figure out what they’re about. If Portfolio had been given a few more years, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think it would have found its niche.
Why wasn’t it given a few more years? Well, partly because advertising has been plummeting in Portfolio and all other business magazines. But the Newhouse family, which owns Conde Nast, has been willing to ride out advertising recessions in the past. What’s so different this time? My bet is that it’s because the Newhouses’ newspapers are no longer able to play the role of reliable cash cow for the magazine business.
This is the part of the Newhouse equation that New York media types almost always ignore. The Newhouses started out in newspapers, and own one of the country’s biggest newspaper chains, with such titles as the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, the Portland Oregonian, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and my former employer, the Birmingham News. These papers were almost all monopolies, and generally had staffs smaller than other dailies of comparable size. That is to say, they were, until recently, profit machines. The Newhouses never disclose this kind of information, but I would bet that their newspapers, as a group, made far more money than their magazines.
But now, while magazines are certainly struggling, metropolitan daily newspapers are experiencing the complete collapse of their business model. Which means the Newhouses’ metro dailies are probably no longer in any position to subsidize magazines that haven’t quite figured out what they’re about.