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Our Big, Fat Portfolio Review: Even Our Pessimism Was Optimistic

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[WARNING: If you're part of the 93% of DealBreaker's readership that cares nothing about business media because you don't work in media, read no further. This will probably make your eyes bleed.]
If the premiere issue is any indication, Conde Nast Portfolio** will be the Paris Hilton of business magazines: pretty but vapid, and unlikely to produce anything resembling an original thought.***
If you’re throwing darts at a newsstand, you’re probably as likely to hit something worse as something better. By all magazine standards, it's slightly above average.**** But it's painfully bad for a magazine that has poured $125 million and 18 months of work into development. (We're no strangers to painfully bad, you understand, but Dealbreaker costs less than a Deb Schoeneman contributing editor contract to produce and it's done entirely on the fly. What's their excuse?)
[Below: A Portfolio staff meeting. As we imagine it.]

We took an hour yesterday and read the thing cover-to-cover. At 300+ pages, you'd think it would take more than an hour, but you would think wrong. A ton of ad pages (advantage Portfolio) and a few acres of graphics and photos to compensate for a lack of new and interesting information (disadvantage Portfolio) reduce the amount of actual text to a manageable 60 or so pages of feature content and like most large magazines, front-of-the-book doesn't start till page 97. Among the pages: a big story by Tom Wolfe on hedge funds. We'd note the other potentially exciting features, but that's pretty much it. Our take:
First, a word about the cover: Only a company as fat and complacent as Conde Nast would be arrogant enough to launch a new business magazine with a cover that gives the reader no idea that it's a business magazine. There are two possibilities here. (1) Portfolio thinks that newsstand readers will look closely enough to see the subtitle "business intelligence" just below the title, despite all available research indicating that they generally don't read anything in fonts smaller than GIGANTIC, or (2) Portfolio imagines everyone everywhere already knows what they are because they've gotten quite a bit of media trade press and people who work in media tend to think that everyone everywhere pays attention to media news when, in fact, they don’t. (Other things most print media consumers don't pay attention to: bylines. But more on that later.) We know Conde Nast does cover testing for some of their magazines—Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc. We can only assume the $15,000 or so it would have cost to do that for the "Premier" issue was used to pay people to pick lint from Tom Wolfe's trademark white suit. Or maybe to pay for the first 15 words of his piece, which are as follows: "Not bam bam bam bam bam bam but bama bampa barama bam bamity bam bam…" (Here Wolfe exhibits the typical mentality of a Conde Nast freelancer who is paid by the word: why not insert a few extra bams?)

We'll admit that Portfolio's editorial content is slightly different from what we thought it would be. There's less product pushing than we imagined, which is a good thing, and more of Wall Street in the mag, which is also a good thing, but we're biased on that end. Unfortunately, everyone tasked with writing about Wall Street (or any of its inhabitants) seems to be struggling to understand it themselves and struggling even more to explain it to their audience, which according to their advertising materials, theoretically consists of senior business executives who shouldn't have to be told what a derivative is. As for general business coverage, it's all over the place. We'd normally be enthusiastic about personality-driven profiles, of which there are many, but it's hard to get excited about the fact that a hedge fund manager loves his wife or sits on the board of several charities. Neither are exactly unusual occurrences. Other disappointments:
Editorial fascination with large sums of money simply because they're large sums of money.
Large amounts of money that Portfolio finds intrinsically interesting solely on the basis that they're large, and by implication, unusually large and possibly egregious: $14 billion (amount Cerberus paid for GMAC), $85 million (total severance comp for Tom Freston, upon being forcibly ejected from Viacom), $116 million (amount of Ameriqual's contract with the military for MREs.) Unusually large and possibly egregious amount of money that goes unmentioned: $125 million (cost of editorial development).
[See: p. 97 – "How big is too big?" Summary: Private equity deals are getting bigger. (We’d include other supposedly unique insights, but there aren’t any.); p. 122 – "The Goldenest Parachutes" – uses an entire page to note the severance pay of four public company CEOs with what appears to be Monty Python Clip Art Package #4. All those column inches for four already available and not terribly interesting facts; p. 128 – "Mazel Top This" – Piece on the world’s most expensive bar mitzvahs. We'd have never thought to turn MTV's My Sweet 16 into a front-of-the-book piece for a high-end business mag. Actually, that's not true. We might have thought of it. But we wouldn't have done it.; p. 287 – A piece on defense contractors on the basis that "no matter how you view them, the numbers produce shock and awe." We've read John Hockenberry's stuff elsewhere and liked it so we're just going to ignore that incredibly cheesy lede and assume that the editorial destruction gnomes took time off from their usual gig of mangling New York Post headlines and changed it from whatever Hockenberry originally wrote. Nonetheless: the defense contracting sector is apparently quite large. As it has always been.]
Either the staffers are dumb or they think the readers are dumb.
We're going to go with "they think the readers are dumb", as most of the staffers we know or have met are quite intelligent. Yet, the magazine's tone is that of the naïve outsider/the newbie explaining simple concepts to someone more naïve and newbier, the latter being the sort of person who has never heard of Ken Griffin and needs to be told what a swap is, preferably with pictures. Surely this clashes with the magazine's supposed target demographic, a large portion of which are supposedly C-level executives who, in our experience, do not respond well when people talk down to them. Curiously, we've seen more substantive and less condescending business journalism in Men's Vogue. (That's not a criticism of Men's Vogue, which has done a pretty good job on those topics, but one would think that Portfolio would be wiping the floor with them on that front. After all, Men's Vogue is at least nominally a lifestyle magazine.)
Another scary thought: the magazine's target demographics indicate that they expect to have a much larger female readership than any other business magazine on the market. Maybe they just think women are dumber, and need to be talked to as if they accidentally stumbled upon Portfolio on their way to buy US Weekly.
[See: p. 135 – The $300 trillion time bomb – The dek: “If Warren Buffet can’t figure out derivatives, can anybody?” We’re fairly certain that Warren Buffett can and has figured out derivatives, but consciously chooses to remain an equity investor. Summary: financial markets are complicated. Actual sentence from the article: “The term derivatives describes an array of financial contracts whose value is determined by, or derived from, an underlying asset.” If you needed to be told that, you're probably not Portfolio's target demographic. And yet it's there; p. 153 – "What's Wrong with This Picture?" - Summary: the number of female executives running private equity firms is disproportionately small vis-à-vis the number of men running private equity firms. Sheelah Kolhatar used to work in finance and is probably one of the few people there who can explain it. So it’s disappointing that she got assigned such a clichéd piece. Yes, there are very few women at the top in private equity. And everywhere else on Wall Street. We don't even have to read this piece to know what the thrust of it will be: private equity is an old boys' club… but it's getting better! We've read this piece in various incarnations a million times, and so has Portfolio reader who's ever picked up a business magazine. Unless, of course, the readers are as dumb as Portfolio seems to think they are.
p. 112 – "The Dog Ate My Homework." Supposedly outrageous “excuses” for not meeting quarterly earnings. Examples: “The rising cost of aluminum” (from a company that produces custom aluminum doors) “competition in the antifungal market” (from a company that produces antifungus drugs). We suppose those sound outrageous if you've never read a 10-K before. (A 10-K, dear readers, is "a comprehensive summary report of a company's performance that must be submitted annually to the Securities & Exchange Commission. Typically, the 10-K contains much more detail than the annual report. It includes information such as company history, organizational structure, equity, holdings, earnings per share, subsidiaries, etc.") p. 174 – From a profile of Citadel’s Ken Griffin: “In an age where…Stephen Schwarzman and SAC Capital’s Steve Cohen have become pseudo-celebrities, Ken Griffin remains largely unknown…” Perhaps to the editors of Portfolio, but not to anyone within spitting distance of Wall Street. Also egregious: “It is in this climate that two kinds of hedge fund leaders have emerged: One type just wants to get rich and buy a Boeing 747 and a private island; the other harbors much grander ambitions, striving to rise above the industry’s frayed public image through philanthropy or politics.” That's the falsely dichotomous generalization of someone whose only exposure to Wall Street consists of watching the Oliver Stone movie and maybe attending a Robin Hood Foundation fundraiser. Aside from the general fluffiness (Griffin buys art. Yawn. Loves his wife. Yawn. Can be a bit of a taskmaster. Yawn.), there's no new information here. And if you're not going to present new and interesting information, you'd better present the old information in a way that's entertaining.; p. 328 – “Fun with Swaps” – A back page feature that seems to be designed to showcase an illustrator rather than to provide actual usefulness, or godforbid, entertainment, "the Demystifier" explains swaps in terms “that even a monkey can understand.” Their exact words, by the way. p. 306 – profile of T. Boone Pickens. We're going to assume that the fluffiness of the profiles in the magazine is also a form of dumbing-down. The pullquote for this piece is “Pickens has refused to pass on a significant share of his vast fortune to his five children.” That's T. Boone Pickens, one of the most colorful corporate raiders in Wall Street history. And the most interesting thing Portfolio has to say about him in a couple thousand words is that his five children aren't going to inherent most of his wealth.]
Overemphasis of media executives’ importance in American business.
In all fairness, every business magazine in existence does this. In the typical business publication editor's mind, the business sector consists of 87% media executives and 13% everything else. (We tend to think that the business sector consists of 87% Wall Street and 13% everything else, but at least our wrongheadedness contains a grain of truth: the business sector may not consist entirely of Wall Street but you'd be hard pressed to find any subset that isn't materially affected by, if not owned by it.)
[See: p. 102 – “Ten Minutes with… Mel Karmazin”. As if that were desirable.; p. 104 & 105 – Two-page photo spread on advertiser buys at network upfronts; p. 140 – profile of Bruce Sherman by Gabe Sherman (no relation), who is described as the “scariest man in media”. We won’t blame Sherman (the Gabe) for that cover line as he probably didn’t suggest it, but if Bruce Sherman is the scariest man in media, we must be living in some other, stranger media (or media investing) that unlike Portfolio's media, happens to contain Roger Ailes, Carl Icahn, Silvio Berlusconi, etc.. The piece mentions Sherman's 2006 Harrah’s deal, but according to Portfolio, Knight Ridder is Sherman’s defining moment. We're guessing that's news to Sherman.; p. 206 – Matt Cooper explains… himself.; p. 298 – Big Hollywood film guy profile, that others analyze here.]
Thinking the byline is more important than the story.
It's another function of media narcissism that media people assume readers pay as much attention to bylines as they do. Poll anyone who doesn't work in media and ask them to name five journalists who write for their favorite magazine and chances are, they can't do it. (And why should they?) High-profile writers like Tom Wolfe and Michael Lewis are the sometime exceptions to that rule.
But even then, let's not go overboard. Unless we're Portfolio, that is, in which case we don our scuba gear and gleefully take a flying leap into open water.
[See: p. 268 – “The Pirate Pose,” by Tom Wolfe - The reader might be forgiven for thinking the story was actually about Tom Wolfe, given the two-page Annie Leibovitz photo spread of the man in white at the seat of his Cadillac. Portfolio obviously thinks that the byline is so much more important than the story, that it dispensed entirely with photographing the subject(s) and just photographed the author. And as Portfolio’s own blogger, Felix Salmon points out, Wolfe didn’t interview a single hedge fund person in a story that’s nominally about hedge funds. (Wolfe also cites "Trader’s Monthly", a publication that, to our knowledge, doesn’t exist. Editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman likes to brag that she doesn’t pay any attention to the competition. Apparently she doesn't—and it shows.) We've read the piece twice and still don't know what it's fundamentally trying to say, which we attribute to editors being afraid to edit Tom Wolfe's precious prose because he's Tom Wolfe. We've read elsewhere that they cut around 3000 words from the original draft and while it was arguably the most enjoyable piece in the magazine, because it has actual voice and style, we're pretty sure they could have cut 3000 more words and it would have been better. The way they built the entire issue around the Wolfe piece also seems a little desperate. You might even think that it screams “Sure, we couldn’t get James Stewart, and Bethany McLean said no, and Laurie Cohen hightailed it back to the Journal, BUT WE GOT TOM WOLFE TO DO A ONE-OFF after we hired his daughter as staff writer BAM BAM BAMMITY BARAMPA FIRE!!!” But maybe it's just us.
Michael Lewis's piece on the Jock Exchange 156 is more indicative of how this sort of thing should have been done. We wouldn't normally find the subject that compelling (also clichéd: the Securitization of x Thing You Thought Could Never Be Securitized) but Lewis is a good storyteller and manages to make it interesting.
p. 206 – Totally random: the Valerie Plame debacle first-person piece by Matt Cooper. Even if the story is the most fascinating story in the history of magazine journalism, why is it in a business magazine? Oh, right. Because Portfolio hired Matt Cooper and then had to give him something to actually do. ]
We actually like the design for the most part, though there's not much original about it. It feels a bit like the Conde Nast men's mags (GQ, Details) with a touch of Vanity Fair and in the back of the book, Luke Hayman's design for New York Magazine, with its spare white background and tiny fonts on the market pages--and we like those designs. If it ain't broke, don't pay Roger Black an ungodly amount of money to fix it, we suppose.
That said, we're surprised at the lack of innovation, given that one of Portfolio's big selling points was that the design quality/paper quality/quality of photography was going to be so much higher than the competition's. We're not sure it is. We were expecting something a little more like Tyler Brule's new magazine, Monocle. But frankly, if the content were better, we probably wouldn't care about the design. Fancy design is for advertisers!
We're disappointed. We think there's a market for a high-end business magazine, particularly one with good long-form narrative journalism. If the first issue is any indication, we don't think Portfolio is it. But we're fairly certain it's got plenty of time to improve, and we hope it does.
Now that we've thoroughly bashed it, we'll tell you what worked and we'd do to improve it, because we hate people who complain about problems and never offer any solutions. Those people are Whiners. And you know what happens to Whiners. (Equities in Dallas. Also: slow, painful death. Also: we continue to gratuitously mention the fact that they blew up a $6.6 billion hedge fund.) Next week: DealBreaker's Portfolio makeover!
[**re: The Dutch currency symbol they substitute for the "f": Again, we can’t be bothered.
*** It also can’t spell. This issue is, according to the cover, the "premier" issue, which, as one Gawker commenter observed, would seem to indicate that it’s intended "only for prime ministers of a parliamentary governments."
****Obligatory Spiers disclosure: Conde Nast HR called me when I was at my last job and asked me if I was interested in working on Portfolio. I met with editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman in November of '05, got the impression that it was going to be primarily a lifestyle magazine (not my thing) and never followed up. I started DealBreaker instead.]