More journalists and media commentators seem to be playing everyone's favorite new game of Tearing Into Portfolio. This morning we mentioned Elizabeth Spiers' piece on the second issue of the magazine—a brilliantly wicked, lengthy evisceration that recalls why we once wanted Elizabeth to edit a collection of nasty essays we proposed calling “The Poison Pen.” And Jon Friedman’s at it too, using his column at Market Beat to take aim at the magazine. And over happy hour drinks the other day, we heard lots of nattering negativity from the nabobs.
But as we pointed out this morning, it’s a bit early to pronounce the failure of an enterprise that hasn’t yet even settled into a regular publishing schedule. We’ve had two issues, published months apart. The Portfolio-ista’s haven’t yet flourished, perhaps, but it seems a bit early to expect them to have totally remade business journalism and fixed everything that’s been so wrong with it for so long. What’s worse, this is starting to look a bit like a pile on: everyone jumping the new kid on the block just because he comes from a rich family.
Gary Weiss, a veteran business reporter and one of the best guys doing investigative business journalism today, thinks the Portfolio bashing has gone too far, too fast.
Look, they're probably right. The first issue underwhelmed me, and I'm not exactly running to the newsstand for the second one. But I am starting to wonder if the constant slamming on Portfolio isn't going a bit overboard. After all, are the competitors all that much better?
There are only a dwindling number of periodicals left that engage in long-form narrative journalism. Even a flawed outlet for this vanishing species is better than nothing.
The magazine is only just beginning, for Pete's sake. Portfolio may suck eggs in some respects, its office politics may be right out of the Kremlin circa 1938, but it is a new outlet in a contracting market. To answer my own question, it matters. Give the friggin' magazine a chance. Lay off.
More after the jump.
And many of the good qualities of Portfolio are getting overlooked. In the first place, it’s good that a major magazine publishing house is willing to push lots of money into business journalism. Many of the biggest scandals to hit boardrooms and Wall Street in recent years have not been uncovered by the bureaucrats at the SEC or some zealous Attorney General. They’ve been uncovered by journalists asking inconvenient questions. In fact, we were told by one SEC prosecutor that he made decisions about when to open investigations by reading the morning papers. With the challenging atmosphere facing print journalism these days, cash investments from Conde Nast or News Corp in business journalism are very good news.
(Okay. Let us confess that we’ve got a bit of a conflict interest here at DealBreaker. We want business journalism to be better than it is, and we’re especially interested in the success of new voices and outlets. We hardly practice conventional journalism here, so we’re hoping for better alternatives.)
A bit of distortion seems to have crept into the coverage of Portfolio. It’s not all darkness and gloom between those covers. There are bright spots. Sophia Banay catches Ted Turner overpromising his charitable donations and underperforming, and then goes a step further and points out that it is very hard to measure any tangible benefits from many of the enormous donations we’ve seen in recent years. John Cassidy’s economics column on China’s debt securities holdings is very useful for thinking about where the subprime mortgage damage might be felt—Ni Hoa Ma, Bank of China? And Kurt Eicchenwal’s investigative report more than makes up for the Tom Wolfe piece on Hedge Funds: it is brilliant, well-written, deeply researched and exactly the sort of long form journalism we’d hoped for from the new magazine.
The website has its strengths as well. Felix Salmon is a brilliant economics writer, who understands macro and micro economics better than almost any other working journalist we could name. He’s humble enough to admit that he is not as well trained in the more technical art and science of finance but he’s clearly learning. His work on the dark holes in which collateralized debt obligations trade and get valued prefigured much of the credit crunch we’re now seeing. And he gets an important part of blogging—updating frequently and commenting on the main stories of the day.
Portfolio might not have bloomed into a magnificent flower yet but it’s clearly starting to bud. And that’s all we can really ask of a two-issue old magazine. Sure, it’s top editor has held the job for something like two years. But, as a private equity guy we once worked for used to say, “Business is like sex. There’s thinking about it and doing it. Actually getting it done is harder, but when done right, a lot more satisfying.” Portfolio has just started actually doing it. We’re not willing to give it the dead fish reputation quite yet.