The reshaping of magazine monoliths
It is clear that money alone will not save magazines. Business decisions need to be prudent, and based in reality – not just image and ideals. At Condé Nast, the bubble is bursting; Portfolio is not the first, and it may not be the last, magazine folded by the publisher. While launched with great gusto, and also close scrutiny, Portfolio tried to sell itself as less a business magazine than a lifestyle magazine for the finance set. But its glossy pages are being thrown onto the bonfire along with the vanities.
In November, recession fears in the U.S. hit their peak and Americans were focused on financial news. As the market fell, Portfolio’s inside pages tracked the economic crisis, detailing the fall of companies focused on hedge-fund glamour. But Condé Nast continued its business as usual (which is the business of glossy glitz), keeping its ad prices steady (that is, exorbitant).
Spring has brought no change. Profiled within, but not pictured on this April’s cover, is economist Nouriel Roubin, the “Doctor Doom” whose predictions of the financial collapse fell on deaf ears. As news of Portfolio’s closure hit, the last of April’s issues were left on newsstands picturing Sarah Palin in the snow. From the rest of the media, most news about Palin comes from her grandchild’s teenage father making the talk show rounds.
The business magazine brought a new meaning to “too big to fail” with the anemic April issue. In magazines, only the thick survive. In order to publish a glossy, perfect-bound magazine, there needs to be enough paper to glue the binding. The soigné magazine seems to be a meta-victim of the recession. Portfolio continued lauded content, even when its cover choices missed the mark. But the content it was missing was advertising. The minimum is 98-pages; Portfolio’s April issue was 106, the thinnest issue of any monthly magazine Condé Nast has ever published. (Its first issue was heavy, with 332 pages. Over half were ads.)
The December-January issue, usually one of the thickest of the year, had been a warning: advertising pages in Portfolio dropped to 72, marking a 35 percent fall when compared to 2008’s January issue. Advertisers were going to cheaper competitors, or waiting for their own bottom lines to rise.
Condé Nast launched several magazines during the last few years. But with Men’s Vogue reduced to two issues a year and Domino dropped, Cookie is the last magazine surviving from the launch-boom. While Portfolio’s December-January ad numbers were a sharp drop, Cookie also crumbled with its double-issue, falling to less than 94 pages of ads, a 45 percent drop from its January 2008 issue.
Condé Nast is not the only company being hit by the recession; other top publishers are being struck just as hard. But their flexibility could help them weather the storm. It’s hard to imagine Condé Nast leaving its Times Square fortress, while other companies are moving as an effort to keep publishing. ReadyMade, so ingrained in its Berkeley home the magazine practically wears sandals, was recently forced by publisher Meredith to head northeast – not to New York, but to Des Moines, Iowa. None of the editorial staff were willing to move, but ReadyMade continues.
Hachette Filipacchi Media, best known as publisher of Elle magazine in the glitz-world that Condé Nast orbits, is also moving to save money. They’re going downtown, leaving their
Broadway location for something that could cut their rent in half. The most drastic cost-cutting move at Condé Nast so far seems to be neither layoffs nor magazine closings. It’s been reported the company is cutting back on chauffeured rides, which last year would have been unthinkable. Their next move could cut $30,000 elephant rentals; desperate times indeed.
Looking inside its own pages for guidance might have saved Portfolio. May 2007’s premiere issue was prescient. Its cover looked down over the Upper West Side, the only world Condé Nast knows. Inside, Tom Wolfe re-condemned the masters of the universe’s status-seeking and money-flaunting. He used Forbes and Time to illustrate their excess and notoriety; Condé Nast magazines were not mentioned.
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