In Condé Bust: Why Portfolio [magazine] folded, Slate cites reasons like retro style and a high cost structure—which was no doubt was the largest immediate cause of death—combined with a fiercely competitive marketplace. But the article should have paid more attention to the “high cost structure issue;” as Paul Graham says in “Could VC be a Casualty of the Recession?“:
Someone running a startup is always calculating in the back of their mind how much “runway” they have—how long they have till the money in the bank runs out and they either have to be profitable, raise more money, or go out of business. Once you cross the threshold of profitability, however low, your runway becomes infinite.
I, however, would like to speculate on another Portfolio problem: it wasn’t very good. For a while, they sent me free issues, as described here, but the chief function of those free issues was to convince me not to subscribe.
I like smart magazines but have been burned too many times by unfortunate subscriptions to try more of the wannabes or the ones I just don’t have time for. The New York Review of Books can be great on literature but is often erratic, and its knee-jerk politics leave much to be desired; I’d rather read it at the library than pay for it, especially given how often it acts as a somnolent rather than stimulant. Not long ago, a string of interesting articles in New York and the low subscription price—$20 seemed reasonable—inspired yet another bad gamble for a magazine without content. I like the Economist but find it expensive and, in trying to read it every week, oppressive, and too broad: the minutia of the political situation in random country X might be fascinating, but not fascinating enough. Its business and technology features often don’t surpass those linked by Hacker News, where I also sometimes learn of unusual books I wouldn’t otherwise.
Given all that, the hurdle for a new magazine is high, and it’s especially high if it’s not going to stand out. Portfolio didn’t.