I never thought I’d hear the word "portal" these days outside conversation that was anything but reminiscent. Yet it’s popping up all over lately as more magazine publishers obscure print brands behind a larger online brand. So what’s different this time?

John Battelle, founder of blog conglomerate Federated Media Publishing and, previously, of The Industry Standard and Wired, said at a recent MPA summit, "Almost every idea from 1995 to 1998 has been rehashed and is working;even the pet stuff."

The overly stuffed destination sites of the late nineties (Time Inc.’s Pathfinder, Primedia’s Media Central and Inside.com, for example) imploded thanks to rampant, disassociated content, an eroding banner market and struggling subscription models.

Fast-forward to today and we’re seeing "portal" plays that are folding magazine brands into a single, separately-branded site, creating comprehensive verticals in what is once again a robust online ad market. Time Inc.’s venture back into portal territory with CNNMoney.com combines Fortune, Money, Business 2.0 and Fortune Small Business into one news and finance;and currently free;super-site, a la Forbes.com. In a similar strategy, Conde Nast has merged its magazine brands behind destinations such as Epicurious.com (Bon Appetit and Gourmet), Concierge.com (Conde Nast Traveler) and Style.com (Vogue and W).

B-to-b publishers have gotten into the game, too. See "Return of the Portal" to see what Advanstar, Vance, and PennWell are up to.

Yet it’s a curious brand strategy. Time Inc., for example, chooses to portray CNN and Money as the alpha brands, while the rest play an important but, for appearance’s sake, subordinate role as content contributors. The same with CondeNet: Each of its combo sites essentially becomes its own brand while magazine brands take a back seat. Are publishers signaling decreasing confidence in print brands? Chasing the money as marketers drive more of their budgets online? Or are they finally doing what they should have been doing all along: establishing themselves as the go-to destination for their market before getting burned by an online upstart?

It’s all of the above;and about time. Online advertising reached $6 billion by the end of the third quarter in 2005, according to TNS Media Intelligence. And print-media companies;including Conde’s Epicurious.com (1.9 million monthly visitors), and Time Inc.’s Parenting.com (355,000 monthly visitors);have some catching up to do: Foodnetwork.com gets 5.5 million monthly visitors and Babycenter.com has over 3.5 million each month [traffic examples via Boston Consulting Group director Kate Sayre].

It appears there’s strength in numbers as some publishers de-emphasize individual brands online in favor of a larger umbrella brand. What’s your take?