The forces assembled against print media scored a big scalp on Monday when Condé Nast announced that Gourmet magazine was finished. The 68-year-old foodie look book will close after the publication of its November issue, although the title will live on in books and on TV shows and some of its content will be folded into Epicurious.com.
The closure was announced in a memo from Condé Nast CEO Chuck Townsend that brought other grim tidings: the company also folded Elegant Bride and Modern Bride into Brides magazine, which increased its circulation to monthly, and closed parenting title Cookie. But it was Gourmet the grande dame of food periodicals that struck most deeply at the hearts of epicures and magazine fans, who were bemused by the fact that Bon Appétit, the lower-brow of the company's two foodie titles, simmered on.
"Gourmet had a more panoramic view of the epicurean sensibility," says Mary Kay Culpepper, former editor of Time Inc.'s Cooking Light and a Gourmet fan. "You'd explore the world through what was at your table. Bon App's more about entertaining."
Condé Nast, part of the privately held Advance Publications, has long prided itself on its luxury magazines, and has reportedly been willing to sustain big losses to maintain its image as the ne plus ultra of wealthy readership. Many speculate that the parent company's newspaper holdings, including such distinguished titles as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the New Jersey Star-Ledger, propped up the magazine empire. But newspapers are no longer reliable golden geese, and Condé Nast recently called in a management consultancy to see how its business could be streamlined.
"These businesses should be 25% net margin businesses," Townsend said in an interview with the website Mediaite. "We have had some underperformers, but not businesses that have cost us money to run except for launches and businesses like Gourmet that, with the economy, have slipped into the red."
The hard facts are that Gourmet, whose whole reason for being was its lushness, was an expensive magazine to produce. It had a famous editor, Ruth Reichl, a former food critic of the New York Times and the author of several best sellers. Since taking over in 1999, she steered the periodical to three National Magazine Awards. That level of achievement is pricey, and at just over 900,000 subscribers, Gourmet had only about two-thirds of the readers of Bon Appétit. Plus, it made less money per page of advertising.
Because of its place in the Condé Nast family, Gourmet had been able to attract fashion and perfume ads when times were good. But as the economy tightened, non-food advertisers didn't see the magazine as vital to their campaigns, while packaged-good companies didn't see a luxury book as key either, and travel advertising, another of its pillars, fell away.
The recession also provoked an identity crisis for the magazine; its latest cover touted a story on where to eat a restaurant steak for $14.50. "When you're catering to an affluent audience and you're talking about huddling at home or cooking inexpensive stews, there's a disconnect," says Merri Lee Kingsly, publisher of Saveur, a rival title.
While Los Angelesbased Bon Appétit survives, its future is not all tarts and champagne. Upstart magazines from big names including Rachael Ray and the Food Network are making the ad market more competitive. And CEO Townsend warned that every magazine will have to shave its budget.
Navigating all that while dealing with the woes of the magazine industry will probably be even trickier than the Thanksgiving recipe Gourmet has in its final issue.