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Gourmet Bites the Dust

6:18 PM, Oct 5, 2009 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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Following that three-month study by McKinsey, Condé Nast has decided to shut down four magazines, the most surprising of which is Gourmet. (No one seemed too shocked that Cookie was closing. The other two are bridal publications.) As Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times reports: "None of the about 180 employees of the magazines, including the Gourmet editor-in-chief, Ruth Reichl, are expected to stay with the company, [Condé chief executive Charles H. Townsend] said. The employees will receive severance packages this week and be out by the end of the week." And just like that, Gourmet, which has been around since 1940 and has featured the food writings of such luminaries as M.F.K. Fisher, is officially history. (The rumor, as mentioned in the Times, was that in the end the axe was going to come down on either Gourmet or Bon Appetít. Many thought it would be the latter.)

This got me wondering what Christopher Kimball was thinking. The editor and founder of Cook's Illustrated knows a thing or two about publishing. He runs a magazine with a paid circulation of over 900,000 readers and zero ads. In the 1980s, Kimball ran an earlier incarnation of his magazine, simply called Cook's. In an ironic twist, it was subsequently bought by Condé Nast, shut down, and the subscribers were then swallowed up by Gourmet. So I called Kimball this afternoon. He did not gloat-far from it:

It's always better to have more magazines in a category than fewer so, you know, it's sad. I know [executive editor] John Willoughby. He used to work for me for years, he's a great guy, Ruth's terrific…. And we've hired people who've worked for Gourmet off and on over the years. I think [closing it down] weakens the category. I don't think it helps. That's the first thing.

Second thing is: Does it say something about the magazine industry in total? It's this raging argument in newspapers and magazines about free versus paid content and the old advertising model. Back in mid-1990, Gourmet kind of bought my magazine after I had left and, as you know, folded it into Gourmet. So 19 years later, it's kind of odd-it's the opposite.

I don't know whether this is temporary…. But I do think it is symptomatic of the issue of people being in the business where others are providing similar content. I think that is ultimately the issue. And the Internet has of course made that infinitely more difficult because you can get in seconds a hundred different providers. So I think, in this day and age, brand management, and making sure you have something that can't be replaced by somebody else…. If you're a newspaper and you think that a bunch of people can do what you're doing, then I don't know how you construct the model. I think the model used to work because the barrier of entry was so high that you didn't have competitors, and it was almost a monopoly and the advertising dollars…. The pie was big. Now the pie is shrinking….

It must have been that the advertising and subscription dynamics at Bon Appetít obviously are better. But I was surprised because it's so central. The kinds of ads you see in Gourmet are very similar to the kinds you see in Vanity Fair. But maybe that's why they closed.

I've been in the magazine business all my life. I love magazines. I thought Gourmet was a great magazine. Whatever is going to happen to the magazine business-either it's going to be grossly downsized because of less advertising support or maybe like newspapers, three years from now, there's some new model that none of us knows about…. You don't want to see a magazine go. And I think they did a great job.