Since Conde Nast shuttered Gourmet magazine a month ago, the world of food publishing has been consumed by postmortems. What went wrong and why? But maybe a more interesting question is this: Where do we go from here?
The queen is dead, long live the queen. But which magazine will take Gourmet’s throne? The answer is, probably none of them.
In looking through the Thanksgiving issues of the various food periodicals now on the newsstands, it becomes clear that more and more magazine publishing is about what broadcasters call narrowcasting — focusing on serving the needs of a small but enthusiastic audience. In the end, Gourmet may have been done in by trying to do too much, rather than too little.
“Magazines are getting more and more fragmented, and I think we’ll see more and more of that in the future,” says Steve Cohn, a magazine world insider and editor in chief of Media Industry Newsletter. “Big mass magazines are still there, but they’re losing circulation.”
Robert Boynton, director of the literary reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, agrees. “I think of Gourmet closing as part of the bigger story of the demise of the general interest magazine. It was the closest thing the food world had to a Life or Saturday Evening Post. But in publishing today, it has become easier and more profitable to disaggregate or divide up readership into small groups.”
Most of the early analysis seemed to blame Gourmet’s closing on one of two factors. Some blamed what they perceive as the magazine’s highfalutin tone for alienating readers. New-media enthusiasts used it as one more example of how print is dead.
But those arguments seem to be contradicted by the facts. In the first place, Gourmet’s circulation was a far-from-pitiful 980,000 — up almost 100,000 from 10 years ago. As for that whole print dinosaur thing, have you looked at the Gourmet Web site? Video, Web-only stories, lots of art, commentary, lots of reader feedback — it’s hard to think of a food Web site that offers as much.
Reading deep sociological implications into corporate business decisions is always risky. Conde Nast’s decision was almost certainly based a lot more on short-term dollars and cents than on aesthetics or visions of the future.
“It was as much the economics of Conde Nast as the economics of Gourmet that forced the closure,” Cohn says. “It wasn’t a case of Gourmet ‘failing’ as much as Conde Nast having serious trouble on a corporate scale. In a different company, Gourmet would probably still be around. The fundamentals were very good.”