Condé Nast’s decision to shutter Gourmet magazine deserves a fair amount of hand-wringing — it was an intelligently assembled monthly that made food an adventure, an opportunity to reassemble a corner of the globe in the home kitchen. It was food as a vicarious undertaking. Even for those who do not cook, Gourmet’s articles made a reader investigate travel options.
The decision to close was based on a three-month investigation by a team of consultants. It’s troubling that it came to that at all, but the choice to not attempt to sell the property is even more worrisome. Gourmet is a brand name with 68 years behind it and in its current state, it is a magazine that reaches far beyond the kitchen. That certainly would have value to other publishers, especially one that caters to readers who book their restaurant reservations before their hotel rooms. There was a time when a newspaper or magazine would be sold for a $1 plus all of the debt; Reinvigorating an established brand was a far easier task than starting anew.
But there’s a logical reason Condé Nast wouldn’t want to sell. Gourmet may have been pitted head-to-head against Condé Nast’s other food property, Bon Appétit, which charges more for its ad pages, has a higher circulation and an editorial staff that’s been making public appearances beyond the food and wine festival circuit. Having Bon Appétit staffers as judges on Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen” last month was hardly a low-brow move: It gave Bon Appétit an air of authority, and put the magazine’s faces in front of a new audience, those more attracted to competition than cooking.
Certainly Gourmet fans wonder how Bon Appétit could win over their treasured publication. Gourmet has consistently improved its website while contributing to Epicurious, but those efforts overlapped with rather than enhanced the flagship publication.
Bon Appétit may well have scored a few points for its web and print coordination, providing easy searching via Epicurious, and an alignment with the magazine’s content. Read a Bon Appétit recipe and what do you remember a year later? The ingredients. Enter short ribs, cardamom and balsamic vinegar and that search engine works like a good library. Most of what people remember about Gourmet was a sense of place. “Tortola” and “lobster” in the search bar don’t necessarily produce the desired results.
Did the consultants strictly evaluate the magazines based on the bottom line or did they dig into reader and user comments? That has not been divulged.
But Bon Appétit is a magazine for two locations — the dining table and the kitchen. The magazine’s organization is formulaic, its editorial calendar seemingly unchanged for decades. In the long run, that has enhanced its usefulness. Gourmet wanted to be on the airplane, in the kitchen and next to the bed, kept in easily accessible stacks for re-reading, a miniature food library.
Gourmet aimed to be more than a haven for recipes and it succeeded. But it also assumed the reader had time and money. When both commodities drifted into short supply, it became the easier magazine to give up on. Five or 10 years ago, who among us wouldn’t have taken the current cover headline — “126 Restaurants Worth the Money” — as a challenge? How many can I get to? How many have I already visited? But in 2009, we’re back to vicarious living, imagining spice combinations and revolutionary cooking styles rather than experiencing them first-hand.
Gourmet’s advertisers needed readers to embark on the food journeys. The minute culinary tourists started adjusting their budgets, so, too, did the merchandisers who target them. Immediacy, for better or worse, has too high a value these days, whether in editorial offerings or business decisions. Gourmet, as trusted a name in food journalism as there is, deserved a better farewell.