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Gourmet mag back? Maybe

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Little noticed outside of New York media circles last week was this nugget in Women’s Wear Daily online that Condé Nast has hired a new publisher to oversee, not just Bon Appetit, but also Gourmet magazine, which you’ll remember was suddenly and shockingly shut down by Condé Nast last October.

So is Gourmet coming back? The WWD interview with the new publisher, Carol Smith, paraphrased her as saying “she hopes to breathe life back into Gourmet,” although the precise manner of doing so remains very much open. The reason Gourmet closed in the first place was because advertising fell off the cliff during the Recession. So how to resuscitate the magazine unless advertising returns?

Smith, who in the interview sounded like she was thinking out loud, tossed around a few possibilities, all of which sound theoretically plausible, and all of which are plagued with huge problems. This topic is of interest, of course, not only to Condé Nast and Gourmet, but to the entire world of paper-based publications. That shrieking sound that ricocheted through the publishing world last October — and especially the food and wine sectors — was the nightmare fear of publishers: “If it could happen to Gourmet, it could happen to me.”

One possibility raised by Smith was that Gourmet might become “a custom magazine.” The article described that as “whereby an advertiser such as Kraft or Target would produce a newsstand Gourmet magazine and own every ad.” So it wouldn’t really be a “pure” Gourmet magazine any longer, it would be “Gourmet by Kraft.” Could we expect to see recipes based on Oscar Mayer bologna, Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese? I’m obviously being facetious, but you get the point. One of the distinctions, or I should say prima facie conditions for the credibility of a print publication is a firewall between editorial and advertising. Would such a firewall exist in “Gourmet by Kraft”?

Other scenarios floated by Smith included “working with retailers on Gourmet-branded items, as well as television projects and events for both titles” [i.e. including Bon Appetit]. The WWD interview tossed those ideas out without explaining what any of them meant, but we can do some inferring. Smith goes to Condé Nast from Elle magazine, where she worked successfully to steer Elle into a relationship with the hugely popular “Project Runway.”

Anyone familiar with that show (and I happily admit it’s one of my favorites) knows that Project Runway has pioneered entire new swathes of territory in which the line between advertising and content is hopelessly, deliriously blurred. Think of it as product placement on steroids. So what would a Gourmet magazine that modeled itself after Project Runway look like? God only knows, but gay cuisine might be the Next Big Thing. Anyhow, people seem to enjoy this merging of reporting, entertainment, sex, information and gossip. You don’t think so? Media Daily News just reported the biggest winners and losers for magazine advertising, and the biggest winners included People Style Watch, Entertainment Weekly, Rachel Ray, People, and Lucky.

Rachel Ray? America may be doomed, but by gosh we’ll be noshing on the way down. (Memo from Charlie Townsend, Condé Nast CEO, to Smith: Develop a recipe for a Ray-style Tex-Mex Burger using Miracle Whip. Can you get your friend Heidi Klum to pitch? How much does she cost? But forget about it if she’s pregnant.)

heidi-klum

Finally, “Smith indicated…there is the potential of the Web.” Well, yes, the Web has had “potential” forever, but that gets us back to the (increasingly tiresome) problem of monetizing an online publishing site, whether it’s a blog, The New York Times or Gourmet Magazine. Would you subscribe to an online Gourmet? Will advertisers plonk down big bucks to support it? I think the answers are No, and no.

Maybe I’m wrong. Smith is said, on the New York blogs that pay attention to the fashion and style world, to be savvy and creative (although the b-word also has been applied to her). She certainly has a good track record. I think this step by Condé Nast is another example of publishers, freaked out and puzzled by the revolutionary changes occurring all around them, hiring brilliant young things (or, at least, people who are supposed to be brilliant young things), who know (or claim to know) where media is going, since publishers themselves clearly don’t. We see the same thing when a winery hires a social media director when nothing else seems to be working. It’s a little like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but you can’t blame Condé Nast for hoping that Gourmet isn’t really at the bottom of the sea, but merely wandered off course.

  1. Wow, Steve, how did you get that picture of Rachel Ray? She must have been younger then.

  2. Yes, that was her in 1948.

  3. Now I know what you were smitten about last Saturday, when you spoke about an upcoming entry! Go, Steve.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    I’ve got a pretty good recipe for a quick pate that uses Oscar Meyer Liverwurst, consumme, and gelatin that fools a lot of people. Maybe there’s something in it for Kraft. And if the new Gourmet has a lot of illustrations like the one above, then sign me up. She’s definitely not chopped liver.

  5. lori narlock says:

    I LOVE this! What I don’t understand is why some of the most creative people in publishing can’t figure out how to make the web work for them. How and when will that change?

    I have to also comment on the comment about the B-word. What women in a high-powered job isn’t called that at some point in the tabloids? It’s so sexist. Why isn’t there similar commentary for men?

  6. CA Winediva says:

    I love this line…”puzzled by the revolutionary changes occurring all around them, hiring brilliant young things (or, at least, people who are supposed to be brilliant young things), who know (or claim to know) where media is going, since publishers themselves clearly don’t.”

    I wonder which of the brilliant young things thought up using lime green type against green background, or brown type against red. I cancelled Bon Appetit after at least 20 years of subscribing because it’s hard to read, and truthfully not very interesting anymore. I’d like to see them merge Bon Appetit and Gourmet and make it interesting to a wider spectrum of readers. Right now my only foodie publications are “Food and Wine” and “Saveur”.

    Both Bon Appetit and Gourmet were really good magazines. Bring back Ruth Reichel.

  7. Well, you can always count on a scantily clad photo of someone like Heidi Klum to attract some attention! I hope it did, since this is a provocative and interesting piece–the thought of Gourmet coming back is exciting but implausible, especially since ad dollars will never be the same, and a custom magazine seems to defeat the mission of the magazine itself. As for the “potential of the web”–no-one seems to be able to realize that potential, or even understand if it is truly effective.

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