Despite the rumors of budget cuts and ample industry speculation about how Condé Nast would see their magazine business through this economic downturn, Magazine Know-It-All did not anticipate such a drastic sweep of the axe. Along with parenting title, Cookie, and two of their redundant bridal books, the company is closing Gourmet, the nation’s oldest food magazine, published since 1940.
A major thread in the Condé conversation has been the apparent face-off between Gourmet and the company’s other food title, Bon Appétit. As it goes, the two magazines had too much in common to coexist (all the while cannibalizing advertising dollars), yet long-time subscribers and people in the food world could never have made the mistake of confusing them.
As a magazine writer with a big chunk of my clips in the food and recipe development space, I have a tremendous fondness for food magazines. While I’ve gone through phases of being smitten with one or another title, Gourmet has always held a place at the top of my list of favorite magazines, of any genre.
Considering Condé Nast ’s indulgent attitude toward its prestige and storied magazines, like Vanity Fair, Vogue and The New Yorker, I am surprised they didn’t find a way to hold onto Gourmet. While Bon Appétit boasts a higher circulation (approximately 1.4 million vs. 977,000), it suffered a similarly awful decline in ad pages in the first half of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008 (35.5% for BA vs. Gourmet’s 46%). I can only assume BA’s business was more sustainable and less costly than Gourmet’s would have been in the long run. But, since Condé Nast is a privately held company, who can say for sure what factors were at play.
It’s true the numbers don’t lie, but shuttering Gourmet was the wrong choice. The magazine, helmed since 1999 by Ruth Reichl, an extraordinary writer, former New York Times restaurant critic, and a celebrity in her own right, possessed a clear point of view, a timely & vital mission, and a resistance against pandering to the masses. While its large fan base makes it anything but a niche publication, Gourmet was not out to please all the foodies all the time. And that’s why its closure is a blow to the national conversation on food politics, farming and the practical and cultural meaning of food in our lives.
By staying true to its editorial mission and turning out consistently compelling content, I believe Gourmet would have remained a vital brand until the economic pendulum swings the other way and advertisers return.
For my money, Bon Appétit’s future isn’t such a good bet. Less than a decade ago, it was a book for housewives and hostesses with a dated look. As the word “foodie” entered the popular lexicon, chefs became rock stars and cooking shows became entertainment, BA made a move to compete with the hipper food mags, as well as the women’s magazines usurping its core audience (titles like Family Circle and Good Housekeeping publish quite a lot of food content in their own right).
With a drastic redesign debuting in January 2008, BA went for a younger, cooler look that would actually mesh with the visual aesthetic of readers accustomed to viewing recipe content online, rather than in a dog-eared old edition of The Joy of Cooking. In addition, recipes got simpler, incorporating more pre-made ingredients, like pancake mix and rotisserie chicken. Food photography took on the in-your-face, pop-art quality of a fashion accessories editorial.
In this new guise, Bon Appétit avoided the axe while Gourmet did not. Still, I can’t help but think that BA’s success is only momentary. When the casual foodies reading BA today find a new hobby, what will the magazine do to be a relevant part of the culinary zeitgeist? Without a legacy, a mission or a lasting contribution to food scholarship, will there be anyone around to care about Bon Appétit’s passing, should it ever come to that?