Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Words muttered over the grave of Gourmet

Conde Nast in the US just announced the closure of four magazines. One of them is Gourmet, which was launched in 1941. The worldwide tribe of foodies is up in arms, blaming the loss on the insensitivity of Conde Nast management with the connivance of consultants from McKinsey. They only interrupt their thundering against these Philistines to say that of course they hadn't read it for some while since it was taken over by some vulgarian. Closures of magazines are invariably greeted by tear-stained tributes from people who stopped reading them some while before, bitter anonymous postings by people who have just lost their jobs and think-pieces from people who haven't a clue about the economics underpinning such businesses, particularly when they're based in the United States.

Jay Rayner in the Guardian refers to the lavish multiple-dollars-per-word way Gourmet was put together but doesn't seem to feel that this was part of what rendered it unsustainable. American magazines, particularly the ones that they habitually refer to as "upscale", are massively risky bets where an annual subscription is effectively given away in order to achieve the "rate-base" that advertisers have been persuaded to pay for. This is a wager that might work out as long as advertising is going up but will be quickly found out in hard times. In really hard times such as we're going through at the moment anything even slightly marginal plunges into the red overnight. Gourmet is said to have seen a 41% decline in advertising in the last year. That's not just a bad year. That's structural.


  1. Those subscription rates on that link you provide are staggering. Rolling Stone, for instance, is available at a 94 per cent discount - $9.95 for a year's subscription. Surely that can barely cover the cost of postage.

  2. Paul K12:14 pm

    The "structural" problem was, surely, that the advertising was predicated on the demographics rather than the interest of the audience. Their advertising wasn't about gourmet food; it was largely the clothes and travel which the wealthy readers bought. And when times are hard, those advertisers will retreat into magazines which directly reflect and promote their products. Gourmet magazine was a flop when they tried to publish it over here back in the Eighties - and now we have Waitrose Food Illustrated, a brilliant example not only of food journalism, but of successful contract publishing. Sign of the times?

  3. A very different business, of course, but there was the same outpouring of grief when that 'national institution', Woolworths went bust. Hordes of people mourned its passing: if some of them had actually spent some money there it might have survived.

  4. I got a TWO YEAR subscription to (American) Esquire for a measly $10. The offer letter they sent me said they wanted people in my demographic as subscribers so — they used these actual words — "we've done our best to make price a non-issue"

    Magazines get a very cheap postal rate over here, though it has gone up a lot recently adding to business woes.

  5. Anonymous6:20 pm


    I do think you misrepresent me. You say I point out the multi-dollar word rate but that I don't appear to think that was one of the things that closed the mag.

    I said exactly the opposite. Indeed the paragraph in which I mention the word rate begins thus: 'The fact Condé Nast decided it no longer made economic sense is not, for those of us who wrote for it, entirely staggering. Working for Gourmet was like flying the Atlantic first class. It ruined you for other food magazines.'

    Personally I find it amazing that a magazine which, at last count, was selling 955,000 could not find a way to make itself economically viable. i took the money. I revelled in the opportunities it gave me, and the pieces it resulted in. But it always felt bizarre, as does much of US media which is yet to catch up with economic realities.


  6. Fair enough about the word rate, but I think what everybody misreads about American magazines is the circulation. It won't have "sold" 995,000 in the sense that we would understand it here. It may have achieved a 995,000 rate base but that will have been largely through massive discounting. In fact, I've just looked at the Conde Nast site and the deal on offer until the magazine closed was:
    Subscribe today to get one year of GOURMET for only $12 plus $3 postage and handling!

  7. I can't decide what is more absurd. The sloppy, lazy, wasteful American publishing model that foists Esquire for ten bucks onto middle-aged ladies in Desmoines and then rips off razor advertisers by selling them vast numbers of the wrong people while throwing the resultant money down the drain. Or tearful punters who think that magazines are some kind of cultural gift to them personally rather than a business just like anything else. Either way, let's enjoy The New Yorker while we can because one day, yes, the truly unthinkable will happen...

  8. An interesting postscript to this subject here from the publisher of Cook's Weekly writing in the New York Times:
    It was the triumph of the American magazine model, one driven by lifestyle rather than nuts and bolts, and floated by the billions of advertising dollars that poured through a narrow spigot into the magazine industry, controlled by a select few, the chauffeured, hard-charging publishers of New York’s powerhouse magazine corporations. It was a top-down, winner-take-all proposition, an oligarchy of sorts, a business with a huge barrier to entry and no welcome mat for the upstart entrepreneur.