Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

Gourmet magazine’s death and the wisdom of crowds

Posted on | October 6, 2009 | 3 Comments

Summary: The tenets of matching audience to publication or “content” don’t change. The lesson of Gourmet magazine’s demise is that you shift your content away from your core audience at your own peril.

My initial reaction to the shuttering of 68-year-old Gourmet magazine was simply to shake my head. How do advertisers turn their backs on nearly a million subscribers to a very targeted information product? They’re there to learn how to cook and cook well, and that requires expensive products and services that splash the pages of the magazine. They have skin in the game.

But it turns out that while it’s undoubtedly a complicated tale, the advertisers didn’t turn their backs on Gourmet as much as Conde Nast apparently turned its back on Gourmet’s core readership.

Stroll through any robust comments section of an online newspaper or blog and you can conduct your own pseudo-opinion poll. The ones I examined skewed largely to the format (I like the ease and interactivity of online versus print etc.), but hidden among those are suggestions of a deeper editorial problem.

“Gourmet is no longer about good cooking. It’s about eating with your eyes.”

If you really want to learn how to cook, the cultish Cook’s Illustrated is the place to go; if you want travel and food, there are dozens of remaining, focused titles.

It brought me back to a piece sustainability observer Michael Pollan wrote this summer for the New York Times Magazine (Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch). It examined the evolution of televised cooking shows, but the trend clearly affects other media:

The Food Network has helped to transform cooking from something you do into something you watch — into yet another confection of spectacle and celebrity that keeps us pinned to the couch.

Perhaps Conde Nast years ago figured Gourmet’s core audience (people keenly interested in cooking) was not scalable long term; that television was grabbing advertising dollars with a “watch-don’t-do” philosophy that it needed to adopt. In the process, the core audience wandered away and, later, so did the advertisers.

Conde Nast brought in consultants from McKinsey to help overhaul some of its titles. It’s a safe bet that that team didn’t have seasoned editors or circulation managers among their ranks.

These are tough times in publishing with technological change and the Great Recession creating a perfect storm. Even so, following the money means paying attention to your audience.

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3 Responses to “Gourmet magazine’s death and the wisdom of crowds”

  1. Loring Wirbel
    October 6th, 2009 @ 9:02 am

    OK, but what about the trend of Time and Newsweek becoming less interesting to the extent they follow “here’s what we consumers are feeling” styles. The more vital newsmagazine follows The Economist line of impartially saying, “Here’s what happened around the world this week, and we are not including celebrity news, only the stuff that a schoolmarm tells you you SHOULD know.”

    If we used the Gourmet model, we might say that Time and Newsweek are urging readers to become static social-network-like participants in lives (though it’s all narcissistic and devoid of information), while The Economist tells us to watch the world impartially. In this case, the elite case is telling us to watch rather than participate.

    My point is that the rolling-your-sleeves-up-and-getting-your-hands-dirty model is not always the most detailed and informative – sometimes it’s the most superficial.

  2. Lou Covey
    October 6th, 2009 @ 9:45 am

    The purpose of Gourmet magazine was, ostensibly, to show people how to cook great food, not watch it being done. Brian is saying when it moved to the latter, it violated the implied contract with it’s readers. Time and Newsweek have, essentially, done the same thing. Their contract with their readers was to provide what the Economist continues to do: provide information by which one makes political, social and economic choices. As a result, they are losing both readers and advertisers.
    As someone who loves to cook, I really hate the Food network because it says if you have a kitchen equipped with all this wonderful equipment then you can prepare these elaborate meals. Then on BBC you have Gordon Ramsey showing that with a knife, some olive oil, a decent skillet, and readily available food, you can feed the British Army. That’s what I watch.
    As someone who wants to know what is going on in the world, I used to read Time, Newsweek and Businessweek. Now I read the Economist because that’s where I get real information.

  3. Brian
    October 6th, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    Lou hit the nail on the head. Time and Newsweek, reacting to TV, fluffed up their content and their circ rolls have to be a mess because of it. Newsweek this year has tried an about-face to be more Economist-y.
    It has an opportunity to make some hay there, but with a vastly shrunk circ list. The Economist is impenetrable for many people who nevertheless want insight and “quality” information, just delivered in less dry fashion. Many of us love the Economist for that reason, but it’s not a zero-sum game.

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