Recipe for disaster: Gourmet stopped being relevant…and now it’s gone

Goodbye, Gourmet
Goodbye, Gourmet

Over the past week or so, a lot of writers have bemoaned the death of Gourmet magazine.  I don’t feel as bad as many of its readers.  To me, it was simple.

I love magazines.  There’s a basket sitting next to my computer with a bunch of magazines in it — some read, some not.  There are old issues of both Gourmet and Bon Appetit (both published by the same people) in that basket, but we gave up our subscriptions to both a few years ago.  As I recall, they each cost less than $10 per year.  I can’t tell you why specifically, but there are only so many ways to describe cooking Thanksgiving dinner or some hopelessly complicated meal that requires 100% concentration (i.e., no kids lurking about).

And our kids started getting older…and our youngest was born with severe food allergies and neither magazine seemed to recognize that there were readers out there that faced that situation.

A simple reason for closing the magazine

I liked the simplicity of Conde Nast Chief Executive Charles Townsend’s explanation for why he shut down Gourmet and a few other publications — they were losing money.

“We will not be in that position after today — we won’t have businesses that don’t make a contribution,” Townsend said.  “These businesses should be 25 percent net-margin businesses.  We have had some underperformers, but not businesses that have cost us money to run except for launches and businesses like Gourmet that, with the economy, have slipped into the red.”

In other words, Conde Nast set aside its emotional ties to the magazine and did the right thing.  Fans of the publication can blame lots of people — Rachael Ray was one favorite target — but the bottom line (no pun intended) was that not enough people wanted to read it, not enough people would commit to reading it, and the advertisers knew it so they looked elsewhere.

“We can no longer afford to be paternalistic.”

I was reminded of an interview I did back in 1992 when a DuPont senior executives told me about deep layoffs the company was planning.  His comment has stuck with me for 17 years.

“We can no longer afford to be paternalistic,” the executive said, understanding full well that he lived in a “company town” where that would be a shocking statement.  DuPont was replaced in the role as company town by MBNA America Bank for many years, until Bank of America stepped in and bought the credit-card issuer.  And it wasn’t long before the layoffs started there too.

It was just business.  The editor of Saveur, another food magazine, referred to Gourmet as “an American cultural icon” as if that should have been enough to save it.  GM was a cultural icon too. 

There is a long list of companies and publications that were important.  And then they weren’t.  And now they’re gone.  The irrelevant replaced by the relevant…or at least by people committed to trying to be relevant and find a voice and a community.

The bottom line…Gourmet failed to stay important to the people who paid the bills and failed to become important to a new generation of readers and cooks.  And now it’s gone.  It’s difficult for me to say that’s sad.  It’s just reality.

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