By Jacqueline Trescott and Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writers and
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
The epicurean elite and the chef wannabes plunged into communal grief Monday at the news that 68-year-old Gourmet magazine was toast.
Condé Nast Publications also announced it was killing three other glossies -- including Modern Bride, a bible for planning the big day. But the shocker was Gourmet. Online, mourning readers reminisced about how they saved each and every November issue. The bound issues provided a history of how the turkey was trussed over the years, how sweet potatoes went from being a marshmallow-crowned casserole to a caramelized confection sprinkled with spiced nuts.
They spoke of it like a friend dying. "So sad! It's been around my entire life," said one commenter.
"It's the center of gravity, a major planet that's just disappearing," said chef and author Anthony Bourdain.
Gourmet was not just a recipe magazine. It was a lush roadmap to gastronomic culture, travel and entertaining. It set the standard for all food magazines that followed, including Bon Appetit, the Condé Nast epicurean sister title that will survive.
The company attributed the decision to the poor economy, which has sharply reduced advertising revenues throughout the industry and spelled doom for several magazines. This summer, the company retained McKinsey & Co., a managing consulting firm, to help identify which titles were expendable.
"In this economic climate it is important to narrow our focus to titles with the greatest prospects for long-term growth," said Chuck Townsend, the Condé Nast CEO, in a memo to employees.
The other magazines to be closed are Modern Bride, which gave advice on everything from gowns to table napkins; Elegant Bride, for upscale brides-to-be; and Cookie, a parenting magazine for yuppies. Condé Nast said 180 jobs will be eliminated by the closings. Not affected are Condé Nast's standard-bearers: the New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Gourmet and Cookie will publish their final issue in November. For Modern Bride and Elegant Bride, the current issue is the last, said Maurie Perl, senior vice president of corporate communications. Condé Nast's flagship bridal magazine, Brides, will now be published monthly, instead of six times a year. Brides circulation had reached 2 million, while Modern Bride was at 1.9 million and Elegant Bride, nearly 600,000.
The Media Industry Newsletter reported that throughout the Condé Nast empire this year, the magazines have lost thousands of ad pages. The circulation of Modern Bride had fallen 1.2 percent during the first six months of 2009, although Cookie's total was up 4.9 percent, according to Bloomberg.
There had long been speculation that Condé Nast would shutter one of its two epicurean titles. Bon Appetit had more successfully weathered the present financial storm: Its ad pages fell 34.5 percent in the first half of 2009, compared to Gourmet's 46.1 percent plunge.
Still, most insiders hoped the company would protect Gourmet. Its circulation had held, dropping only 1 percent in the first half of the year, to 978,038. But Gourmet was not immune to larger industry trends, according to Bob Garfield, a columnist at Ad Age and author of "The Chaos Scenario."
"Your content can be flawless and you can still fail," Garfield said. "The Internet has created a nearly infinite supply of content . . . which leads to declining revenue and declining ad prices. What you have is a spiraling vortex of ruin. The reason Gourmet is dead is because we are all doomed."
Under editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, Gourmet had distinguished itself by offering a broad survey of issues, including hot topics such as food politics -- the local movement, artisanal producers, social justice. "So few food publications could blend the political side of eating with joys of eating," said Amanda McClements, author of Metrocurean.com, a Washington food blog. "For me, and a lot of other people, being a food lover is also about being a conscious eater."
What makes the shuttering of the magazine even more of a head-scratcher is the fact that Reichl, a former New York Times restaurant critic and best-selling author, did everything a 21st-century editor is supposed to do: Write successful books, appear on the "Today" show, use photography imaginatively, have a TV series (the latest, "Gourmet's Adventures With Ruth," debuts Oct. 17 on public television). Gourmet had made strides toward publishing simpler recipes, interfacing with readers, reducing the number of ingredients for quick-cook recipes, developing a great buzzy and useful Web site, and creating gastronomical celebrities. The company said the remnants of Gourmet will continue in book publishing, television programming and the recipe site Epicurious.com.
But in the end, none of it was enough to stem the tide of decline. Some felt Gourmet had lost touch. Nancy Pollard, owner of the store La Cuisine in Alexandria, had canceled her subscription several years ago after 40 years. "I hated the way they were doing the photographs of the food. I really preferred what we used to call the centerfold, the gorgeous pictures of the table and the dish. It got away from that."
Associated Press contributed to this report.