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Goodbye, Gourmet Add to ...

shoupt@globeandmail.com

The kids will never understand. Once upon a time, before a deregulated airline industry, before satellite television, before Google Maps, if you wanted to travel the world, there was Gourmet.

If you had a mother or a grandmother with aspirations but insufficient funds to make them real, the food and travel magazine would be devoured cover to cover before finding its proper place on the coffee table, where it would serve as a sign for guests who recognized such signifiers of class.

But the world has changed, and so has the magazine industry, and yesterday morning, the owners of Gourmet magazine announced that the November issue would be its last.

In media interviews, the chief executive of Condé Nast Publications Inc., said the reason was simple: Gourmet, the oldest culinary monthly in North America, was losing money. Ad pages had fallen like an overdone soufflé, down nearly 45 per cent between January and September. With a staff numbering around 100, circulation stubbornly below one million, and its corporate sister Bon Appétit proving both cheaper to produce and far more appetizing to advertisers, Gourmet was taken out back and slaughtered like a terrified Thanksgiving turkey. Readers reacted as if they had lost a loved one. "Gourmet is like a bible," the Toronto-based chef Susur Lee said yesterday. "I'm a little depressed. When I heard, I called my wife to tell her the news. Something like that, you want to share with your family."

The decision was a shock for many reasons, not the least because Gourmet - known as the magazine of good living - had weathered tough times before. Its debut issue carried an editor's letter declaring that the word gourmet was "a synonym of the honest seeker of the summum bonum [the highest good]of living." That was in January, 1941, and as wartime rationing made a mockery of the idea of good living, its editors stumbled upon a strategy of explicit aspiration, advising American housewives to save the issues for a time when bounty would return. When the 1950s took off, the magazine was perfectly positioned to capitalize on the economic boom, and to take the hand of nervous Americans on an increasingly adventurous tour of the world's cuisines and cultures.

In the ensuing decades, it became the lodestar of U.S. food writing. Housewives subscribed to learn the tricks of making complicated restaurant meals at home, and to live vicariously through the magazine's glamorous travel articles. Its layouts were lush and heavily art-directed, the reading experience almost sensual. But Ruth Reichl, its editor since early 1999, took the magazine further into the real world, opening its pages to sometimes troubling articles about the intersection of politics and food, as well as essays by well regarded novelists. The title story of David Foster Wallace's collection Consider the Lobster was first published in Gourmet.

Like its Condé Nast stable mate The New Yorker, Gourmet was coveted and collected, and sometimes passed down from one generation to the next in binders until the Internet made the collecting bug seem a little naive: what use, after all, could beautiful photographs and design and smart writing on glossy paper have in an age when people crave pure information, or video with their text?

At midafternoon yesterday, Ms. Reichl issued this statement via Twitter, somewhat ironically reaching out to her readers and fans on the sort of ascetic new-media platform that is in some ways an enemy of Gourmet and its ilk: "Thank you all SO much for this outpouring of support. It means a lot. Sorry not to be posting now, but I'm packing. We're all stunned, sad."

****

MOVING TOWARD A DIGITAL NEWSSTAND?

Condé Nast announced yesterday that it is closing four magazines, including Gourmet, the oldest U.S. food magazine.

The cuts may accelerate a broader power shift within the controlling Newhouse family. Late to developing its online publishing, the company is now shifting resources out of print publications to its digital businesses.

With that change, power is moving to Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance.net, the company's Internet arm.

He is the nephew of S.I. Newhouse Jr., the publishing company's octogenarian chairman.

The decision to close the magazines comes after a report that Condé Nast was working with Time Warner's Time Inc., Hearst Corp., and others to develop ways of making money from magazines online.

The collaboration could see the group set up a digital newsstand that would charge customers to load magazine content on to mobile devices such as electronic book readers, a source told Reuters.

Even though many fans enjoyed flipping through the glossy pages, popular food shows on television and online sites eroded the magazine's advertising revenue.

"The magazine industry is in a difficult position generally speaking, it's losing revenue to online advertising and it's a tough business right now," said Richard Dorfman, managing director of Richard Alan Inc., a financial advisory and investment company focusing on the media industry.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Reuters, CNN

 

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