by James J. Murtagh
American Reporter Correspondent
October 8, 2009
AMERICA NEEDS 'MOORE' DEMOCRACY, FEWER CLICHÉS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Is it wrong to be sad about the closing of Gourmet Magazine when many Americans are having a hard time putting food on the table? Why should we care about recipes featuring truffles and pheasant when people are eating fast food because its cheap and filling and they're hungry?
For the same reason, perhaps, that even today we treasure Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies from the 1930s - a time when most Americans were suffering from the Great Depression.
Even in good times, many of us have alternate universes in which we occasionally like to spend some time.
For some it's soap operas on television. For others, it's Oprah and the possibilities of self-realized perfection. Maybe it's slasher movies. Or porn. Or the lives of celebrities. Or sports. For me, it's Condé Nast magazines.
From time to time I like to lose myself in the world of Vogue, W, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest, Gourmet and The New Yorker. I like to imagine that I live in that world of glamorous people doing and saying glamorous things in beautiful settings (watch out for that pool!) while wearing glamorous clothing and eating glamorous meals. (My imagination sometimes mistakes me for a cross between Cole Porter and Nora Charles.)
Condé Nast, a multibillion-DOLLAR glossy magazine company resting on the back of a more mundane daily newspaper company, has always been the gold standard for magazines. But putting out high-end magazines is expensive. As someone said this week, Si Newhouse, the co-owner of Condé Nast, "has a subscription to The New Yorker, just like yours, except he pays 100 million for his."
A few months ago, Condé Nast brought in efficiency experts to help trim costs. The results were announced this week: the closing of the 68-year-old Gourmet, America's oldest food magazine, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and the parenting magazine Cookie. The closings mean the loss of about 180 high-paying journalism jobs.
"Condé Nast is now in its 100th year of creating the most respected and iconic brands in the publishing world," said company CEO Chuck Thompson. "These changes will ensure that our unique publishing company will continue in its preeminent position for many years to come."
It's not news that newspapers are sinking - they're deep in debt, cutting staff, cutting content, cutting costs, losing readers and closing their doors. Many of us in journalism believed the problem was intrinsic to the news industry. We talked about shrinking advertising sales, the importance of having a presence on the Internet, charging for content, creating niche products and, most important, about who will pay for real journalism once the great newspapers are gone.
But now magazines are following newsprint's dismal path. Already gone are Vibe, Blender, Travel & Leisure's Golf, Teen, Country Home, Cottage Living, Home, The New York Times' Play Magazine, O at Home (even the mighty Oprah has fallen slightly), Radar, Cosmo Girl and Playgirl. Earlier this year, Condé Nast shut Portfolio, Domino and Men's Vogue.
Gourmet's closing hits closer to home. The New York Times called it "a magazine of almost biblical status in the food world."
Gourmet's wonderful editor, Ruth Reichl, is herself a great writer - she titled one of her memoirs "Tender at the Bone" and another "Comfort Me With Apples." Under her direction, the magazine won three National Magazine Awards. She introduced her upscale readers to such concepts as locavore eating and molecular gastronomy (using the principles of chemistry and physics to prepare food).
Now that she has been fired, lesser writers get to say "Stick a fork in it, it's done" and "Gone to the meat grinder."
Gourmet did all the right things - all the things that newspapers have been blamed for not doing.
It provided lasting content. But it died. It was a niche product. But it died. It was socially relevant. But it died. It published talented people. But it died. It diversified onto the Internet. And it died (although it will remain a presence on the Web). It had its own tv show. But it died. It had a wealthy corporate parent. But it died.
Gourmet is being closed in favor of another Condé Nast magazine, the lower-brow Bon Appetit. In a masterful use of corporatespeak, CEO Townshend said, "These changes, combined with cost and workforce reductions now underway throughout the company, will speed the recovery of our current businesses and enable us to pursue new ventures. In the coming weeks, we hope to announce initiatives to develop digital versions of our brands that will make use of new devices and distribution channels."
Going low hasn't helped the newspaper industry, and it won't help the magazine industry, either. Think of Fred in his tuxedo and Ginger in her feathered gown. Of what use are "new devices and distribution channels" without style and imagination? Don't they count for anything, Condé Nast?
AR Correspondent Joyce Marcel (email@example.com) is a Vermont journalist and columnist.