Gourmet Starved to Death

Seventy years of great photography and intimidating recipes have collapsed as fast as a badly constructed boysenberry soufflé. Yesterday, Conde Nast announced it was yanking Gourmet off the stove.

It was a needless death in our food-mad culture. The Food Channel sizzles. The gladiatorial combat of Iron Chef rivets. Locovore was the new word of the year. Michael Pollan writes best-sellers. Our president is an eating elitist who worries (or worried, at least) about the cost of arugula.

As you would expect, there is much end-of-an-era keening and despair by foodies everywhere about the yawning void this leaves. And much opining about the grim future of the glossy mag.

The first thing I'll say is let's not blame the executioner, although I concede it's easy to hate McKinsey, those bloodless consultants with no appreciation of aesthetics or tradition.

And let's not just blame the Great Recession and the cratering of advertising pages. It's true that Gourmet has shrunk from its zaftig, glory days, Michael-Moore sized edition to more refugee-camp dimensions. But the seeds (heirloom, of course) for this were planted a long time ago. Planted by the failure of Conde Nast, who is essentially in the trend business, to have the faintest notion of where the macro-media trends were headed.

Let's start with the hard-copy magazine. One of the legacy pricing issues that magazines have dumbly stuck with is that local advertising gets charged a premium. To put that in simple terms, if a national page in Gourmet costs $100, and you want to advertise only in New York -- which is ten percent of the U.S. -- Gourmet will charge you a lovely up-charge. So the local page might cost you $15 or $20.

There's some logic for this; there are logistical costs involved in inserting an ad in only a portion of a print run. But there are devastating consequences. Food is largely local. People who read Gourmet are natural customers of neighborhood restaurants, local wine shops, local cheese mongers. But have you ever seen one of their ads in the magazine?

By making it punishingly expensive for those advertisers, Gourmet limited itself to deep-pocketed, luxury national brands, and eliminated an entire revenue stream that could have helped sustain it in bad times.

A strong local orientation would have also translated into local events. Special promotions with restaurants, wine-tastings, meets-and-greets with celebrity chefs. All of that would have been incremental revenue. And that revenue stream, by the way, would have naturally migrated to the web.

And that's the second huge failure that's responsible for Si dropping Gourmet into the trash compactor. Their website is what people in the industry charitably call Web 1.0, meaning that it is essentially a one-way, digital version of the magazine. Even now, there aren't any meaningful, interactive, Web 2.0 tools and functionality. No blogs, no data feeds, no profound user-contributory mechanism, minimal video.

Check out the site, while you still can, and you'll see what I mean. You'll be greeted by big, luscious, sexy photographs. The editors are trying to replicate the magazine experience, and that's dead wrong. Content-providers (hateful term, but clear) who succeed online do so because they are able to create experiences that take advantage of the medium. People who love food don't need to have half of their screen colonized by shots of sexualized pomegranates. They want lots of timely, useful, information -- much of it local. They want to share ideas and recipes.

Meanwhile, while Gourmet has been dozing, a vast and lively food ecosystem has exploded online, faster than early-spring asparagus -- much of which could and should have been part of the Gourmet online presence. There's Chowhound, Eater.com, Yelp and hundreds of ferociously obsessive bloggers covering every inch of the restaurant and food world who have filled a void left by the 70-year-old dowager of delicacies.

One of these bloggers, for example, is solely fixated on the nano-gauge need of finding lunch in a single part of Manhattan. I discovered MidtownLunch.com the other day, when I was walking across 52nd Street and noticed an intriguing, new take-out place called Barros Luco. A quick web search brought me to a site whose purview is delightfully narrow: "Finding lunch in the food wasteland of midtown Manhattan," which is where I learned that Barros Luco is a Chilean sandwich joint that's attempting to woo New York. That should have been a Gourmet search, a microcosm for a tragic macrocosm.

This is a universal, old-media story. HuffingtonPost and TMZ and yes, The Daily Beast exist because the Michael's-lunching suits never got it. But even Time and Entertainment Weekly have roused themselves into more vital Internet brands than Gourmet. They've squandered their legacy with a dismal site that's static, boring and completely removed from the foodie dialogue. And with Ruth Reichel, they had a powerful, respected personality to drive it.

So to anyone who was watching, the demise of Gourmet was perfectly predictable. It's a failure of imagination on both the print and the digital side. The press loves to report on the lavish spending habits that Conde Nast subvented, the first class travel, the town cars, the perks. While that was happening, the magazine itself was slowly starving to death.