Goodbye, Gourmet; bon voyage, Bon Appetit. December 28, 2010Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Bon Appetit, cooking magazines, Emeril, Gourmet, Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray
Silence Dogood here. In a time when chefs are stars, when millions of people tune in to cooking shows for entertainment, not instruction, when cooking magazines outnumber sports magazines on store racks, it’s hard to believe that America’s two flagship cooking magazines are struggling—and, apparently, failing—to survive.
Gourmet, the first American food and wine magazine, sent out its last issue in October 2009 after 68 years of publication (founded 1941). And now Bon Appetit, founded in 1956, is suffering a sea change. Owner Conde Nast is moving the publication from L.A. to New York and replacing the entire staff, as I discovered when reading the Letter from the Editor in the January 2011 issue this morning.
Why would two such venerable publications, which have survived far longer than most of their readers and contributors have been alive, which (in the case of Gourmet) even survived war rationing, be failing when interest in food and cooking is at an all-time high?
Call me cynical if you must, but I’m guessing it’s because these magazines weren’t celebrity-based. Not that editors Ruth Reichl (Gourmet) and Barbara Fairchild (Bon Appetit) didn’t have their own followings; I’m sure they did and do. But their names aren’t valuable commercial commodities like, say, Paula Deen’s or Rachael Ray’s or Martha Stewart’s. Their faces weren’t plastered on the front of every issue. The magazines were about food, not about personalities. Both magazines began life in their own right, not as spinoffs of TV shows.
Not that I’m criticizing Paula, Rachael or Martha for their success. They all worked harder than practically anyone but Oprah to get and stay where they are. I wouldn’t give my life and privacy away like that for love or money, and since they did, surely they deserve their good fortune. I’m just surprised that celebrity chefs like Emeril have managed to resist the siren call of a magazine named for them.
But no answer is quite that simple. Plenty of other food and cooking magazines are still in publication, and they aren’t helmed by TV stars. What they do have that neither Gourmet nor Bon Appetit did, however, is either a tight, special-interest focus—vegetarian or vegan cooking or artisanal cheeses or Italian cuisine or what have you—or a practical focus on getting fast, cheap, homestyle food on the table (Taste of Home, slow-cooker meals, 30-minute meals, etc.).
Could Gourmet have survived? Can Bon Appetit weather this latest storm? I doubt it, because both are (or were) supported not by subscriptions but by advertising, so they were (and are) at the mercy of a very fickle revenue source. (In case you’re wondering, yes, indeed they did charge for subscriptions and have large circulation figures. But the revenues from circulation would have been a pittance, almost a bonus, compared to the money supplied by advertisers.)
Can a cooking magazine rely on subscription revenues rather than advertising? You betcha. But it requires a great deal of finesse, intelligence, and hard work. Examples are the magazines founded by Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen, Cook’s Illustrated and (my favorite cooking mag) Cook’s Country. You’ll find nary an ad in either one. But Chris Kimball & co. work very hard to maintain the loyalty of their subscribers, not just in the quality of the magazines but by spinning off annuals, cookbooks, and etc. from both the magazines and their PBS cooking shows. (And, of course, those shows generate a ready-made audience for the magazines and cookbooks.) And, to restate the obvious, subscription-based magazines must have a loyal and passionate subscriber base, which in turn requires a very savvy focus and superb content.
What would my culinary hero, Julia Child, have made of the demise of Gourmet and the shakeup at Bon Appetit, a magazine presumably named in honor of her signature sign-off line from her PBS show, “The French Chef”? I have no idea; maybe somebody out there can tell me. But I’ll bet if Julia were on the air today, she’d have her own magazine, too. And I’d be first in line to subscribe!
‘Til next time,