Conde Nast's closure of Gourmet shakes up magazine industry

The end of the venerable publication and three others underscores the swift and brutal fall of the once highflying business amid a steep drop in ad revenue.

October 06, 2009|Walter Hamilton and Russ Parsons

NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES — Two years ago, Conde Nast's Vogue published its biggest issue, an advertising-packed behemoth that symbolized the prosperity of New York's glittering magazine industry as it rode the twin booms in the economy and luxury spending to dramatic heights.

Generous expense accounts were de rigueur at glossy fashion and lifestyle magazines. Some top editors and publishers enjoyed clothing allowances and mortgage assistance. Even lowly assistants flitted about in chauffeur-driven town cars.

But that culture has been turned on its head as the magazine business reels from the battered economy, the drop in advertising revenue and restraints on expenses.

Conde Nast's unexpected closure Monday of venerable Gourmet and three other magazines underscored the swift and brutal fall of what had been one of the city's most elite and free-spending industries.

The folding of Gourmet, in particular, shook up the insular magazine world. The 69-year-old arbiter of culinary taste was edited by Ruth Reichl, a bestselling author and former restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. The closure caught Reichl herself flat-footed.

"Like everyone else, I found out this morning," she said. "I can't talk about it now, it's too raw. I've got to pack up my office."

Reichl elaborated in a Twitter message to readers: "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."

For Conde Nast, surviving the recession and a steep drop in ad revenue was paramount in the decision to close Gourmet, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and Cookie magazines.

"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," Chief Executive Charles H. Townsend said.

Among those new initiatives, to be detailed in the coming weeks, he said, are digital versions of the company's brands using "new devices and distribution channels."

The moves mark a new cover story: Cost cutting is suddenly in style.

Publishers have closed numerous magazines this year, reduced the circulation and frequency of some publications and tossed dozens of journalists out of work. The result is a downsizing of the industry's larger-than-life character.

"I don't think we'll ever see the heyday again," said Roberta Garfinkle, director for print strategy at TargetCast tcm, which buys advertising for large companies. "The business will come back as the economy starts to rebound, but certainly not to the levels it was once."

The carnage at Conde Nast -- the queen bee of New York glossies with such marquee titles as Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker -- shouldn't have been a surprise given that Conde had two food magazines and three bridal titles.

There had been rumors that Gourmet might be in the cross hairs because Conde Nast also owns its chief competitor, Bon Appetit, based in Los Angeles. Bon Appetit has more readers than Gourmet, 1.3 million to 950,000, Conde Nast said.

Gourmet also had a reputation for being expensive to publish, with long features by well-known writers. Bon Appetit was focused on recipe-driven content.

The industry contraction is being driven by the plunge in ad pages -- the lifeblood of the industry.

Ad pages have slumped 22% industrywide this year, and some publications have suffered far worse, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Vogue is off 33%, Architectural Digest is down 49%, and Esquire has fallen 27%.

At Conde Nast's two food publications, Gourmet saw a 46.9% drop in ad revenue and a 50% decline in ad pages in the second quarter from last year's April-June period, while Bon Appetit's revenue fell 36% and ad pages declined 40%, according to Publishers Information Bureau.

It's unclear whether the drop in advertising has hit bottom, but throughout the industry employees and experts are bracing for more job cuts.

"There is fear everywhere," said Samir Husni, who heads the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. "Fear of losing jobs, fear of losing entire magazines."

The culture and spending at BusinessWeek are far more subdued than at Conde Nast's glamour magazines, but employees' fear for their jobs is palpable. Owner McGraw-Hill Cos. put the well-regarded but money-losing magazine on the block over the summer, and its writers, well-versed in chronicling corporate America's downsizing, expect deep cuts regardless of who buys the magazine.

"There's a sense of the inevitable," said one employee who did not want to be identified for fear of antagonizing bosses. "However this shakes out, a lot of people are going to be out of work."

The cutbacks carry a particular sting at Conde Nast because of the company's famous spending habits and the imperious manners of some top editors.

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