Late Stage Empire: How Condé Nast could’ve saved Gourmet magazine, and why it chose not to
What’s been lost so far in the analysis of the carnage at the luxe magazine publishing dinosaur that is Advance Publications’ Condé Nast is that the decision to close Gourmet is not shocking at all. While at first glance the closure looks like another harbinger of the end of publishing’s golden age, the truth is, it’s really the latest manifestation of the company’s feral instincts, which lead it to kill or ignore what it doesn’t understand. Make no mistake, if Condé Nast as a whole were to go down, the remaining editors and publishers will go down like 1st class on the Titanic– Champagne flutes in hand, grabbing chunks of the iceberg off the deck, the better to cool their drinks with. This is not an abadonment of the values that made Condé the mothership of class and sophistication. This is a retrenchment. This is Condé Nast looking at Gourmet’s books and saying, this business doesn’t work, but we don’t know how to fix it, so we’ll close it instead. And ultimately that’s why Condé Nast is shriking, and will continue to shrink as long as this management strategy prevails. Let me explain:
Retrenching is why CEO Chuck Townsend said this in his email to staff on the closings: “Gourmet magazine will cease monthly publication, but we will remain committed to the brand, retaining Gourmet’s book publishing and television programming, and Gourmet recipes on Epicurious.com.” What loyalty will readers have to a book imprint, TV show or co-branded website for a magazine that doesn’t exist? It’s a slow fade into irrelevance for everything that made Gourmet great. If Condé was serious about reinvention, Townsend’s statement might’ve read something like this:
Gourmet magazine will cease monthly publication, but we will remain committed to the brand. Gourmet.com will relaunch next week under Editor Ruth Reichl. The new website will offer a host of innovative ways to connect readers to Gourmet’s staff. The test kitchens will soon boast webcams and interactive recipe testing, encouraging readers to trade comments and ideas with test-chefs working on each week’s new recipes. Gourmet will also roll out a new standardized recipe data format, which will allow readers to suggest alternative ingredients for taste, or to create versions that are diabetes, celiac, low-fat, low cholesterol, organic, locavore or vegan friendly. Soon all of Gourmet’s archived recipes will be reformatted into this Master Recipe format, giving readers an entirely new way to cook and shop. Additionally, the magazine will publish twice yearly supplemental issues: Gourmet Holidays, focused on the time of the year when food and family gatherings are at the forefront of our minds, and Gourmet Summer, an issue pertaining to the bounties and pleasures of high season cuisine. Podcasts and collaborations with leading social networks, featuring reader photos and recipes, will round out the relaunch. As we re-imagine the epicurean magazine, we expect to make more announcements of special issues and new website features in the future.
Thing is, while a site like that would be a food lover’s dream, it would, at least initially, cost money to develop and staff. And with greatly reduced advertising income. Which makes the idea a non-starter. As I learned while working there, the prevailing thinking among Condé Nast executives is that no website, no matter how successful, no matter how well trafficked, will ever provide the revenue stream or Return on Investment that Condé Nast expects from successful magazines. As Townsend told the Times, they expect a 25% net profit margin from their magazines. I think Townsend would be better off in the oil business if that’s what he thinks is realistic, but hey, go for it.
Thing is, that profit expectation is the subtext for the decision to axe Gourmet (and consolidate all the Bridal titles into one monster magazine, the day’s other major news.) Condé doesn’t know how to cultivate niche audiences into profitable markets. For instance, tech podcaster Leo Laporte, once a niche tv host on cable channel G4, is now making $1.5 million annually as a podcaster with his This Week in Technology brand, staff of seven. The company costs $350,000 to run right now, and annual revenues have been doubling. That means three years ago TWiT was making less than $200,000.
The idea of Condé Nast starting a business with that kind of revenue projection these days is totally laughable, unless of course it’s got a burn rate several orders of magnitude larger than its cash flow, and a full-fledged ego-tripper at the helm. The company could fund fifty Leo Laportes, and if it hits onto five ideas with growth prospects of TWiT, it would come out ahead by any measure. But it’s aversion to take on that kind of work and attitude is exactly the symptom of the late-stage empire which Condé Nast now is: The company has no ability, anywhere in the organization, to see the value of starting small, trying new things, or offering sustained commitments or investments, on a small scale, to grow a new business or brand. It’s a risk averse, fear driven culture that can’t defend or comprehend investing in things that don’t already feature the company’s commitment to excess and luxury. But excess and luxury are two concepts that are completely poisonous to the values needed to grow a new business from scratch. This, then, is Condé’s slow death: unwilling to change, unable to grow, it will prune itself until there is nothing left, even as the branches it left for dead grow into a verdant new forest of green and Green.
Historians often date the start of the decline of the Roman Empire to Hadrian’s Wall in England, beyond which barbarous Scottish warriors lay. Rather than fight them, the Empire chose to block them out, to pretend, basically, that they didn’t exist. It was the first time in the history of Rome that its leadership willingly ceded the chance to expand and take more territory, to refuse to make the investment of coin and solider and prestige needed to keep growing to the natural borders of the ocean, where, had it gone, it might’ve found not just the Irish and the Vikings, but, in time, the New World. Giving back the devoted and evangelistic readership of Gourmet, as Condé Nast has already done with Domino and other titles, is the wall around the Condé Nast Empire that will keep the barbarians, and everyone else, out. And keep itself in.