Christopher Kimball, the bow-tied founder, editor and publisher of Cook's Illustrated magazine and its related media empire, has an opinion about why Gourmet will fold this month after 68 glorious years at the top of America's food-magazine newsstand. Amanda Hesser, a food writer who in 2008 accepted a buyout from the New York Times, where she had been food editor of the Sunday magazine, agrees.
Both say: It was the internet whodunnit. But that's where their agreement ends.
Kimball and Hesser, both titans among foodies, consider Gourmet a valued institution, and seem genuinely sad about its demise. But while Hesser sees Gourmet as the Titanic of the food media world -- gorgeous, expensive, doomed by the iceberg of the internet -- Kimball's maritime analogies are more blunt. Gourmet is, he says, "ending a long and masterful turn at the helm of the food publishing world." He goes on to worry that professional writers will be put out of business, that media will "fully become an everyman's playing field, without the need for credentials or paid membership."
The failing of the magazine, Kimball says, "reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up." And then comes the zinger: real food writers, he says, should "refuse to climb aboard this ship of fools, the one where everyone has an equal voice. Google "broccoli casserole" and make the first recipe you find. I guarantee it will be disappointing."
This caused a lot of consternation on the part of the food-blogging audience, which is nothing if not loud and, as Julie and Julia reminds us, the breeding ground for food writers of the future -- even if they are, too, set to be roundly ridiculed by their eventual cinematic biographers. In other words, they're the most rapt audience for Kimball's unwelcome message. And there was backlash: Kimball was by turns "pedantic and elitist" and "a pompous ass," and worst of all, his "magazine is the dullest, most brain-numbing one around."
Kimball, cowed but unapologetic, responded on his own blog. I suppose he felt it was smart to make up with the Tweeters: "Yes, I have made many friends on Twitter and found many of the voices there better informed on coffee-making and similar topics that I am. Plus, some of you are actually quite funny." He still thinks his broccoli casserole (made 75 times in his test kitchen) is better than Google's favorite.
Hesser, to be fair, has built her career upon the belief that the internet -- the crowdsourced, search engine-optimized broccoli casserole recipe -- is the future. Her new venture, food52.com, is exactly what Kimball would identify as a really, really bad idea: readers submit a collection of recipes each week on one theme, then vote upon the recipes they love (or that their friends contributed), and the winning recipes are finally collected in a cookbook of, yes, 52 recipes.
Hesser's got this figured out, and Kimball's wrong. For her, it is all about the Web site. Gourmet, she noted, understood that much of its readers' conversation on food took place online, and last year it created Gourmet.com. "They saw the iceberg, but couldn't turn the ship in time, and in true Condé Nast style, the band kept playing until they were under water," Hesser writes. "Gourmet's Web site, which is still running, is handsome and sleek, but it is like an insect in amber -- an object to admire, impossible to touch." And so bad, she says, that it annoyed its readers.
I'll bite. Yes, Gourmet.com is annoying, its design unintelligible. And yes, it's hard to compete against the Twittered complaints and raves of minor social-media celebs. Gourmet's recipes surely don't have the search engine power of that-one-with-the-Ritz-crackers.
But I don't buy the internet-killed-the-magazine-star argument. I've long thought that Gourmet's management (along with the rest of Condé Nast) cheapened its image by selling its subscriptions in the traditional sweepstakes model -- at super-low cost, and often as a perk with your frequent-flier miles or the association with some sketchy door-to-door sales organization or another. As the economy faltered, the traditional ad sales model needed to be rethought. And the really successful magazines are selling subscriptions for three times the cost of a one-year sub to Condé's Gourmet or Bon Appétit. Magazines like Saveur and, oddly, Kimball's Cook's Illustrated.
I say "oddly" because, as Hamilton Nolan at Gawker points out, Kimball should know this way better than anyone else. In 1990, Condé Nast bought Kimball's magazine and proceeded to close it, all the while throwing money about in the way Condé Nast publications are (or used to be) wont to do. Kimball relaunched Cook's Illustrated much later, on a subscription-only model, and has a premium content web site that keeps him in silk bowties and test-kitchen aprons.
The model that makes a successful magazine is simple -- impossible for Gourmet to have achieved, given its history, but simple. It goes like this: Don't spend too much on expense accounts, fabulous perks, fancy offices, and overwrought photo shoots. Instead, spend on high-quality writing and one careful test kitchen. Price your magazine so that readers and advertisers associate it with quality. Price it for your target market. Not for Publisher's Clearing House.
I do believe that, by and large, the magazine-publishing industry of yesteryear is being quickly dismantled. But the "credentialed" writers and editors of that time are being replaced by personable, approachable, creative food writers of the future. Their models of publishing can be vastly cheaper, because they don't expect the Anna Wintour treatment. And, now as ever, when it comes down to it, quality content will win.
Try not to upset your Twitter audience, though, Mr. Kimball, or your quality will be tainted by your personality. And Ms. Hesser? Your bias is showing. Best keep that under your toque for now and let your web site win on its content, not on its lucky comparison to a sorely missed magazine.
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