Did the Web Kill Gourmet Magazine?

    by Susan Currie Sivek
    October 26, 2009
    Image by "cbertel":http://www.flickr.com/people/cbertel/ via Flickr.

    The murder happened in the kitchen with a laptop.

    That possible explanation for the death of Gourmet magazine sounds like a solution from the game Clue. The 68-year-old food magazine met its end this month when publisher Condé Nast cut it and two other magazines. Some blamed Gourmet’s demise on the Internet and its theft of the print audience. It’s easy to see why.

    I actually started going to food forums and sites because I got sick of seeing the same places and same eats in the same magazines." - Titus Ruscitti

    For foodies, the attraction of thousands of food websites is powerful. Many home cooks now carefully position a laptop in the kitchen, keeping it safe from crumbs and splashes, instead of a magazine recipe. The loss of Gourmet, which was seen as a prestigious title, means that other food magazines may now feel a greater sense of insecurity.


    But the threat to food titles goes beyond the mere existence of the web; it also comes from magazines’ challenges in the changing game of branding.

    Getting to Know You

    It might be tempting for some to blame the thousands of food bloggers for distracting audiences from print media.

    There’s a food blogger for every ethnic specialty, dietary concern or locality. Bloggers offer personal connections, unique voices, and a passion for their subject that print magazines may not provide. Narrow expectations from readers and advertisers can limit print magazine content, while bloggers are more free to explore topics in frequent posts.

    i-b6ce72ea3660b6e4f828c1c1842ba8c1-laptop in kitchen-thumb-300x199-1209.jpg

    “I actually started going to food forums and sites because I got sick of seeing the same places and same eats in the same magazines,” said Titus Ruscitti, whose blog, Smokin’ Chokin’ and Chowing with the King, focuses on barbecue. “If a magazine like Gourmet or Bon Appétit or a show on Food Network is doing a special on Chicago, it’s always the same food, same places. The same goes for the recipes. I felt like they were all the same.”

    Gourmet’s food coverage was also aspirational in nature, making it somewhat inaccessible for many people. In fact, it may have been too disconnected from readers’ changing tastes in the current economic situation. For most people, it’s easier to identify with a food blogger who lives a more ordinary life.

    “I think food blogging has become so popular because the face behind the blog is a real person,” says Kath Younger of the blog Kath Eats Real Food. “Recipes are cooked in a real kitchen. Photos are taken as [the recipes] are consumed. I think readers enjoy reading the story behind the food as much as they enjoy the recipes.”

    Beyond a Magazine Brand

    To contend with these digital competitors, magazine publishers are extending their traditional print brands into digital media.

    Jim Sexton, senior vice president and editorial director for Time Inc. Lifestyle Digital, oversees a number of the company’s websites that are linked to print magazines, including those for Real Simple, Southern Living, Cooking Light, Sunset and Coastal Living. Today, he says, those names need to evoke not just print magazines, but an array of media options.

    “We’re making it so the brands are thought of as brands, as opposed to magazine brands,” he says. “The difference is thinking of Cooking Light as a magazine, a website, books, a brand that shows up on Twitter and Facebook, and in mobile. It’s a brand that the audience can connect to wherever they are.”

    Magazine websites also are incorporating interactive features already found on blogs and in other social media. Cooking Light developed a video series, a blog and message boards, as well as integrating social media like Twitter and Facebook. Overall, though, the magazine and site emphasize expert-produced content, such as blogs written by a registered dietitian and by the test-kitchen cooks.

    Experts and Users Online

    However, Cooking Light and other food media with “expert” content have competitors that use low-cost content: recipe sites with user-generated content, like Allrecipes.com.

    Allrecipes is part of the food and entertaining division of Reader’s Digest, along with the magazines Taste of Home, Simple and Delicious, Healthy Cooking and Every Day with Rachael Ray. It’s currently the top food website, drawing 10 million to 15 million visitors per month.

    Though it sometimes features recipes from its affiliated magazines, Allrecipes primarily relies on its audience for content.

    “All our recipes are created by home cooks, and we have partnerships with various advertisers who integrate recipes into the site,” says Judith Dern, public relations manager for Allrecipes.

    Allrecipes’ content is also participatory. Users suggest modifications and substitutions that make the recipes more useful and dynamic.

    Gourmet’s website, on the other hand, contained some links to social media, but few chances to engage actively with the magazine’s content. Although the “Gourmet Community” box on the site suggests becoming a Gourmet fan on Facebook, visiting their YouTube channel, downloading their iTunes podcasts and following staffers on Twitter, these are primarily passive activities that don’t build a community on the site itself. (Epicurious.com, which hosts recipes from Gourmet and other Condé Nast magazines, does have social features, but it’s barely mentioned on the current Gourmet website.)

    Magazines Meet SEO

    The competition between established, “expert” food media, like Cooking Light or Gourmet, and user-focused, interactive blogs and communities demonstrates the print magazine’s dilemma in going digital. Why spend money to produce high-end content when an individual cook’s blog or Allrecipes contribution can draw your audience just as easily?

    i-f3c96a79ad948366f8b3334459b05300-stack of mags-thumb-300x199-1210.jpg

    To draw users to premium content, magazine websites are using search-engine optimization (SEO) techniques to elevate their site in search results. Editors now pore over every piece of content looking for opportunities to push their brand to the top of Google’s results.

    Sexton’s concern is that when people type “chicken noodle soup recipe” into Google, they don’t necessarily care whose website they end up at. They just click on the top search results.

    “More and more, people don’t care about brands,” Sexton says. “It’s an interesting challenge for companies based on brands. Do they resonate as well online when people have a thousand different choices for where to get a recipe? Even a venerable brand like Gourmet, unless they play the SEO game really well, the big name won’t matter to the audience.”

    To hear that the “big name” doesn’t matter may come as a shock to magazines rooted in a print mentality. Maintaining an eye-catching, consistent cover aesthetic and perfecting the art of writing cover lines helped print magazines attract the attention of readers in the past. With just a glance at the newsstand, people could made a connection with a brand and a magazine’s content.

    In the digital realm, however, instead of seeing a familiar face in a crowd and striking up a conversation, now the reader decides if an existing conversation is of interest before reaching out to a new friend. It’s up to magazines to make sure that the content attracts readers and draws them into a relationship with the brand — whether online or off.

    Image of laptop by Eirik Newth via Flickr. Magazine stack by thebittenword.com via Flickr

    Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

    Tagged: allrecipes branding gourmet search engine optimization seo
    • Vivica

      I cancelled my gourmet subscr and several others this summer when I discovered FREE recipe websites like foodblogs.com and tastykitchen.com. I predict more print publications will cease.

    • Carie

      Very interesting article! I still subscribe to at least one food magazine, but I admit that I do use the Internet for a lot of other food information. Most companies are trying to build virtual communities (mine included). It will be interesting to see which ones, including the food/magazine ones, succeed and which ones don’t.

    • Great post. A few short years ago, some people called content King…that has changed, and the evolution of Social Media has made the following statement true: Content is Perishable. The demise of Gourmet (and yes I have/had a subscription) is just the first of many different publications that will either reinvent themselves or die.

    • Conde Nast was one of the first to create an excellent online resource with epicurious.com. This site gives access to recipes from Gourmet and Bon Apetit. Since Bon Apetit will continue I assume the site will as well.

    • I am guilty of all of the above. I cook with my laptop nearby, jazz playing and recipes at hand. I stopped subscribing to Bon Apetit and Gourmet years ago and replaced them with the countless online sites.

      Although I used to use epicurious.com frequently at one point, it changed so many times that it became not user friendly. I was even a little disturbed when Epicurious connected me with my Facebook page. I guess that was a result of my account, but it was invasive to say the least, that was not permission marketing.

      Recipes at cooking.com is my favorite.

      I admit I loved my magazines, but I haven’t bought a single one for years. Maybe I was a accomplice in Gourmet’s death? :-)

      – Gail

    • I am guilty of all of the above. I cook with my laptop nearby, jazz playing and recipes at hand. I stopped subscribing to Bon Apetit and Gourmet years ago and replaced them with the countless online sites.

      Although I used to use epicurious.com frequently at one point, it changed so many times that it became not user friendly. I was even a little disturbed when Epicurious connected me with my Facebook page. I guess that was a result of my account, but it was invasive to say the least, that was not permission marketing.

      Recipes at cooking.com is my favorite.

      I admit I loved my magazines, but I haven’t bought a single one for years. Maybe I was a accomplice in Gourmet’s death? :-)

    • It always amazes how little people talk about “usability”. When we talk about having recipes on hand and portability, that all amounts to usability.

      Yeah, not all aspects of usability can be translated from web to print, but some of it can be such as information architecture and user-centric design.

      I’d be curious how Martha Stewart’s magazines are doing in comparison to other pubs. I’d bank that they’re doing better with their exquisite photography and layout.

      I’d encourage everyone to check out this design firm’s stab at redesigning a newspaper to fit “usability” standards.

    • Sadly I agree with you, the magazine in many ways did not keep up with ‘the frothy edge’ of changing times as likely so much was invested in how they always cranked out the next issue. It is even sadder when I think about how early they came on board with a wonderful website and recipe database, I ask myself how could it get canned? If they have such great content how could they not survive? I am not entirely convinced it will continue online or as the PBS TV series underway at the moment.

      What I loved about the Gourmet brand, is how they weaved a larger story of culture, history, politics, and the arts into a menu that stretched the imagination of anyone who never left their home town, or warmed the hearts of those who had been to those places or experiences. So many of the other cooking shows are tied to recipes that promote products versus culture or a story about the food. You would think that in an age of globalization, that kind of blending of purpose, values and vision would make it a cutting edge magazine. But perhaps as you say, no magazine is secure. Who wants more paper, etc when the web makes accessing content so much more efficient.

      If the person or group that started gourmet back in 1941 or so were here to do it again for the first time, would they have created a print magazine? I kinda doubt it. A test kitchen would be forsaken in honor of everyone’s kitchen becoming a test kitchen. They would probably have started an inexpensive blog, and a twitter account with journalist foodies world wide feeding in content or exchanging blog posts etc.they would have gourmet meet-ups, they would have suggested menus from readers and restaurants, they would have taught us how to put together a menu reflecting culture, geography and history and culinary insider tips, they would have the meet ups blogging their events etc. They would have done it for the love of their purpose and common interests. But like the Julie and Julia story, perhaps instead of a magazine, they would have more frequent smaller publications around topics instead monthly issues. I am not sure it would have been a profitable start up after all if a food blog flourishes what is the entrepreneurial coup – kitchenware pop up ads?

      Though for personal reasons I wish they at least they would publish an annual December edition (our family tradition is to cook the formal Christmas dinner menu – definitely stretching the imagination of most of the family) but from a realistic point of view… I hope the brand, the menus and stories – remains online. I hope someone at Conde Nast is smart enough to do something great with Gourmet for the next wave of where the world is turning. It is a cultural icon, that will be sadly missed.

    • I like that magazine a lot. Every article was made with passion and professionalism. Gourmet made not only eating a pleasure, but cooking as much a pleasure.
      Good epoch ended, started robotized twitter-small-sized information era with no place for human sences and feelings.

    • Atl Starter

      As much as I enjoy the food blogs, I still turn to and trust the recipes in an established food magazine, such as Bon Appetit. I know these recipes have been kitchen tested and I rarely fail with them. And I trust their editors more. Same goes for the food writers at newspapers. Yeah, I said newspapers.

    • I’m definitely guilty of relying on the internet for recipes, and for all manner of information. But the brand still matters. Having Gourmet’s imprimatur on a recipe meant it was tested, and it worked. I love the world of the food blogger, but I love finding recipes from names I can trust. Trustworthiness is just another element of the usability @sharlene mentions above.

    • Atl Starter

      s much as I enjoy the food blogs, when it comes to cooking experts, I still turn to the recipes in an established food magazine, such as Bon Appetit. I know these recipes have been kitchen tested and I rarely fail with them. And I trust their editors more. These are people who have devoted their professional lives to covering food. It’s more than just a hobby or a place to get their culinary snark on. I hold the same respect for food writers at newspapers. Yeah, I said newspapers.

    • Kathleen Berns

      Its understandable why food blogs are becoming more and more popular especially in this economic climate it is much cheaper. Although I still like to use traditional recipe books and publications, I think its easier to keep track of recipes you like and those you don’t.

    • Dara

      Visit sites like Pioneer Woman, FoodBlogs.com and FoodGawker.com — this is why online is thriving and magazines like Gourmet are dying.

    • Becca

      I’m one of those laptop individuals. However, I let my subscription run out after the spare rib recipe I made from said magazine blasted open my oven with a huge fireball (regardless of what the recipe says, don’t add a whole bottle of wine without first cooking out at least some of the alcohol).

    • Christine

      I used to subscribe to food magazines and enjoyed them, and occasionally will pick one up in the supermarket if something appeals to me. But, the amount of energy that goes into making and delivering magazines is not good for the environment. Even if you recycle them, there is still the energy used in having to collect and process the paper. A much smaller amount of energy is used to power a laptop, which most of us use for other purposes anyway. Also, a lot of us are trying to eliminate clutter in our lives and make our lives simpler. A large magazine collection takes up a lot of space that I personally do not have…I had to go through all my old magazines, rip out the recipes I wanted to keep, and recycle the rest of the paper so that the magazines do not completely take over the house. I much prefer to have access to the Gourmet and Bon Appetit recipes online through epicurious.com. This is much better for simplifying my life and for the environment.

    • yasmara

      Gourmet died for me the day I opened up the Thanksgiving 2008 issue to see a huge spread about (paraphrase) “pulling out all the stops for the holiday” complete with recipes that were a) extremely expensive and b) difficult & time-consuming for even an experienced home chef. Amidst all of the economic difficulties being experienced at that time, the issue was out of place, to say the least.

      I know the holiday issues are put together months in advance, but perhaps some last-minute sensitivity would have been appropriate.

      After that, I did not renew my Gourmet subscription (and had already let my Bon Appetit subscription lapse). I still subscribe to 3 cooking/food magazines, but they are all appropriate for both my life & my budget.

    • Magazine prices have become unreasonable. In the past I have subscribed to many magazines including Gourmet. I have cancelled all of them.

      First place I go for recipes now is online. I don’t even refer to my large collection of cookbooks.

    • Anna

      It seems that Gourmet didn’t keep up with what its readers wanted and that was one of the big reasons it was shut down. If the main reason people had to use the magazine was for recipes, they should have better built its online presence to keep these readers. If the audience read the magazine for content other than recipes, the magazine should have recognized this as well. For something that is done so easily online, getting recipes, the magazine should have recognized this and shifted accordingly.

    • Julie C

      I’ve been using AllRecipes.com almost exclusively for over two years. It brought back so much life into my cooking, in a simple, easy, informative way. I can print recipes in different sizes; usually I use “full page” and cut the printout to a 4X6″ size and keep in an index card file. They are small and easy to place within the kitchen.

      A few months ago, I became a supporter of AllRecipes.com to gain the added benefits of a blog, printing my notes on recipes (instead of jotting them in pen all over the printout), having a list of favorite cooks, and so much more. For less than the one-year subscription to a magazine, I’ll have two years of premium content at AllRecipes. The member reviews and ratings are invaluable to me, and I participate quite heavily in the review process.

      I rarely pick up print magazines about cooking any longer – even in waiting rooms. I’d much rather the content be electronic where I can store not only AR.com recipes in my online recipe box, but also weblinks, my own private recipes, and then also sort them electronically and have a new copy printed “at the ready”.

      Gourmet to me was just too “over the top” for the typical cook. I like the better “BTDT” feel of AllRecipes.

    • I am another AllRecipes fan who cooks with her laptop on the table.

      I also cook recipes from Fine Cooking magazine. But even when I’m using print as my guide, the Internet is never far away because of all the helpful how-to videos or guides just a Google search away. These are key for a beginner in the kitchen.

      The other great thing at AllRecipes are the user comments. These allow cooks like Becca to post information about her alcohol-fueled blowup so others won’t make the same mistake.

    • charles Kirby

      I can sit in an “eay chair” and read/study a recipe. I do NOT have a lap-top, therefore I can’t take the ‘machine’ to the kitchen. But, I can place the magazine in my “Book holder with the lucite frontspiece” and read and cook at the same time. I have a subscription to Gourmet, and I renewed a gift for a friend this year. I wonder what will happen to those subscription reservations/fees. I will miss it. Forbid others goi9ng by the wayside.pavonia

    • Magazine will never die

    • Magazine will never die

    • I remember Ken Olsen, founder and long time president of Digital Equipment Corp., stating that nobody needed a home computer as all they would be used for is storing recipes. If he only knew… we don’t store recipes on our computers, they’re off in the cloud and all we need is the internet. Still, we have to remain aware that everything has a cost and these recipe sites have to be funded somehow. (I like allrecipies.com) And, by the way, ever made a really BAD batch of cookies or whatever from a web-based recipe? When it happens it kinda makes you long for the imprimatur of Better Homes & Gardens or Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer or another dependable cookbook!

    • Diane

      Comparing the content of Gourmet to Cooking Light is not a precise comparison. The reason is that there are many areas of the web when one can find Gourmet recipes. Cooking Light provides nutritional content, which most recipes – in print, but especially online from home cooks- does not. For people counting calories or points, or who just want to know how many grams of fat they’re eating in a dish, Cooking Light provides a service that few magzines or internet sites do.

    • William Sertl

      What killed Gourmet was the recession and the fatal drop in luxury advertising. I was the travel editor, and travel was our biggest category. I saw big advertisers disappear overnight. While online might be killing a lot of things, and while it might have eventually done in Gourmet, that wasn’t the reason the magazine folded. Not even close.

    • Zac Echola


      I’ve seen the decline of luxury ads used as an excuse for shuttering the doors at Gourmet quite frequently, particularly in interviews with Ruth Reichl. I just find it incredibly difficult to believe that without the luxury categories, Gourmet was completely out of options and forced to fold.

      Now, I don’t know if the Web had anything to do with the problems at Gourmet or not (you had over a million paying subscribers to the magazine), but it’s absolutely bizarre to say that without luxury advertising, Gourmet was done for. Even if travel ads disappeared overnight, was it really expected that they’d be gone forever?

      My gut tells me that Conde Nast simply panicked and threw in the towel prematurely and this had less to do with Travel ads than everyone formerly at the magazine is saying publicly.

    • Zac Echola

      Ruth Reichl and others have said much the same, William, that luxury ad categories tanked.

      But I find that argument hard to believe as the sole cause of Gourmet’s demise. You had over a million paying subscribers. Surely, there were other categories available or other options to keep the magazine afloat.

      I think there’s more to be said about what really went on in the final days at Gourmet. Personally, I think Conde Nast panicked and threw in the towel prematurely, without bothering to look at possible long term strategies for keeping the magazine alive.

      Luxury advertising took a dive, yes, but I find it highly improbable that the bean counters in the suits at Conde Nast believed that luxury advertising is gone forever.

    • Good blog, pgotovo I like a laptop in the kitchen for recipes, food, good idea, one that I buy for my wife and immediately preparing live food via computer, ha ha ha

    • Helpful blog who knows how to understand, I understand and thank you for this extensive topic.

    • I confess, I’ve never read a copy of Gourmet. Not that I don’t like food — I live in Paris, after all — but I came to cooking late enough in life that epicurious.com and other online sources were far ahead of what I could get from a magazine. That said, I’ve also worked nearly 20 years in the publishing industry. I suspect it’s not the Internet that killed Gourmet… it’s Gourmet that killed Gourmet. Content IS still king. It’s the medium that’s changed and it seems Conde Nast has failed to change with it.

      I just downloaded the Gourmet app on an iPad. It’s miserably inadequate. Had they taken a cue from any of the news apps (NYTimes, USA Today, BBC) for design… or from the Epicurious app, which is exceptional… it’s easy to imagine that they could have gone on to sell subscriptions and digital issues. But what they offer instead is 5-6 screen shots of pages and an order button.

      The business I work in had to reinvent itself too. We sell nothing but niche newsletters of 12-16 pages each. At the time when it looked as if the Internet would eat us alive, we changed our business model… and went from a $100 million a year business to a $300 million a year business.

      It can be done, provided you understand what it is you really need to do. I’m surprised that Conde Nast being Conde Nast has failed so far to do so.

    • There is simply not enough hours in the day to get everything done. I know the holiday issues are put together months in advance, but perhaps some last-minute sensitivity would have been appropriate.

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