Last Monday, October 5, 2009 - just two years shy of its 70th birthday - Conde Nast announced the shuttering of Gourmet Magazine. I was devastated. Gourmet was indulgent, yes, but also thoughtful and intelligent - creative and erudite. Everyone in the food world recognized and revered it like no other food publication for that reason.
Much has been said in the last week about why this happened and what it means for food journalism. I did my own mourning, worked through my grief, read the multitude of eulogies and op-ed pieces out there and have come to my own conclusion.
We've been robbed.
We, the readers, have been robbed of the most thoughtful, creative and educated food writing being produced - but as a society, we've lost something even more important. Sure there are other outlets for food writing out there, but Gourmet was more than that - it was a cornerstone of food literature and journalism. As Tony Bourdain put it shortly after the announcement, "It's the center of gravity, a major planet that's just disappearing." In the space of a week, it went up in a puff of smoke. Employees were given one week to clear their desks. Entire issues, completed for months, will never be produced.
There are cultural institutions that we support as a society, despite the fact that they wouldn't survive in a purely profit-based world. Museums, historical sites and national parks fall into this category. Perhaps it's time for some of our institutions of print journalism to join them.
The days when advertising and subscription revenues could support them are clearly over. Tycoons who once reaped profits from their publications are now keeping their papers alive through infusions of their own cash. SI Newhouse of Conde Nast is reportedly one of these people. Conde Nast is a privately held company, and SI holds the purse strings. Faced with the decision to spend his own personal fortune to keep the magazine alive - he made the only decision he could be expected to make. (If you read the reports carefully, McKinsey wasn't even asked to look at Gourmet - the plug had likely already been pulled based on Gourmet's comparisons to Bon Appetit's numbers.) SI also owns the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and several other prominent magazines. The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times is in bankruptcy, and other families such as the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Grahams of the Washington Post must also see the writing on the wall.
I have a hard time imagining literature without the New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, or news without the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune. Self-produced content, blogs and the like, can't replace these institutions. It's not just an issue of entertainment value. Think about the role muck-raking investigative journalism has played in our recent history. Should we have to rely on these entities to be profitable for their owners in order to perform this critical function?
Some people believe the failure of the publishing houses to understand how the internet works and update accordingly is responsible for their demise, but I'm not so sure. Could Gourmet really drive enough page views and sell enough online advertising to support its staff salaries, test kitchens, travel expenses and overhead? Even if it could, it doesn't matter if the bosses aren't interested. The old guard media companies (including Conde Nast) are shockingly old fashioned and haven't shown much interest in changing their business models. Assuming that pattern continues - at some point all of the print-ad supported publications will lose enough money that their owners will be forced to pull the plug. When that happens, the readers will lose the publications we've relied upon for decades, the employees will lose their jobs, and our culture will lose a body of work that cannot be replaced - just as happened with Gourmet a week ago.
Can we bail out these cultural institutions like we bailed out our financial institutions? Should we? If so, how should we go about it? A state run newspaper would understandably make a lot of people nervous - but foundations could be set up, congressional grants, the kind of funding that keeps our other cultural institutions alive such as public radio, the Smithsonian museums, our public parks and wildlife preserves.
I've just started to see discussions about these issues in the last few weeks, but they didn't hit home for me until I realized how much we have to lose, and how quickly. Seeing Gourmet dismantled in the space of a week at the whim of an 81 year old tycoon was enough of a shock for me.
(photos from the Gourmet Institute at Conde Nast headquarters in NYC, October 2007 and 2008. Top: Ruth Reichl in her office; Middle: Food Editor Ian Knauer in his test kitchen, and Bottom, Grant Achatz doing a demonstration.)