Gourmet, 86ed

Shocking news this morning that Gourmet, the Talmud of food, is closing – less shocking that Condé Nast is also folding Cookie, Modern Bride, and Elegant Bride, all apparently a case of the other Monolo dropping after McKinsey dug into Condé’s closets.

(Disclosures: I worked in Condé for bits of a dozen years as a corporate online guy. I was privileged to be there when Epicurious was started around Gourmet and the surviving Bon Appetit. When the company bought Modern Bride, I twice worked on its digital presence and strategy. Oh, well.)

When Condé folded Portfolio, I said it didn’t yet presage the death of magazines, only of magazine launches. Well, that “yet” has arrived and now magazines are going to start dropping like newspapers – faster, even, for there’s more direct competition among the slicks.

We will see at least one business magazine go after BusinessWeek is sold. One or even all three of the general-interest news magazines is toast. There’ll be death among women’s magazines. Men’s magazines are already sinking. Showbiz magazines will have more and trouble competing with online (I fear for my baby, Entertainment Weekly). Watch for blood in the trade publishing business as blogs beat B-to-B magazines in service and efficiency.

Magazines as a medium won’t die and when ads come back – or at least stop falling – the survivors will get a gulp of oxygen (AdAge reports that magazine revenue fell 6.9% last year). But it still won’t be pretty. The valuable FitchRatings media report, which I received just today, decrees:

Fitch remains skeptical about the ability of magazines to profitably make the digital transition. Fitch believes the larger players will seek to rationalize available print advertising inventory through consolidation and closing down titles. The remaining players will have scale through portfolios of top brands in demographics that are attractive to advertisers, but sustainable profitability remains uncertain as advertiser sentiment is likely to continue to shift away from print mediums.

Fitch is prescient about Condé: It is closing multiple magazines in a category and keeping the strongest. Bon Appetit is the winner, I’d imagine, because its demographic is younger and its cost lower. Brides is the better brand in that category. When Condé bought Modern Bride, it thought it owned the category but was shocked to see that in the meantime, the No. 1 brand among brides – a market that is replaced every 18 months – has become The Knot. That’s how fast a venerable brand can sink from preeminence.

I used to buy magazines by the ton (especially when I had an expense account to support the habit). I loved rifling through them. I loved working on them. But now I have all but stopped reading them in print. I still read magazine stories now and then but, like everything else in my media day, I come to them through links, from peers and aggregators. Just as other media have been disaggregated – the atomic unit is no longer the album but the song, the equivalent in news was the publication or the section or the article and now is the post – so is the essential element of the magazine no longer the publication but now the article, at least for now. So what separates a magazine article now from a newspaper article or a blog post except, perhaps, length (and online, length is often seen as a liability)?

Packaging used to be a key value of magazines: the great editor selecting the interesting topics and good writers and cooking a meal out of it. But in the era of media unbundling, the magazine becomes an instant anachronism. Reading the New Yorker or Economist or Vanity Fair becomes an act of living nostalgia, at least for those who can remember them. For the next generation reading magazines and newspapers and buying albums is – haven’t we learned this yet? – an alien experience, a media oddity.

So go to the newsstand today and look around. You’ll never see so many magazines again. One by one, like the trees they used to kill, they will fall. Some will remain standing, stronger because they’re not competing for sunlight and nutrition. But magazines as a medium and an industry will only shrink.

As a former magazine man, am I sad about that? What’s the point of emotions? It’s economics. As I’ve been saying about my cancer:It is what it is. There are new and wonderful ways to tell stories and to curate good and interesting work and so the value of the magazine can continue even if the form cannot.