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Watching the Magazine Industry Commit Suicide

In editorial, publishing on Tuesday, 6 October 2009 at 0:04

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Two pieces of news have come across over the past few days that have me convinced that the magazine industry is hellbent on its own destruction. On Friday, All Thing D reported that Time Inc.’s planned “Hulu for magazines” joint venture was moving forward. Then this morning, Conde Nast announced it was shuttering Gourmet. Taken together, it’s difficult to come away feeling anything but sad, because it appears that the best minds in the magazine industry haven’t the first clue about what makes magazines special.

Let’s start with “Hulu for magazines,” which has “doomed to fail” written all over it. What the magazine publishers (and most of the reporters that cover them) fail to understand is that the very nature of glossy magazine content is ill-suited for a digital world — and the glossier the magazine, the worse the fit for digital distribution.

I may prefer to watch my movies on the big screen, but throw one on an iPod Touch that I hold close to my face and listen to with a good set of headphones, and the experience is good, or at least good enough. Ditto for tv shows, video clips, etc. Video works just fine on a laptop screen, or the wished-for tablet, or whatever else comes along. Video lends itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution because it’s ALWAYS lent itself to the latest electronic hardware and distribution. That’s the nature of video — digital distribution is just the latest iteration. So of course YouTube and Hulu work.

News and other short-form text are a perfect fit for digital, too, which is why we all consume our news online now. The only time I read a print newspaper now is when I’m on vacation (and then only on Sunday). And I’ve bcome more comfortable than I ever thought possible getting my news on a 2-inch Blackberry screen. Why? Because the essential nature of the information is unchanged: print or iPod, it’s the same news. The transition proved a little harder for books: it took a dedicated e-reader like the Kindle to move the needle on digital distribution, but this ship has sailed, too, and there’s no turning back.

What all of these forms of content and consumption have in common is that they are all effectively one-dimensional at their core. You watch video to see it and listen to it — movie screen or 50″ plasma or iPhone, the experience is basically the same. You read news for the words on the page — tablet, laptop, paper, it really doesn’t make much difference. You read books for the story — it’s linear, whether you’re turning the page or scrolling on your Kindle.

Put another way: most content survives and thrives independent of whatever particular container it might be shipped in.

But magazines, especially glossies, are rooted to their form factor in a way that none of this other content is. The magazine form is embedded in its DNA. A fundamental part of what makes Vogue Vogue is the thud of the September issue, the page after page of beautiful women wearing impossible clothes. The New York Times Magazine is not just about the words or the pictures — it’s about the feel of the crossword on your lap, your coffee and bagel on the side-table next to you. Even The New Yorker, which is so text-heavy that it actually translates quite well online despite the length of a typical feature, loses something significant without the interspersed cartoons and the artful cover. Unlike all these other forms of content, magazines are as much about the container as about what goes in them. Magazines are the classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what makes them so great, so unique, and so endangered.

Conde Nast announced today that it’s killing Gourmet after a 68-year run, most of them good. Now, I don’t clip the recipes — I long ago made the move to epicurious. And I don’t really read the articles either — only time to skim, I’m afraid. But throw in the cover art and the pictures and the ads, and editor Ruth Reichl’s uncanny ability to pull it all together, and there’s something about Gourmet magazine that is, well, beautiful. It will be missed.

I understand the need to rationalize costs. I’m sure the Conde Nast folks, and their friends at McKinsey, had plenty of good reasons to kill Modern Bride, Elegant Bride, and Cookie, just as they killed Men’s Vogue and Portfolio before them. I’m not arguing against making hard decisions. But having Gourmet live on via tv and a book imprint? I wish they’d call it something else, because it surely won’t be Gourmet.

Nearly 70 years as an icon of the food world, at a time when more people are paying more attention to food than ever before, and the world’s premier magazine company can’t figure out how to make Gourmet work? Recession or no recession, that just shouldn’t be.

As it happens, just last week I renewed my subscription to Gourmet: two years for 18 bucks. Now they’ll probably stick me with Bon Appetit. Si Newhouse should be ashamed of himself.