Thursday, October 8, 2009

Find the Money First

We will return to Valparaiso. But first: Gourmet.

The death of Gourmet is clearly part of the Newhouse family's hard, cold look at throwing good money after bad -- the same effort that led to the closing of the Ann Arbor News. The thinking has to be: When times are good again, there will be things that make money and things that either won't or won't make very much. Cut those, get out, and use what's left to rebuild. Thus, the Birmingham News, Mobile Register, Syracuse Post-Standard and Kalamazoo Gazette sail on, even though doubtless none of them is having a good year.

But stories about the closing were free of the "It's All About the Internet" reaction any story about a newspaper draws -- possibly because it is a magazine and thus newspaper people can be more objective about it. Yes, it's clearly about the Internet -- but the Internet as a way for people to swap recipes, the Internet as a companion to the world of Rachael Ray. But it's also even more clearly about the content.

The story of the death of Gourmet is in part the reaction to the Great Recession -- a combination of hard times combining with a desire for self-flagellation (if we whip ourselves first, will God let us keep our jobs?) and the desire to make whatever one does be right, creating a new world in which using French's yellow mustard will be seen as trendy by virtue of being anti-trendy. ("I feel so much better serving French's with the kids' hot dogs, Martha, you know we all have to get our priorities straight, and Debi still was putting out that spicy German stuff -- can you believe the nerve? Trying to lord it over us. I know we all used to do that, but it's so 2005. Now let me tell you about this great deal we got in Montego Bay...")

And all that is true, except that as the stories note, since the arrival of the legendary Ruth Reichl at Gourmet from the Times, the magazine -- once the only real base for foodies -- had "got away from the things that are going on in people’s homes, and seemed to be for an elite that got smaller and smaller,” as one editor put it.

To go on: "Dana Cowin, the editor in chief of Food and Wine, praised Ms. Reichl’s 'sociopolitical and cultural commentary,' as well as the magazine’s literary sensibility.... [Cooking] has also become democratized via the chatty ubiquity of Ms. Ray and the Food Network stars. Ms. Reichl is a celebrity in the food world, but of an elite type. She 'is one of those icons in chief,' said George Janson, managing partner at GroupM Print, part of the advertising company WPP. But what harried cooks want now, it seems, is less a distant idol and more a pal."

I suspect "harried cooks" always wanted that. "Harried cooks" always have made the green bean casserole with onion rings and cream of mushroom soup. "Harried cooks" used the Good Housekeeping cookbook. As the Times said it, lacking self-conscious irony: "How had the magazine that seemed more likely to stay home, broil pork chops and take care of the kids won out over its sexy, well-read, globetrotting sister?" Gawd, we at the Times don't want to stay home and broil pork chops, and if you want to, go read something else, but we thought you wanted to be like us! Which may make sense for the Times but makes sense for no other newspaper, even though some newspaper food sections spent decades trying to ape Gourmet. Most newspaper readers take care of the kids and, unless they're kosher or halal, eat pork chops.

Gourmet -- like so many publications, like so many department stores in the past -- determined what it wanted to do, what customers it wanted to have, was very successful for a time, but then times changed and it apparently stopped trying to find new customers unless they were exactly like the old ones. What does it matter what advertisers or readers want, when we are producing such wonders? I didn't read Gourmet, but one gets the feeling that it was not only serving an elite, but trying to serve an ever-more-elite elite -- one interested in not only the subject but long-form journalism on social issues.

As the failure of GEO proved in the 1980s, the market for long-form journalism on social issues is small indeed. You can only do it as long as advertisers are willing to underwrite you -- i.e., they see no real alternatives. Many people want to be better cooks; despite going green and buying local, not that many of them aspire to read about "the source of food and the politics surrounding it," and issues such as "the exploitation of tomato pickers in Florida." As another story this week noted, putting nutrition and calorie information on menus makes, in essence, no difference in what people eat.

What does this have to do with the move of the Barnes Foundation, the small, eccentric art collection in Philadelphia, from its longtime suburban home to a central site near the Art Museum? Read the Times' review of the plans for the new building, which ends up being not as much a review of the plans as a dirge that once again, a little gem known mostly to those elite enough to have heard of it is falling before the desires of commerce:

"The old Barnes is by no means an obvious model for a great museum. Its unlikely suburban setting was partly intended as a tweak to the city’s wealthy downtown art establishment. Inside the lighting is far from perfect, and the collection itself, mixing masterpieces by C├ęzanne, Picasso and Soutine with second-rate paintings by lesser-known artists, has a distinctly oddball flavor.

"But these apparent flaws are also what has made the Barnes one of the country’s most enchanting exhibition spaces. The creaky floors and cluttered rooms are light years away from the bigger, more blockbuster-oriented museums of Philadelphia, Washington and New York — a difference that has only grown more extreme in recent years, as museums have poured money into increasingly slick expansion projects. There are no distracting, superfluous spaces in the old Barnes — no education centers or contemplation zones....

"Part of the beauty of the Barnes Foundation is that it is so far removed from the tourist economy that drives major cities today. To get to it, visitors have to make an appointment, then take a train or a car to Merion, a half-hour from Philadelphia. These steps put you in a certain frame of mind by the time you arrive: they build anticipation and demand a certain commitment. They also serve as a kind of screening system, discouraging the kind of visitors who are just looking for a way to kill time.

"The new Barnes is after a different kind of audience. Although museum officials say that the existing limits on crowd size will be kept (albeit with extended hours), it is clearly meant to draw bigger numbers and more tourist dollars. For most visitors the relationship to the art will feel less immediate. And this, alas, is a problem no architect could have solved."

Preserve art from people looking to kill time! Keep those Cezannes and Picassos where only those who are truly committed will see them! Oh, and did you read that wonderful article in Gourmet about the exploitation of tomato pickers? The Barnes Foundation a decade ago was basically broke. The creaky floors result in part from no money for upkeep (one need not take sides in the never-ending dispute between students of the Barnes method of analyzing art vs. leaders of the Philadelphia business community to simply state that money is an issue whichever side you favor).

And that brings us to Alan Mutter's obit for the Rocky Mountain Independent, the attempt by staff members at the old Rocky Mountain News to create a paid online news site. As Mutter notes:

"The Independent failed for exactly the same reason the Rocky did: A suicidally stubborn determination on the part of the organizers to be in the business they wanted to be in, instead of attending to the business they needed to attend to. ... Their plan was to emulate as much as possible the work they did so well at the Rocky, while continuing to receive the same sort of pay and benefits they had enjoyed at the newspaper. ... They essentially assumed, as had their former employer, that the quality of their work would attract the patronage they needed to continue doing what they loved. ... People felt the universe would reward them for doing what they wanted to do, instead of doing what they needed to do to earn the patronage of readers and advertisers."

They were operating online, but the same principle works for a print newspaper -- indeed, has to work for a print newspaper. "Quality," alas, only pays off after you first, as Marshall Field put it, give the lady what she wants. If your definition of quality is stories people should read even if they don't want to -- because they're important, significant, long-form, and everyone should know that the tomatoes they eat are from exploited workers -- then you will be out of business soon. Yes, you can do those stories, but you have to sell what is actually useful to people. If you sell those stories, the market for them is too small to support you. Newspapers used to know how to do this, before they became more about the conflict between journalism and commerce, the conflict between the sophisticated and the mass, than about selling newspapers.

We close today's sermon with this editorial from the Seattle Times, including these fateful words that are sure to bring the opprobrium of Mark Potts down on the writer's head:

"Most readers still want their newspaper in print, so they can scan it, carry it and clip it, and the printed paper works as it always did."

It's not the form, it's the content. Give readers something they want to read, and they will read it. Give them what you want to write, and you'd better have a sugar daddy. The vast profitability of newspapers in the 1980s, caused by the loss of big-city competitors and the elimination of composing rooms, let us forget this. I love gourmet mustard and it will always be available. A newspaper is French's.

2 comments:

Steven Swain said...

I think once Conde Nast owned two upscale food titles, the writing was on the wall for the weaker of the two...

ana said...

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