The New York Times turns its account of the demise of Gourmet magazine into a kind of class-war fairy tale: "In choosing Bon Appétit over Gourmet, Condé Nast reflected a bigger shift both inside and outside the company: influence, and spending power, now lies with the middle class. Advertising support for luxurious magazines like Gourmet has dwindled..." The Times article tries to fit the facts into this explanatory framework: "Their editorial approaches differed, too: a recent Bon Appétit cover line promised "America's Best Hot Dogs," while Gourmet ran an article on how restaurant critics would spend $1,000 in their hometowns." Not mentioned by the New York Times was the article in that same issue of Gourmet that appeared under the headline "What's Your Favorite Hot Dog?" and included Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl's endorsement of the hot dogs at Gray's Papaya in New York. The same feature included a quote from a Manhattan hot dog cart vendor and Tommy Lasorda's paean to Dodger Dogs. And the magazine carried Jane and Michael Stern's monthly column on road food. Whatever the cause of Gourmet's demise, it wasn't a failure to adequately cover hot dogs, no matter what the class warriors over at the New York Times tell you.
To me the more interesting question is why the magazine's owner decided to close it rather than seek a buyer. I talked to an antitrust partner at a New York law firm who said one would have a tough time using antitrust law to prevent the closing of Gourmet, but that that one factor to look at would be whether either Gourmet or Bon Appetit were acquired, and if so, what the Department of Justice said at the time. It turns out that Condé Nast bought Bon Appetit as part of a $170 million acquisition of Knapp Publications in 1993 (before Joel Klein, now the New York Schools chancellor, got to the Justice department's antitrust division). We've got messages in to Mr. Klein, the Justice Department, and the New York State attorney general's office but haven't heard back from them yet. If Condé Nast was shopping Gourmet to potential buyers, it wasn't doing it particularly aggressively; Marvin Shanken of M. Shanken Publications, which publishes Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, and Food Arts, told me he hadn't been approached as a potential buyer. I've got a call in to Cook's Illustrated to ask them the same question (Update: a spokeswoman called back and said they won't say whether they were offered the magazine, but that Christopher Kimball has an op-ed running in the New York Times this weekend.) I'm not an antitrust lawyer, and my general faith in free markets tends to make me think that if Condé Nast tried to use the closure of Gourmet to raise prices on ads and subscriptions in Bon Appetit while reducing the editorial quality, new entrants would emerge on their own to compete in the market. Still, so long as the antitrust laws are on the books, the rule of law dictates that they be applied impartially. The Justice Department's guidelines for horizontal mergers contain a "failing firm" exception, under which a merging firm qualifies as 'failing" if the firm "has made unsuccessful good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers of acquisition of the assets of the failing firm." The provision may not apply here because Gourmet was already part of Condé Nast, and if you own something, in general you have the right to shut it down. Still, one can understand the reasoning behind those Justice Department guidelines. And we wouldn't be surprised if the decision to close Gourmet and keep Bon Appetit open had less to do with the quality of Bon Appetit's hot-dog coverage and more to do with some legal constraint on that 1993 acquisition. Condé Nast may have undertaken back then not to close Bon Appetit, which may be why it survived and Gourmet closed. Gourmet hasn't yet said whether its remaining subscribers will receive Bon Appetit; it may be holding off on such an announcement in the fear that it would then qualify as a horizontal merger and trigger that requirement to make "good-faith efforts to elicit reasonable alternative offers of acquisition." All of which is to say, if you are interested in buying Gourmet's assets, Condé Nast may have a hard time turning you down if you make a reasonable offer. Jonathan Knee, call your office.