Ben Franklin was a busy man. Not only did he invent bifocals, iron stoves and the odometer, but he founded one of America’s first magazines. Creatively titled The General Magazine, it unfortunately did not enjoy the same success as his other innovations. In fact, it was a complete failure, folding after only 6 issues.
The General Magazine
If the father of American invention could not run a magazine, who possibly could?
Up until the late 19th century, the answer was really no one. Magazines were read by an elite and erudite few who paid a hefty price for mostly European lifestyle writing.
But once the postal service offered second-class mail, magazines were democratized. Now everyone had access to high-brow literature reviews, fashion and cultural critiques.
And they devoured them. Magazines such as McClure’s offered a glimpse into a lifestyle many Americans could only imagine – all at the rock bottom price of 15 cents in 1883. By the 1920s, there were thousands of magazines and millions of readers.
What was the secret elixir to their success that Franklin could not fathom?
Advertising, of course! Magazines realized they could offer consumers quality content for next to nothing, placing the bill on businesses who wished to market their goods and services to readers.
The aspirational and largely unattainable lifestyles depicted in magazines appealed to Americans eager to improve their social status – just as it did to the advertisers whose products promised to help them keep up with the Joneses. While originally born out of a European elitism, advertisers substituted the old-world class-consciousness with more modern version: tangible products that symbolized the same psychological complex – in a more profitable fashion. Magazine publishers feed these ever hungry advertisers with more and more “sellable content.”
The 20th century saw the rise of publisher Condé Nast , whose lavish magazines have become the embodiment of this americanized form of European elitism. Vogue, Self, Glamour, Allure, GQ, Details, Vanity Fair, Architectural Digest are just a few of their titles that have scored big time with advertisers who understand class anxiety better than any French postmodern cultural theorist.
The empress of the Condé Nast empire, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, was profiled my Meryl Streep in the film The Devil Wears Prada. Condé Nast gives her a $200k yearly clothing expense account, personal drivers, not to mention a private jet.
All this brings us to 2009. This year alone, advertising pages across Condé Nast publications have fallen by 8,000 pages. Their empire has collapsed.
The decision of a team of cost-cutting McKinsey consultants was made public today: Condé Nast will close three publications, including Gourmet magazine. Readers on the NY Times media blog went ballistic:
My family is heartbroken.
This is unbelievable!!
I am devastated
I am in shock
This is terrible news.
I am very sad about this.
Along with over 600 other mostly mournful comments
Should we really be sad, though? Through the 20th century, the publishers of Gourmet had managed to run a very profitable business. But without advertisers paying to reach readers, that business cannot exist.
If the closure of Gourmet offers any lesson, it is this: the magazine industry never really cared about you – it ultimately cared about selling advertisements to you. You were fooled.
If Ben Franklin were still kicking today, I think he’d understand. No one wanted his magazine. What they did want were his unique and original ideas that offered tangible value to society.
As a former subscriber to Gourmet myself, I’m admittedly a little sad about the closure. But I’m optimistic that publishers will learn to create value in ways that benefits the health of society more than simply titillating the taste buds of naive consumers. I think we can all subscribe to that.