After Print Deaths, Condé Nast Faces Digital Future

epicurious com epicurious After Print Deaths, Condé Nast Faces Digital FutureWhen Condé Nast chief executive Chuck Townsend announced the deaths of Gourmet, Cookie, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride, he gave hope to readers and staffers alike that some semblance of the magazines might live online. The changes will “enable us to pursue new ventures,” he wrote in his internal memo. “In the coming weeks, we hope to announce initiatives to develop digital versions of our brands that will make use of new devices and distribution channels.”

As Mr. Townsend noted, Gourmet’s recipes will continue to be filtered into Condé Nast Digital’s food destination site Epicurious.com. Its popular Gourmet “Test Kitchen” videos—in which food editors and stylists demonstrate cooking techniques, from concocting duck confit to cracking a coconut—will remain posted on YouTube and Epicurious.com.

Both Modern Bride’s and Elegant Bride’s verticals on Brides.com would be folded into the main site.

As for Cookie, its five daily blogs and online discussion forums (which are virtual ghost towns compared to sites like UrbanBaby.com) will go kaput. CookieMag.com will shut down soon. Condé Nast currently has no plans to create another online home for hip moms, according to Condé Nast Digital sources.

As for a possible online rebirth of Gourmet and other Condé Nast casualties? Many sources told The Observer they simply don’t know yet. And some weren’t sure if they could stomach a zombified version of Gourmet on the Web (see: Portfolio.com run by Condé Nast sister publisher American City Business Journals).

Gourmet’s Web editor, Christy Harrison, who joined the magazine’s site in 2007, seemed to be reeling from the news when The Observer reached her on Monday afternoon. She said she couldn’t comment on what would happen to her position, or on any of Gourmet’s digital properties. “We’re all still trying to figure out what’s going on,” she said.

Might Gourmet.com’s content end up on Bon Appetit’s Web site?

A press representative told The Observer that no one at Gourmet would have information on the Web side of things, aside from the news about the Epicurious.com recipe transfer. “All we know is that we [the editorial and business staff] have to be out of here by the end of the day,” she said. Editors at Condé Nast Digital and Epicurious.com said they had few other details, or declined to comment.

Despite the fact that many users are familiar with Gourmet’s online presence mostly through Epicurious.com, Gourmet.com actually served as the magazine’s online home—a place marker for the magazine that featured a few print stories, along with a recipe search and some Web-exclusive features. Gourmet.com also had podcasts and a recently launched social networking experiment, Gourmet Guestlist, which worked as an online party planner, with theme ideas, recipes and email invites.

There was also Gourmet’s Cookbook Club. Editor in chief Ruth Reichl and other editors would comb through hundreds of cookbooks to test recipes and select favorites, and then invite users to try them in their own kitchens and comment at Gourmet.com. They partnered with ecookbooks.com to offer discounts on books stamped with the Reichl seal of approval.

One source from Condé Nast Digital told The Observer that these Web projects may be folded into BonAppetit.com, the site of Condé Nast’s other magazine about food and cooking, but those plans could not be confirmed.

Certainly, Condé Nast Digital has been working to beef up tech features on Epicurious.com, which is mostly known as a recipe source, with Bon Appetit, Cookie and Gourmet already contributing to the site’s 25,000 online recipes, along with Self and Parade. Users can add their own recipes, too.

In July, Epicurious.com announced a partnership with Snooth.com, a popular Web hub for wine aficionados, to provide vino recommendations alongside recipes. There’s also a free iPhone app, “Epicurious’ Recipes & Shopping List: On the Go and in the Kitchen,” which allows users to browse more than 25,000 editor-tested recipes (you can spot it featured in Apple’s “There’s an app for that” commercials.”). It has been downloaded more than 600,000 times.

Jane Goldman, editor in chief of Chow.com, an Epicurious competitor and the home of Chowhound forums, said magazines and food sites like Epicurious.com will have to get more social to grab foodie cliques.

“Food is like the original social application—come on over for dinner and we’ll talk,” Ms. Goldman told The Observer in an interview. “And yet, I think the food sites have not been innovative enough in figuring out ways for foodies to talk to each other or share things with each other.”

Epicurious.com already has community forums, membership profiles and recipe-swapping features—and is catering to amateur cooks’ desire for on-demand recipes with instructional videos. What does the modern foodie need? “Show it to me, don’t give me an article,” Ms. Goldman said. 

But she’ll miss Gourmet, she said. “When you are reading Gourmet magazine, you felt like you were in a particular world,” Ms. Goldman said. “Everything from the color palette to the typeface that they used to the photos to the writer that they assigned—you were in their world. On the Web, it’s a little more difficult to do that.”

It’s also difficult to get publishers’ attention on the Web—until now.

David Liu, co-founder and chief executive of top bride site TheKnot.com, noted that Brides.com’s development has come in “fits and starts,” with several relaunches and redesigns since its 2006 debut. “There’s so much money that comes into their traditional vehicle that it cannibalizes funds for the sites,” he said. “With the economy and the growth in online demands, it’s kind of forcing everyone’s hand,” to invest online.

Brides.com currently generates more than 45.5 million monthly page views from about 1.5 million unique visitors per month (TheKnot.com’s network of sites has 6.6 million monthly uniques). Brides.com, with photo galleries, wedding-planning tools and online video of runway shows, has recently launched a new partnership with MyRegistry.com to allow couples to add items from any store in the world onto a single online wedding gift registry.

Mr. Liu said the challenge for his own company, for Brides.com and for just about every other site on the Web will be personalizing users’ experiences and attracting loyal advertisers. “This is a really tough category to build lasting brand relationships with because a bride is only interested for, what? Six to twelve months?” he said. “They go away overnight.”

So do magazines, these days.

greagan@observer.com