The Transformation of Condé Nast

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Condé Nast was actually a person—a fact that might come as a surprise to readers who know the name only from the magazine publishing corporation, a company so monumental that it’s practically synonymous with twentieth-century periodicals. The man who established the high-end glossy consider lobsters , simultaneously lowering the barrier to entry and elevating the discourse around food.

Vanity Fair’s June 1985 cover, photographed by Harry Benson, marked a reversal of fortunes for the title, which had been close to shuttering.Harry Benson

Leaving behind her bohemian West Coast roots and her adventurous outer-borough eating at the Times, Reichl also gets integrated into the Condé Nast lifestyle cult: driver, clothing allowance, enormous office, and private dining room. As Nast knew, you have to have it in order to flaunt it. “I’d let Si tie me up in golden strings,” Reichl writes. “He kept us so thoroughly insulated from ordinary life that for ten years I never balanced a checkbook, made a reservation, or knew where I was meant to be at a given moment.” (The memoirs themselves sometimes function as lifestyle porn.) Surrounded by conspicuous consumption, Reichl refers to the quadrumvirate of other powerful Condé magazine editors as “AnnaGraydonDavidPaige.” 

Reichl, at least, seems to have sensed that this life of excess and luxury couldn’t last forever. Explaining her controversial decision to put unfancy cupcakes on a cover, she writes, “Throughout human history, food trends have come from the top, slowly working their way down from royal tables to the modest homes of the hoi polloi…. For the first time in history, food trends began to work their way up from the street.” The rise of the internet, where eventually anyone could post their food photos instead of finding them in a glossy, had something to do with this reversal. Reichl wanted to build a Gourmet web site early on, but New­house wouldn’t cede ground that was already taken up by another one of Condé Nast’s properties, the digital-only Epicurious, where all the recipes from Condé’s food magazines were published. By the time he agreed, it was too late.

“We survivors danced on the edge of the volcano, unwilling to admit that anything had changed,” Reichl writes. The internet took up more and more space. The financial crisis cratered luxury advertising. Despite Reichl’s attempts to turn the magazine and herself alike into a brand, with Gourmet TV shows and cookbooks, Newhouse decided to shut the entire publication down in 2009, after a McKinsey review. Called into the office from a far-flung stop on her book tour, Reichl thought she was just getting replaced. Instead she found “they had murdered the magazine.” Along with Gourmet went Elegant Bride, Modern Bride, and the parenting magazine Cookie; Bon Appétit survived because its advertisers were more food-centric and its budget presumably smaller. The economics of aspiration stopped working.

Interviewed on a recent podcast from the food web site Eater, Rei­chl said that she thought the figure of the elite tastemaker-editor was gone for good. On the internet, the algorithm wins over the editor: Equations make decisions faster and take more data into account than even the most decisive and perceptive editor. The other winners are our new tastemakers, the influencers, whose job is essentially the same as the old celebrity editor’s—to project an image of a better, more luxurious, more stylish life and convince us to buy in—but different in its form and business model. Individuals, maybe with a few assistants, post on their own accounts, which are seen as more intimate and authentic precisely because they lack the size and corporate slickness of a Condé-style media empire.

The advertising business model that Condé Nast relied on to make up and exceed the gap between the subscription fees and the magazines’ huge production costs no longer works. Facebook (which owns Instagram) and Google (which owns YouTube) can attract advertisers without the lure of expensive photo shoots. They don’t need splashy cover stories to gather a specific audience; they already know your economic class, employment status, age, and gender from tracking your online interactions. They also make life easier for the brands, who no longer have to deal with ad departments or picky editors-in-chief; they just check the demographic boxes on the tech companies’ platforms and upload their assets. It’s as if beautiful flowers lost the ability to attract bees because we invented robots to put pollen on them instead.

It may be that “class publication” elitism was never what mainstream audiences wanted. It was just an easy mistake to make if the only people you ever spoke to were penthouse-dwellers and Paris weekenders. Search and social media broke down the barriers between readers and content so that it became simpler for consumers to find exactly what they want. The vaunted monoculture might be over. We don’t watch the same TV and movies anymore, as Tina Brown wrote—unless it’s Star Wars, superheroes, or Game of Thrones. Celebrity profiles are the digital-media currency of the day. Otherwise it’s puppy GIFs and sunset selfies. Even if we’re not influenced by influencers, we’re still influenced by what our friends post, a kind of user-generated, aggregate aspiration beyond the control of any editor.

Condé Nast has ceased printing some of its minor, less enduringly iconic lifestyle titles like Self, Details, and Lucky magazines, contracting to focus on its core offerings, the magazines with name-brands strong enough to sustain revenue streams beyond print. The media companies that are thriving online right now are the ones that offer paywalled hard news and in-depth reporting, like The Washington Post and The New York Times, which has a larger newsroom than ever before.

Magazine editors today tend to be quieter, tasked with survival instead of rebirth. GQ and New York magazine both recently appointed new editors-in-chief, two men who were stable veterans of their respective companies. Teen Vogue looked set to produce superstars until Phillip Picardi went to the smaller Out and Elaine Welteroth to television, where the money is better. Vanity Fair replaced Graydon Carter with Radhika Jones, the low-key former editorial director of The New York Times’ books department, with a rumored quarter of Carter’s salary and a mandate to cut staff.

It might be Remnick’s New Yorker that is now closest to the original Condé Nast vision. With a fast-paced web site and a weekly radio show, it projects a new image of aspiration that has less to do with material consumption than with cultural or social cachet. Its new cohort of contributors—including Jia Tolentino, Isaac Chotiner, and Helen Rosner—drives conversation on the internet the way Dorothy Parker once must have whispered into Manhattan’s ear at the original Vanity Fair. These writers leverage their individual online presences in tandem with their publishing perch, defining the memes, delights, and scandals of the week with articles that convert into organic marketing and profit for the title. Even as ad pages dwindle, print disappears, and social media absorbs more of our attention, the highest and most Condé-esque goal of glossy media is likely to survive: creating a club that you want to be part of.

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#vanity fair
#the new yorker
#new media
#condé nast
#books & the arts
#si newhouse
#november 2019