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Valerie Phillips: Celebrity food magazines may signal future

Since Gourmet magazine published its final issue last November, I've been paying closer attention to which magazines seem to be thriving and why.

Gourmet was the grande dame of food magazines, having been around since 1940.

Gourmet's corporate parent, Conde Nast, has put its focus on the remaining Bon Appetit.

The Internet has obviously made a big dent in magazine readership.

An article last fall in Business Insider listed 22 magazines that did well financially in 2009. But I know that some cut budgets in order to stay in the black. Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies Home Journal, both Meredith publications, were mentioned. In 2008, Meredith slashed jobs; one of my friends was let go after 20-plus years there.

Are celebrity magazines the future? We've got Oprah, Martha, Paula Deen, Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, plus Food Network magazine, which features a buffet of TV hosts. Behind most of these gorgeous, glossy magazines is a triple-threat marketing strategy.

The "personality" gets a following on TV, then comes out with cookbooks that parallel the TV shows. The magazine is sprinkled with plugs for both the TV show and the cookbooks. Their Web sites cross-promote all of them.

I've often thought that magazines are part practical information, part fantasy.

For instance, Martha Stewart Living takes you to a world where houses are uncluttered, flower beds have no weeds, and colors are always pastel.

We know we can't stay, but it's fun to take back a tidbit to spruce up our own messy, imperfect lives.

But in our economic times, was Gourmet simply too "gourmet"? Yet another upscale food magazine, Saveur, was on the list of thriving magazines.

I've wondered if today's Twitter generation just doesn't want the long stories or travelogues that Gourmet was known for. Yet, the stories in Cook's Illustrated magazine are fairly long; and the recipes are so detailed that I have a hard time finding the space to run them in this newspaper.

Some trend-watchers speculate that readers want recipe-driven magazines now. Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Taste of Home, Southern Living and Cook's Illustrated tend to run lots of recipes — especially the kind that people will actually use.

In the end, Gourmet's demise probably had more to do with lack of advertising revenue than what readers want. After all, Gourmet had a circulation of 950,000 — so there were still plenty of readers.

Media stories last fall reported that Gourmet's ad pages were down by 50 percent.

Between my personal subscriptions and the review copies I get at work, I peruse the following magazines on a regular basis: Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Cook's Illustrated, Cook's Country, Cooking Light, Paula Deen, Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray, Food Network Magazine, Taste of Home, Sunset, Better Home & Gardens, Redbook, Health and Prevention.

I like each for different reasons. But with all of them, I enjoy being able to thumb through the pages, whether I'm on a treadmill at the gym, waiting at a doctor's office or soaking in the tub. And that's the kind of enjoyment I can't get by reading online.

e-mail: vphillips@desnews.com