Why Paid Circ Sucks: Reflections on the Death of Gourmet

The news that Condé Nast will be deep-sixing Gourmet magazine hit me this morning with more than the merely theoretical impact I would have felt a few months ago. Then, it would have been a momentary blip in my consciousness of the consumer magazine world. Now, it will be a personal case study in why paying for content is so often a raw deal.

The story starts in June, when we received a phone call from, we thought, Seventeen magazine, pushing a renewal of our daughter’s subscription. After a brief consultation with our daughter, we agreed to renew. A few days later, she got a better renewal offer from the magazine in the mail, which we took instead. Our assumption—maybe a bit naïve—was that the publisher, Hearst, would do some deduping and give us the better rate.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

That call was from a telemarketer, not Hearst. Within a few weeks, our daughter was receiving two copies of the magazine, and we were being billed by the telemarketer as well as Hearst.  A call to the telemarketer resulted not (as you, my hard-nosed reader might expect) in a refund, but in our being skillfully switched to another, more-expensive subscription—to Gourmet magazine.

Last week, two months after paying for it, we finally received our first issue of Gourmet. Then today, they shut it down.

This isn’t so much a tale of consumer frustration as of the inanity of paid circulation for all parties concerned. The huge risk with paid-in-advance content is, literally and figuratively, of a failure to deliver. By paying in advance, the buyer is accepting a promise: first, that the seller will deliver the content for the specified time period and frequency; second, and more-often relevant, that a certain degree of quality and pertinence of content will be served up.

That promise is often not kept. The failure comes not so much from magazines closing mid-subscription (though I can think of at least three in the last 20 years that have burned me). Rather, it’s in the all-too-frequent failure to provide the type of content I expect from something I’ve paid for.

If I’m going to pay for content, I’d much rather do so after I read it. Now before you observe that this is a wildly optimistic approach to revenue generation, let me explain how I would pay. My most valuable currency is not a subscription fee, but my interaction—in the form of my loyalty, my time spent interacting with the publication, my willingness to buy its associated products, if any, and to pay at least some attention to its ads.

This is exactly why the free circulation model makes sense. Getting me to pay up for a subscription often costs the publisher as much as I spend, and can set my expectations unreasonably high. When I get it free (and let’s assume B2B’s controlled model, where I get it free because I am an appropriate reader), the publisher gets at least as much of my interaction as when paid. The better the content, the more I interact.

As noted previously, it could readily be argued that the subscription fee is really only underwriting the physical medium and related expenses, such as postage. The content itself is in fact free.

In my mind, I can buy that argument. But in that other vital organ, my wallet, I just feel cheated.