Did Ann Patchett’s Travel Writing Kill Gourmet Magazine?

The other day, my good friend Diana sent me an email with this subject line: Did I Kill Gourmet Magazine?

The link was from the Wall Street Journal, and for a moment I wondered whether it was about her, since she’s a very fine food writer —  or somehow about me. So I instantly clicked the link and read an essay by novelist Ann Patchett, detailing her very expensive research for stories, paid for in full by the now-shuttered magazine Gourmet.

The story has provoked some ire, especially from travel writers.  Personally, I thought the piece was amusing. But I also wondered about the answer to the question the headline posed: Did she (and writers like her) actually kill Gourmet with their travel writing?

The fact that she was sent to foreign lands at the magazine’s expense — the expense details that she so lovingly caresses in her WSJ essay — isn’t dispositive, as my lawyer husband would say.

It’s my understanding that Gourmet routinely paid research expenses for writers on assignment, not just famous novelists. Now, there are endless debates about whether publications should pay for a travel writer’s expenses, with sponsored travel, or, if you prefer the pejorative term “freebies”, as the alternative. If you take that position that the travel expenses of writers like Patchett seriously caused the magazine financial harm, this essay could be taken as an argument in favor of travel magazines eliminating research expense accounts, simply as a survival strategy.

I thought I’d have a look at Conde Nast’s financials to see whether I could find some actual financial facts — alas, the company isn’t publicly traded and therefore not required to disclose those numbers.

But from what I could glean from the business coverage of Gourmet‘s shuttering last October, it seems highly unlikely that magazine’s travel research budget was the killer. In its coverage, the New York Times does says that Gourmet was discontinued because it was losing too much money — from travel expenses, yes, but also expensive photo shoots and the magazine’s legendary test kitchens. But it’s not just expenditures that lead to red ink.  The bigger problem seemed to be that the magazine had lost advertising, and lots of it.  I’m not sure you can blame Ann Patchett’s travel expenses for that.

To me, the question really is this: were Patchett’s stories worth the cost of her research?

Or was Bill Sertl really a dotty besotted travel editor, as Patchett sort of implies, who gave her assignments whether she deserved them or not?

Handily, there’s an Ann Patchett archive available on Gourmet‘s website, and I’ve read through it. The question of whether a writer is worth her fee is always subjective, of course.  I admit to being mystified about why Gourmet commissioned and ran one story that Patchett alludes to in her WSJ essay,  the one about Italian opera, since it doesn’t seem to mention food or drink even in passing.  But her other pieces were on topic — and they all seemed pretty good to me.  Amusing, wry, and readable to the last period.

So no, I don’t think Patchett killed Gourmet. And no, I don’t think she was ever seriously suggesting anything of the sort. In fact, the notion that she was some sort of a spoiled cosseted writer-child seems to be her schtick,  one that the magazine not only enjoyed, but promoted — and perhaps even invented.  After all, this is the first line of her  bio on Gourmet.com : “Ann writes for us on anything that strikes her fancy, even if we ask her not to.”

If anything, her WSJ essay seems to be a brief reprisal of that role.

One Response

  1. JR October 20, 2010

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