As magazines turn to a lifestyle focus, they need to preserve a serious purpose

If you think you’ve seen a shift in your food magazines toward more lifestyle and celebrity coverage, you’re right.

 “A handful of food magazines have found [advertising] success by broadening their traditional focus on recipes to more of a lifestyle approach, capitalizing on popular interest in destination restaurants, celebrity chefs and travel,” says this article, in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.

The article singles out Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur and Eating Well, in particular, with all of them enjoying increased ad revenue and paid circulation, even as the “overall [magazine] industry” experienced “a marginal drop” in those metrics.

The article’s writer traces the origins of the phenonomen to  the 2008 launch of Food Network Magazine, which, “at the height of the financial crisis…began testing…a format echoing the programming on the TV network, focusing on celebrity chefs, food  entertainment and lifestyle.”

I remember when The Food Network TV show began the switch from cooking for the love of cooking to its current gee-whiz, celebrity focus. That’s when I stopped watching it. Instead of showing recipes I could really use at home, there started to be entire episodes on the U.S. candy business. I figured it was all about advertising. It was.

You might have noticed the same thing occurring in wine magazines. As an older writer who got his start in a far more different time, I have mixed feelings about this trend toward the sexy, the celebrity, the “hot new” this or that. It’s not exactly the penetrating journalism I grew up appreciating and practicing. Still, one has to recognize that publishing a magazine is not an act of charity. The publisher has got to make a profit, or else go out of business. This is so fundamental that it shouldn’t even have to be said. There’s something else, too: magazines must look out beyond the current arc of history to a time when new generations take over. The savvy publisher today aims his vision on 2025, not 2015: Who will be reading magazines then (whether on paper or digital, who knows?), and what will they be looking for?

I, myself, am no expert in these matters, but I know that experts exist, and they seem to be saying that people like this wider emphasis on lifestyle. The WSJ article quotes a VP of marketing at Banana Republic (which is owned by the Gap) as saying that his company has started advertising again in Bon Appetit and the other food magazines, after not doing so for years during the recession, because the “fresh [new] format and content…caters to an audience that’s broader than just recipe readers.”

So, too, wine magazines must cater to audiences that are broader than just wine review readers. This is Publishing 101. In the case of Wine Enthusiast, I believe we’re trying to find the right balance of lifestlye and serious wine writing, and we’re doing so with great mindfulness. Keeping periodicals like Wine Enthusiast Magazine alive and relevant is important. The public needs to continue to have trusted sources of professionally researched and written journalism, and if the price of doing so is a little walk on the celebrity side, it’s a small one.

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