The following is an excerpt from “Celebrating Bad Food: An Interview With Christopher Kimball” by Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist. The article is a great read if you love food since Kimball is the founder of Cook’s Illustrated, but it’s also a conversation between two innovators with successful publishing businesses in today’s world of new media.
The Federalist: Everyone’s familiar with the trendlines that indicate the death of print. It seems you have an approach that exists outside the rest of the marketplace and has avoided those trends.
Christopher Kimball: If you ask David Carr, and I know David Carr reasonably well, he would say the advertising driven print formula probably is dead…with a few exceptions, like fashion, where it is actually booming. But in general the American publishing model, the Time Inc. model, is under assault and probably is dead. But he’d be the first one to say there are niches where print makes a lot of sense and ours would be one of them.
Our print business is growing. So I don’t think it’s a question of print being dead. I think it’s a question of a publishing model that’s dead. I’ve always felt you should make the reader pay for content because the advertising driven formula was based upon a rare moment in time when you had lots of advertisers with lots of money and not a lot of places to go. It was short term. Sort of like the United States after World War II for about twenty-five years, right? We were the only game in town for ten years. Well that’s changed.
I think the model’s now changed for print advertisers because now there is an infinite variety of places to go online. I think the notion of selling people content that’s unique and that they demonstrably want in print’s not dead. But the notion of giving away your content in order to get a rate base for advertisers, that is dead – maybe not in the fashion business, but in most areas of publishing.
Old media is a vastly better place to build a relationship with a consumer.
I have another strong feeling. I think old media is a vastly better place to build a relationship with a consumer – television, radio, print, books and magazines – than the web. The web is a horrendous place to build a business model based upon a connection to a group of loyal customers because they can leave your store and go to the next store in about a nanosecond. It’s not a very intimate relationship unless you’re talking about something like Facebook.
If you sit down and read my magazine for ten minutes or if you watch our TV show for ten minutes you’ve now had a much more personal experience than you would have had going to one of our websites. It’s just a totally different experience. I’m a huge supporter of traditional media in order to develop a brand and to develop a brand experience because there are radio shows, even the best, you listen to our radio shows for ten or fifteen minutes. That’s something that will stay with you. But if you go to our website, there are a thousand other websites out there that you can explore in very little time.
The Federalist: It seems to me the comparison is more to the centuries old method of using newsletters. Those have experienced a rebound in recent years. Is that a fair comparison, where the Fifties look like an outlier in terms of media?
Christopher Kimball: Well, Cooks Illustrated and Cook’s Country really are newsletters in a way. They are highly specific and vertical. They appeal to people for a very specific thing. It’s an intimate delivery of information and it’s high value content. I think in this day and age there are two kinds of businesses. The kind that offers you something you can’t get anywhere else and there are businesses that don’t. If you’re in the former group, you can exist in print or online and make a go of it.
I think what the web has done is destroy any business that isn’t providing something unique.
I think what the web has done is destroy any business that isn’t providing something unique. For example, The New York Times is a unique proposition as is The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has a viable economic model now. Ok, what about The Los Angeles Times? The San Francisco Chronicle? Well, they may survive but they have a much different problem because they don’t have what the The New York Times has. The New York Times is The New York Times.
If you’re a food magazine you’re just generating content like everybody else. What’s a blogger? Someone who can come along and develop a much closer relationship with you than the editor of Bon Appetit, maybe? It’s the unique quality of what you’re proposing to provide people that is essential because in the world of the web you can replicate and aggregate content so quickly. If you could get my recipes somewhere else…
We recently did an analysis here: We spend $12,000 to develop a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. That’s a lot of money. That’s weeks of work. The reason we do it is because that’s the point of differentiation. If you have something people can get in ten other places, I just don’t know how you make a go of it in the web world, unless you’ve got a lock on some sort of traditional media.