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Last week, Ruth Reichl got herself into a sticky situation.
It was Wednesday night on West 26th Street and the former Gourmet editor in chief and New York Times food critic was being introduced by her new boss, Gilt Groupe chairman Susan Lyne, at the launch of their online e-commerce–slash-editorial venture for foodies, Gilt Taste. “If this was just a catalogue of products — no matter how wonderful — I wouldn’t want to be involved,” Reichl wrote in her first editor’s letter on the site earlier that day. “What makes Gilt Taste unique is that it’s a new kind of magazine, one that has no ads and is supported solely by sales.”
The two women were standing in front of a wall with the words “Gilt Taste” spelled out in a 15-foot-wide matrix of ochre-shaded lollipops, which were melting onto the floor. As Lyne talked about the opportunities of “merging content and commerce,” Reichl pulled her long black hair up and back into a banana clip and a few strands got caught in the candy on the wall. She ran her hands through her hair and then she rubbed them together to try to get rid of the slimy goo.
“It’s great products and really great content,” Reichl told the room of over a hundred people milling about the enormous party space eating prosciutto, oysters and grass-fed beef. “I couldn’t be prouder of what we’re doing here.”
A new kind of magazine has indeed arrived online and its bringing editors into the sales business. For the last year, fast-growing online retail companies like Gilt and Net-a-porter in the U.K. have been scooping up orphans from the magazine world with the idea that editorial content can help them drive sales. To date, Gilt has hired fewer than 20 employees from publishing companies, according to Jen Miller, a spokeswoman for the company who herself came from Condé Nast. She said “about five” of those employees are in editorial roles.
“I thought about it long and hard,” admitted Reichl, explaining her decision to sign on with the e-commerce venture. “I said ‘If you don’t want to do real journalism, I don’t want to be a part of this.’ And they said, ‘No, no, no, we really want to do real journalism.’”
This week on the site, Reichl published an environmental impact essay by Gourmet alumnus Barry Estabrook about hydro-fracking’s impact on food. One click away, the reader-consumer can browse the Meat section of the site for different cuts of wagyu beef (Four 10-ounce New York strip steaks, $199). Elsewhere content and commerce are side by side: recipes by New York Times dining columnist Melissa Clark appear with some of the ingredients for sale in a sidebar (Le Sanctuaire Mini Salt Set, $42.).
“Content and commerce, the mingling of it, really makes sense to me,” Reichl explained. “You have a normal magazine and you create editorial, and then it gets surrounded by ads for a lot of things you don’t like. Here we have to be involved in what we’re selling as well.”
She said that if she were offered the chance to edit another magazine, her decision would “depend on the circumstances.”
“I love the world of magazines but I really feel like this is the next spin of the wheel,” she said. “This is the future.”
Later in the party, a DJ played Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (“Oh, baby, I like it raw!”) and Clark and Reichl stood by the oyster bar, Champagne flutes and empty shells in hand. Clark, who continues to write her column for the Times’ Dining section while contributing recipes to Gilt Taste, explained that she actually prefers the commerce-supported model: “There’s no advertising for Coke. There’s no crappy s--t on the site.” And how does Gilt pay? “Better than the Times,” she said.
“It’s what I call the new C word — content,” said Monocle editor Tyler Brûlé, over the phone from the garden at his offices in London on Friday afternoon (“Leave the wine on the table,” he said to somebody nearby). “Everyone just talks about, ‘Oh we’re doing an e-commerce site, we need content.’ But what kind of content do you want?.…And is it sustainable as part of your business model?”