A friend of mine, a freelance food writer, e-mailed me a blog post by a former Conde Nast employee, Paul Smalera, discussing the publisher's decision to ax Gourmet magazine and a couple of lesser-known titles. I was expecting yet another rumination on the troubles being faced by print media. As someone who toiled at daily newspapers for several years and has plenty of friends still doing so, those kinds of articles regularly end up in my inbox.
Instead it was an indictment of Conde Nast's corporate culture, one that seems incapable of breaking out of its usual modus operandi. Smalera writes:
The company has no ability, anywhere in the organization, to see the value of starting small, trying new things, or offering sustained commitments or investments, on a small scale, to grow a new business or brand. It's a risk averse, fear driven culture that can't defend or comprehend investing in things that don't already feature the company's commitment to excess and luxury.
Perhaps Conde Nast could benefit from reading a list of 50 ways to foster a sustainable culture of innovation from The Heart of Innovation blog that I wrote about last month. Somewhat counterintuitively, a down economy is the perfect time to break out of existing business models. Why?
As Boston Consulting Group advised earlier this year, competitors focused only on trying to keep themselves afloat financially likely won't be able to respond quickly to new models. Smalera offers some ideas on how Conde Nast could have built an online property leveraging Gourmet's strong brand and loyal fan base. But like many other print publishers, Conde Nast doesn't seem willing to invest time and effort in figuring out how to port paying customers to the Web and/or attract new customers online.
Publishers aren't the only companies responding to a sluggish economy by focusing on cutting costs in existing models rather than creating new ones. It's an understandable reaction. But maybe others can learn from its example. Don't wait until your ship starts sinking before you start looking for alternate modes of transportation.