Oh, how the mighty have fallen, redux: Conde Nast and McKinsey

Among the big victims of the recession has been the media world's conventional wisdom. Just a year or two ago, it was still thought that Conde Nast Publications (my previous employer, it should be noted) would weather the downturn that was then beginning more comfortably than any of its competitors thanks to its unique market position.

With titles like Vogue, Vanity Fair,GQ and Architectural Digest, CNP just about owned the luxury consumer (or, more usually, the middle-class consumer who aspires to luxury). The lush production values of Conde magazines yielded a reader experience not easily replicated online, and an aggressive corporate ad sales program allowed the weaker properties to benefit from the stronger titles' clout.

None of that has proven untrue, exactly, but Conde Nast is nevertheless in nothing like the enviable position it expected to occupy. That much was made clear by yesterday's announcement that Conde has hired consulting giant McKinsey & Co. to help it "rethink the way we do business," in the words of CEO Chuck Townsend. (It's the second time Conde has hired McKinsey; last time was in 2001, and eventually resulted in a reorganization that included dissolving Fairchild Publications.)
The publisher has already been rethinking quite a lot of late, shutting down Portfolio (where I worked), Domino and House & Garden, laying off most of its receptionists, and cutting staff by five percent. But with advertising still way down -- numbers for the all-important September issues are pretty dreadful, especially at Architectural Digest and W -- there's yet more cutting to be done. My colleague Douglas McIntyre thinks that will have to include folding Gourmet and Wired (in print, at least) and switching The New Yorker to a biweekly publishing schedule.

One pernicious side effect of Conde Nast's complacence has been its lackadaisical approach to the web. Believing its businesses were less vulnerable to web-driven audience erosion caused Conde to under-invest in digital, with the result that the company derives only a reported three percent of its revenues from that side -- considerably less than competitors like Hearst and Time Inc. But Conde did take one small step toward fixing that imbalance this week, dissolving its men's portal, men.style.com, in favor of creating individual web presences for GQ and Details -- an arrangement the editors of those magazines will surely prefer.
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