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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.”

This story first appeared in the May 25, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

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?”

Daniella Vitale, Barneys New York’s chief merchant and executive vice president who oversees, said that featuring merchandise on the store’s new blog, The Window, “unequivocally” boosts sales over the following week. The site also features content that isn’t directly commercial: Simon Doonan ambassador-ing and a review of “L’amour fou,” Pierre Thoretton’s documentary about Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. “People do read this and they do respond,” Vitale said.

“Everyone has a blog now. Every retailer — everyone from Opening Ceremony to Ralph Lauren to Bergdorf Goodman,” said Andy Comer, who left his job as GQ’s first online editor to take an executive editor job with Gilt’s content site for men, Gilt Manual. His title has since changed to director of merchandising content. “Gilt Manual is, in a way, ‘Let’s try this out; we kind of need to do this; people expect this from us,’” he said.

The Gilts, Net-a-porters and Vente-Privées of the world especially need editors to help cook up an aesthetic and a brand identity online. Gilt now has a men’s style blog with a full-price retail site on the way at the end of the summer; a New York City guide site, City Unlisted, pegged to a deals site, Gilt City; a vacation sales site Jetsetter, with a companion blog; and Reichl’s site which has recipes, stories and merchandise for sale. Net-a-porter boasts an online magazine, print and iPad editions and a Web video channel, where viewers can shop while they watch runway videos. Last fall, the company spun off a men’s full-price shop online with integrated editorial under the watch of former British Esquire editor in chief Jeremy Langmead.

The comingling of commerce and editorial seems like a violation of the fashion magazine world central tenet: that editorial and business concerns should remain separate. Hogwash, say e-commerce executives.

Kevin Ryan, the chief executive officer of Gilt, attributed the publishing world’s obsession with the separation between church and state to its own self-importance. “If I asked 100 consumers why they buy a magazine, it would never come up,” he said. “Yet if I go to an editorial meeting at any big magazine, they take it and themselves very seriously on this issue and get no credit for it and don’t even completely do it. It’s the worst of all worlds.”

Gilt’s Lyne, who carried the title editor in chief when she launched Premiere magazine, echoed Ryan’s idea that editorial integrity at advertising-supported publications really had nothing to do with their own content. “I think when you talk about blurring the line between church and state for commerce companies, it’s a very different animal in that there is no advertiser there to protect against,” Lyne said. “There is nobody at our company who is pressuring our content people to cover X or Y product because there’s no incentive for us to do that.”

One Gilt editorial staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, cut to the chase: “In a weird way it’s really liberating that the raison d’être is really just to sell s–t.”

Earlier this month, Gilt hired Ben Widdicombe, who made his name in the New York tabloids, to run its urban deal site. “It’s an evolved media beast,” he said at a party in his honor thrown by Gilt at the Cooper Square Hotel last Tuesday. “I’m aware that it’s not an independent media company but they’re very good about letting me act like it is.” And does he feel uneasy at all that his work as an editor is helping sell discount spa packages? “I think it’s wonderful that you would ask someone who’s been a career gossip columnist if going to Gilt Groupe is what’s giving them trouble sleeping at night,” he said.

Last Thursday, Gilt threw its third party in as many nights. Editors from Gilt Man raised a glass to GQ and Italian Vogue columnist Glenn O’Brien in the private dinning room at the back of the The Waverly Inn in honor of his new book “How to Be a Man,” which is for sale on the site. O’Brien, who for the last year has been editing Bergdorf Goodman’s quarterly and has danced the line of editorial and commerce since he got his start with Andy Warhol, also didn’t see the point in a church-versus-state debate. “Everybody who works in fashion magazines works on the other side, too,” O’Brien said. “It’s just an interchangeable talent pool.”

Many fashion editors work on ad campaigns to make extra money. Every editorial employee interviewed at Gilt and Net-a-porter for this story said their salaries weren’t any better than in the publishing business. But there is the chance to have stock options in a company like Gilt that, according to investors including Goldman Sachs and the Softbank Group participating in the company’s latest round of venture capital, is valued at one billion dollars.

“One misconception is that it’s just a place to kick up your heels until the media business sorts itself out,” said former editor Tyler Thoreson, who landed at Gilt as editorial director last fall after a short-lived stint at the New York Observer. He said he didn’t miss working in the publishing world, where online work isn’t taken very seriously. “I come from Condé Nast Digital where, let’s just say, any car service usage was highly scrutinized. The gulf on Sixth Avenue was pretty wide between 4 Times Square and 1166 [Avenue of the Americas]. There is a certain kind of prestige factor that everyone at Condé ends up buying into and it’s a well-deserved thing,” Thoreson said, “but there’s nothing that compares to being part of a growing business.”

Comer came to join Thoreson at Gilt from GQ to work on the company’s men’s editorial for similar reasons. “This seems like it might be where people with my skill set could find a new life or explore the future of the medium,” Comer said. “I approached this very much as I’m not going to work for an editorial property, I’m going to work for a retailer. And I don’t have any illusions that it’s anything other than that.”

Net-a-porter, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last fall with the launch of a new site for men, Mr. Porter, has taken a different tack and embraced that illusion. “We’re a fashion magazine you can shop from,” said Claudia Plant, editorial director at Net-a-porter, who left Tatler with Natalie Massenet to start the company. Plant and Massanet both profited handsomely — the latter the tune of 50 million British pounds, reportedly — after Compagnie Financière Richemont SA bought a majority share of the company last spring.

“Working here versus working in print you have to be more octopuslike,” said Mr. Porter editor in chief Langmead. “You’ve got to have more hands reaching into more places at a much faster pace. You’re dealing with content, with sales figures, with marketing, with e-mails, with social media, buying appointments, tech issues, all on a global scale. Your days are longer.” He said that having additional retail-oriented tasks on his plate didn’t distract from his work as an editor in chief, and said that when he was running Esquire he spent 70 percent working on the business side of the ball anyway.

“In magazines you build up the fashion story, you tell the guys how to wear it, what to buy, where to go and then you wave them goodbye,” Langmead said. “That genuinely was what frustrated me: you leave the journey halfway through.” He said that being an editor in chief of a retail site he gets to “complete the story.”

The magazine companies are by and large watching the e-retail companies and their valuations grow from the sidelines. So far, the most practical way for Condé Nast and Hearst to get into the commerce space online seems to be through partnerships between different magazine titles and the e-retailers: Vogue and Gilt Groupe arranged a “shop the issue” sale last January and Harper’s Bazaar hatched a similar deal with Net-a-porter last fall. Veranda and Esquire have entered similar deals with Gilt. But there’s very little in these partnerships for the magazine titles. “There’s a business relationship there, but it’s very modest,” said Hearst publishing director Michael Clinton. “It’s not like it’s going to float the boat, if you will.”

And will magazines be aggressively moving into the e-commerce business? “I don’t think we’re interested in holding inventory,” Clinton said, “but we’re interested in sending readers to a place where they can buy it.”