The murder happened in the kitchen with a laptop.

That possible explanation for the death of Gourmet magazine sounds like a solution from the game Clue. The 68-year-old food magazine met its end this month when publisher Condé Nast cut it and two other magazines. Some blamed Gourmet’s demise on the Internet and its theft of the print audience. It’s easy to see why.

For foodies, the attraction of thousands of food websites is powerful. Many home cooks now carefully position a laptop in the kitchen, keeping it safe from crumbs and splashes, instead of a magazine recipe. The loss of Gourmet, which was seen as a prestigious title, means that other food magazines may now feel a greater sense of insecurity.

But the threat to food titles goes beyond the mere existence of the web; it also comes from magazines’ challenges in the changing game of branding.

Getting to Know You

It might be tempting for some to blame the thousands of food bloggers for distracting audiences from print media.

There’s a food blogger for every ethnic specialty, dietary concern or locality. Bloggers offer personal connections, unique voices, and a passion for their subject that print magazines may not provide. Narrow expectations from readers and advertisers can limit print magazine content, while bloggers are more free to explore topics in frequent posts.

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“I actually started going to food forums and sites because I got sick of seeing the same places and same eats in the same magazines,” said Titus Ruscitti, whose blog, Smokin’ Chokin’ and Chowing with the King, focuses on barbecue. “If a magazine like Gourmet or Bon Appétit or a show on Food Network is doing a special on Chicago, it’s always the same food, same places. The same goes for the recipes. I felt like they were all the same.”

Gourmet’s food coverage was also aspirational in nature, making it somewhat inaccessible for many people. In fact, it may have been too disconnected from readers’ changing tastes in the current economic situation. For most people, it’s easier to identify with a food blogger who lives a more ordinary life.

“I think food blogging has become so popular because the face behind the blog is a real person,” says Kath Younger of the blog Kath Eats Real Food. “Recipes are cooked in a real kitchen. Photos are taken as [the recipes] are consumed. I think readers enjoy reading the story behind the food as much as they enjoy the recipes.”

Beyond a Magazine Brand

To contend with these digital competitors, magazine publishers are extending their traditional print brands into digital media.

Jim Sexton, senior vice president and editorial director for Time Inc. Lifestyle Digital, oversees a number of the company’s websites that are linked to print magazines, including those for Real Simple, Southern Living, Cooking Light, Sunset and Coastal Living. Today, he says, those names need to evoke not just print magazines, but an array of media options.

“We’re making it so the brands are thought of as brands, as opposed to magazine brands,” he says. “The difference is thinking of Cooking Light as a magazine, a website, books, a brand that shows up on Twitter and Facebook, and in mobile. It’s a brand that the audience can connect to wherever they are.”

Magazine websites also are incorporating interactive features already found on blogs and in other social media. Cooking Light developed a video series, a blog and message boards, as well as integrating social media like Twitter and Facebook. Overall, though, the magazine and site emphasize expert-produced content, such as blogs written by a registered dietitian and by the test-kitchen cooks.

Experts and Users Online

However, Cooking Light and other food media with “expert” content have competitors that use low-cost content: recipe sites with user-generated content, like Allrecipes.com.

Allrecipes is part of the food and entertaining division of Reader’s Digest, along with the magazines Taste of Home, Simple and Delicious, Healthy Cooking and Every Day with Rachael Ray. It’s currently the top food website, drawing 10 million to 15 million visitors per month.

Though it sometimes features recipes from its affiliated magazines, Allrecipes primarily relies on its audience for content.

“All our recipes are created by home cooks, and we have partnerships with various advertisers who integrate recipes into the site,” says Judith Dern, public relations manager for Allrecipes.

Allrecipes’ content is also participatory. Users suggest modifications and substitutions that make the recipes more useful and dynamic.

Gourmet’s website, on the other hand, contained some links to social media, but few chances to engage actively with the magazine’s content. Although the “Gourmet Community” box on the site suggests becoming a Gourmet fan on Facebook, visiting their YouTube channel, downloading their iTunes podcasts and following staffers on Twitter, these are primarily passive activities that don’t build a community on the site itself. (Epicurious.com, which hosts recipes from Gourmet and other Condé Nast magazines, does have social features, but it’s barely mentioned on the current Gourmet website.)

Magazines Meet SEO

The competition between established, “expert” food media, like Cooking Light or Gourmet, and user-focused, interactive blogs and communities demonstrates the print magazine’s dilemma in going digital. Why spend money to produce high-end content when an individual cook’s blog or Allrecipes contribution can draw your audience just as easily?

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To draw users to premium content, magazine websites are using search-engine optimization (SEO) techniques to elevate their site in search results. Editors now pore over every piece of content looking for opportunities to push their brand to the top of Google’s results.

Sexton’s concern is that when people type “chicken noodle soup recipe” into Google, they don’t necessarily care whose website they end up at. They just click on the top search results.

“More and more, people don’t care about brands,” Sexton says. “It’s an interesting challenge for companies based on brands. Do they resonate as well online when people have a thousand different choices for where to get a recipe? Even a venerable brand like Gourmet, unless they play the SEO game really well, the big name won’t matter to the audience.”

To hear that the “big name” doesn’t matter may come as a shock to magazines rooted in a print mentality. Maintaining an eye-catching, consistent cover aesthetic and perfecting the art of writing cover lines helped print magazines attract the attention of readers in the past. With just a glance at the newsstand, people could made a connection with a brand and a magazine’s content.

In the digital realm, however, instead of seeing a familiar face in a crowd and striking up a conversation, now the reader decides if an existing conversation is of interest before reaching out to a new friend. It’s up to magazines to make sure that the content attracts readers and draws them into a relationship with the brand — whether online or off.

Image of laptop by Eirik Newth via Flickr. Magazine stack by thebittenword.com via Flickr

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.