As old media brands shift online, their most important assets are often name and reputation. But in the case of many magazine publications, the fear of cannibalizing the print product has kept their websites surprisingly dormant. Opportunities to grow the brand online passed by as editors and sales staff focused their attention on making the print publication successful. But now, as print ad rates dwindle, publishing houses have to start figuring out how to make the web work.

This is something that Conde Nast decided to address today. The company announced it would fold its male fashion content on Men.Style.com into print brand websites GQ.com and Details.com. It looks like Conde Nast is finally taking onlne seriously, but will it work?

Conde Nast’s digital content has been notoriously siloed for years, and this shift, which comes just after Conde Nast’s announcement that management consultants McKinsey & Co. will be helping the brand realign its business in the faltering economy, is surely a hint of similar news to come.

Chuck Townsend, the company’s CEO, said of hiring McKinsey: “This is a considerable and complicated task, forcing us to rethink the
way we do business in many instances and incorporate efficiencies in
every step of our process.

As a result, GQ.com will become the flagship men’s fashion title for the brand. Traffic from Men.Style.com will go to
GQ.com, and the online staff will move to GQ.com. Details will get the
traffic already going to Men.Style.com via Details.com.

Sarah Chubb, Conde Nast’s Digital president, tells AdAge: “GQ’s
brand strength is the strongest at Conde Nast. It made sense to us to
consolidate under GQ because we had a hard time
branding it on its own away from Style.com.”

Part of the problem is that many of the publishing house’s titles are starting to compete with each other online.

Style.com is a ubiquitous brand name at this point (and a powerful domain name). The websites for GQ and Details redirect to Men.Style.com. At this point, Style.com dominates fashion traffic online. They have excellent, original content, extensive fashion photo galleries, and even a popular iPhone app, though according to a spokesperson, Men.Style.com is distinct from the Style.com site.

The new switch could dilute the Style.com (or Men.Style.com) brand at the publishing house, but Conde Nast is in the business of putting out magazines and
they’re looking to shore up readership at those titles. The
problem is that this move is happening about a decade too late.

For years, Conde Nast has been notoriously flat footed when it comes to the web. Fear of cannibalizing magazine content online led to the creation of an entirely separate group to handle web publications. CondeNet and now Conde Digital have run the websites of many magazines, divorcing the online brands from their publications and preventing the two entities to work together toward shared goals.

Treating print and online as two distinct businesses has led to some strange decisions. Most of the digital properties are completely separate entities (Wired.com, where I used to work, was owned by Lycos for a few years there), with different names online. Gourmet and Bon Appetit were rolled into Epicurious.com, Conde Nast Traveler became Concierge.com and Vogue became Style.com.

That has led to the situation today, where Style.com is a completely separate brand with its own identity apart from Vogue.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what happens with the other overlapped properties under the Conde Nast masthead. Vogue, Glamour, Allure, GQ, and Vanity Fair all cover similar areas, while Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Epicurious are sure to encounter some redundancies. 

The choice to bring in McKinsey shows that Conde Nast is finally ready to make some hard decisions about its content. But as the web makes it easier to access articles and subject areas, multiple brands in the same space could become increasingly problematic.

Historically, when it comes time to make cuts at Conde Nast, the web products have taken the hit. But soon, sacrificing the web for the sake of print publications won’t be an option any more.

UPDATE: I’ve updated the post to clarify the distinction between Style.com and Men.Style.com. A company spokesperson has given me the following comment:

“You can have two titles in the same category online, but that doesn’t mean they’re competing. Details and GQ are two titles that address a very different audience and they will continue to do that online. The same is true for food and other verticals. That distinction is the case online as well as in print.”

Also, I tried updating the following chart to compare traffic at men.style.com with Details.com and GQ.com, but the urls redirect to each other, making the comparison moot.

UPDATE II: I’ve written a follow up post here.