Not all publications are on a financial deathwatch.

Cook’s Illustrated takes no ads and charges for access to its recipes online. According to “Let’s Invent an iTunes for News,” the publication has 900,000 print subscribers (and 100,000 newsstand buyers) and is thriving online with 260,000 digital subscribers at a cost of $35 a year, a group that grew by 30 percent in 2008.

Many companies would think this way: “We can’t charge for online recipes, they’re available for free all over the web!” So how does CI manage to swing it? By being the Consumer Reports of food. It offers blind comparison tests of kitchen products and recipes that are extremely thorough, each one made dozens of times to get every detail right.

The magazine hypes its perfectionism on its “Why Cook’s Illustrated is different than other cooking magazines” page: “There’s no more authoritative food magazine. When Cook’s Illustrated endorses a cheesecake, it’s because its editors made 45 of them.” Accessing the recipes online is valuable enough that half of the site’s subscribers are people who also subscribe to the print publication.

CI also succeeds because it focuses on what it’s good at and stays away from the food fashion covered at other publications. Jack Bishop, executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated, says:

Our magazine is timeless in many respects. We are not covering the latest greatest trends, we don’t do travel, we don’t have features on the hippest chefs in Los Angeles. It’s about the techniques, equipment and ingredients that go into good home cooking, and that doesn’t change much month to month or even year to year.

In fact, the company even makes an enemy out of more fashionable cooking magazines. Founder and Editor Christopher Kimball writes:

Unlike some glossy cooking magazines, our magazine is staffed with cooks and editors not food stylists.

The company has also done a good job of exploiting all potential revenue streams by using its content on multiple platforms: cookbooks, TV show, magazine, Web site. And the web site has trumped other food sites by using illustrations and videos. Shea Rosen, food technologist at G.L. Mezzetta, on why that’s helpful:

Video and illustrations are a great way to show people how to do certain things. Other sites might tell you how to bone a chicken, but pictures and illustrations and video are much better. If you wanted to know how to dice vegetables properly, you’d want to see how the cook holds the knife.

Sample CI illustration.

Rosen also likes how CI dives deeper than the average food site:

The food science has copious amounts of information. Like if you’re whipping egg whites, why should you use cream of tartar? You might read that in a recipe — ‘use cream of tartar’ — but you might be curious why. They answer those kinds of questions for you. Or why is it good to rest a roast after cooking it and before you serve it? It’s interesting to know that.

So if you’re thinking you can’t charge for your product, think about CI’s path to success. Maybe you can be more thorough than competitors. Maybe you can offer something timeless instead of fashionable. Maybe you can repurpose your ideas so they work in different media. Maybe you can innovate by using video (or some other technology). Maybe you can go deeper than others in your field. If you do that, maybe there’s a way you can charge for something others are giving away for free.

Have an Enemy [Getting Real]
There’s more than one way to skin the revenue cat [SvN]
[Fly on the Wall] Xerox logo, long receipts, Argentina, and Cook’s Illustrated [SvN]