Invited by Willamette Week, I went to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Conference panel on food and restaurant reviews held on Thursday 6/14 at the downtown Hilton. In a nutshell, it was a tough panel to chew on and I am still digesting. The panel was moderated by Kelly Clarke, the Arts and Culture editor from Willamette Week. The Panelists were Jonathan Gold, from the LA Weekly; Margaret Downing, from the Houston Press; Jennifer Strom, from the Independent Weekly in the Raleigh North Carolina “triangle”; and Erik Wemple, from Washington City Paper (Washington, D.C).
I was expecting something inspiring, informative, and interesting from the panelists. It would have been nice to have a true dialogue on the current challenges and opportunities in food writing for alternative weeklies, and creative ways to address them. Outside of Willamette Week moderator Kelly Clarke, who asked well thought out questions and presented relevant world-view topics (and Jonathan Gold who is very passionate and knowledgeable about food), the rest of the panelists were about as lively and informed as a day-old tuna fish sandwich.
While Kelly tried to steer the conversation towards broader important issues going on in print media, the views presented by most of the panelists were so incredibly myopic on the role of food writing and especially the role of bloggers in gaining readerships, that we now completely understand why the panel was presented as, “Across the country, newspapers are dropping their restaurant reviews…”
If most of the panelists (outside of Kelly), all editors of alternative weeklies, are representative of their colleagues in other cities, then it’s no wonder many weeklies are struggling with shrinking advertising dollars, budgets, and readerships. It reminds me of a quote by the late great Cathy Seipp describing the whining of (or alternately) the denial of the mainstream media about the growing presence of blogs as, “the last wistful moans of a dying brontosaurus.”
Food Panelists on Bloggers
Maybe Portland is a unique city with an usually large group of the population that is obsessively passionate and loves to read about and intelligently discuss food and restaurant-related topics. However, some of the panelists seemed alternately arrogant or unconcerned about the important role of food writing as valid cultural reporting.
Kelly asked, “How are food blogs working out in your city, or what are the challenges they bring; are local bloggers helping or hindering you with your journalism?” The answers were telling. While a couple of the panelists (like Kelly) recognize the role and increasing presence of well presented blogs as a social force of community media and a form of strong citizen journalism, some editors were flippant, arrogant, and downright clueless – pooh-poohing food bloggers and their readers. They generally think of weeklies as a single voice of authority, with the idea that moderated comments, or tightly controlled “citizen reviewers” built into their websites, is enough. They obviously haven’t been paying attention.
On restaurant gossip and food news, one panelist said, “blogs don’t know anything because they are just rumor on rumor on rumor… they are filled with hysteria, and there are really no good food blogs out there.” Wow. Really? Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of daily food blog readers.
A critical point came when the Houston editor mentioned she likes to hire bloggers because, “they will work for nothing.” Hisses and a few boos ensued from the audience. She was shocked until one spectator reminded her that she was speaking to a crowd including many professional freelance writers, who should rightfully be paid for their work. Watching the Houston editor then backpedal was painfully awkward as she said something to the extent of (paraphrase) “well, they (the free writers) have day jobs already, and we are going to start paying them, really.” Nice way to alienate your audience.
Negative Reviews or Nice Ones?
How do papers handle negative restaurant reviews? One editor indicated that he doesn’t care if a review is negative or not. Others then discussed some of the challenges they have had between the editorial and advertising departments regarding negative reviews. All said they tend to focus more on positive ones than negative ones. We can now see why some people think there is a risk of too much influence over reviews from advertising dollars as a weaker editor or paper could easily succumb to the pressure.
Panelist Jonathan Gold, whom we adore as a food writer, brought up a good point on the power that food critics can have. He indicated that (paraphrase), “When you write a bad review, you are affecting a small business. They are not evil and they don’t deserve to starve.” He also stated that when he does write negative reviews, he chooses places that are the darlings of the critics, which he doesn’t see as good restaurants.
I really have to laud Willamette Week for recognizing that print media is at a critical juncture and for being honest and upfront about wanting to address the challenges in continuing to provide restaurant reviews, restaurant guides, other food writing and online content in a rapidly changing and brave new electronic-media world. I also need to thank them for recognizing that food blogs do exist and have relevance, and for reaching out to build relationships with the food bloggers and food community in Portland.
Websites like Portland Food and Drink do exist as a form of quality citizen journalism at their best, or mere annoyances at their worst. Blogs are gaining more readers and becoming increasingly professional and established – not just in Portland, but worldwide. For print media to deny this is a form of self sabotage that is only working to help them meet their own demise. Rather than ignore blogs or whine about them, papers should be working to do the best food writing they can and learn to incorporate easy to implement and inexpensive web-tools (such as Rss feeds, membership logins and special interactive forums, etc). What readers want are conversations and community – not static and top-down vertical information.
Furthermore, while there is some crossover and some competition between print media and electronic social media, both have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and both serve distinctively different purposes. I strongly believe there is room for both in Portland – if they are done well. Collaboration, the sharing of ideas, good will and a little friendly competition between weeklies and blogs only serve to make everyone stronger. The lesson I learned from this panel: adapt and change with the world or die.