Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions, Part 3: Who You Reviewin’ To?

Our conversation (from here and here) turns to food media, a subject dear to our hearts and, consequently, one we go on about at some length…

MICHAEL GEBERT: 2009 was an eventful year for food media, clearly we’re moving away from some things and toward some new things, in terms of the kinds of media we have and in terms of the relationship that readers have with food media.  But I’m not sure we got much closer to whatever the future is going to be, at least from the standpoint of how it’s going to get paid for.  So the question I’m going to throw out is, what do you think were the important things that happened in food media in 2009, and where are they pointing us?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I’ve got a lot of ideas here, but I think I’ve said a ton on Facebook and Twitter, so I’ll start brief and react to your thoughts on the subject.

The most salient of all events I think is how Robb Walsh and Sam Sifton said goodbye to anonymity explicitly and implicitly respectively.  How and why that happened makes a ton of sense, everything from the internet and proliferation of identity to the fact that save the NYT and a few others no one has the luxury of paying someone to write one article a week or one article a month and also shell out as much to support the dining budgets for such articles.  We have to be critics, features writers, and newsbreakers all at the same time, and as such anonymity is pretty impossible to pull off and trying to do so makes the job harder in general.

I think even more in general, bottom line, the old j-school ethics line doesn’t matter to consumers (maybe it never did – just to those who went to j school or grew up on the beat in newsrooms).  What matters bottom line over anything is that you tell a good or entertaining story and given a choice, being entertaining supercedes all.

GEBERT: Here’s where I think the job of reviewer is going. The classic restaurant reviewer has two jobs to perform for the reader: one is to be a learned writer on the scene, the other is to provide the raw material for a consumer guide in the process. So he dines secretly and carefully over some months and finally pronounces his learned judgement on a restaurant, awarding it two or three or four stars (almost never less than two). Then, six months later, the ideal reader of the paper, let’s call him Don Draper, is looking for a place to take his wife for an anniversary, and so he scans the consumer guide to find a place his wife hasn’t been to that won three or four stars… six or 12 or 24 months ago.

Needless to say, I emphasize the yawning geologic epochs in this account because the world doesn’t work like that any more. In an age of farmer’s market-driven hyperseasonal dining, who the hell looks at a three-year-old review of Spiaggia and thinks it has advice worth following today? For the consumer guide, we turn to Zagat or Yelp or leaf through the What’s Happening Now!!! sections of Chicago or Time Out. But it’s also an archaic notion, or ought to be, that the primary function of your food section is still to satisfy the needs of businessmen on expense accounts for new upscale dining in the Loop. The audience and the subject are both so much more diverse today, why do we still focus on that one narrow slice at the top? (Maybe some of this comes from my background in film, where the fight to show that B movies often have more going on than self-important A movies was fought and won by Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris half a century ago.)

What I want from a reviewer now is not a dining guide for Winnetka executives, but a life fully lived in our food scene and reflected in their coverage of everything. When you, Michael Nagrant, write about fine dining places, you root it in a broader understanding of the food scene and wrestle with the food as an expression of an artist’s temperament.  In other words, you write about it personally, not with a target market’s needs in mind.  And that’s where I think so much of journalism is going— the big media conglomerates had half a century to subsume the personalities of their writers in a faceless marketing-driven mission and voice, and the result is that they’ve about driven the entire industry off a cliff.  What will save something, if not necessarily them, is the rediscovery of the individual journalist as a compelling personality.  That can take a lot of forms— it’s Kevin Pang doing his drily ironic take on Guy Fieri to put a face to his byline, but it’s also Monica Eng writing about how she feels watching animals die. What it’s not, is writing for an abstraction to serve a need he no longer has, if he ever existed and did.

And when you look at those as the priorities for the new millennium, the old ones start to look like a lot of smoke the media blew up their own backsides.  The rigorous rules about anonymity and so on that were so important to Don Draper’s sacred trust in your carefully rendered judgement for the ages matter a lot less when food writing is a lively, impressionistic, tweet-about-opening-night, if-you-disagree-with-today’s-opinion-there’ll-be-another-one-tomorrow business.  As you suggest (I’m finally getting around to one of your actual points!), it’s tough to do all that AND be the invisible reviewer monk at the same time.

Now… all that said, I have to say that I was, in my naive guy from Kansas way, shocked by the recent discussion of blogger ethics that took place on Twitter and Ellen Malloy’s RIA Unplugged. I am untroubled by the occasional goodie from the kitchen by a place I already like and know the chef at; I know I’m not exactly objective at that point, and I believe the world knows that, to the very tiny extent they care.  But to hear that there were people walking into restaurants and saying “I’m a blogger and that’s a f—–g valuable thing, feed me for free or else!”— I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was.  And I’ve had a couple of experiences recently involving PR firms or restaurants that made me wary of what they think they ought to get in return for a few baubles of food; if they think they can expect anything other than me being myself, then I don’t want to touch them.  So I don’t dismiss the dangers, and I think we’re in an era where you have to consider the source and suss out the hidden agenda of anything you read.  But that’s as opposed to when, precisely?

NAGRANT: Of everything you’ve said about the old media world, I pretty much agree.  Most saliently, I think, as you point out, the whole idea of writing a consumer guide for Don Draper, though it became the model, never really existed as a real demand, but as a contrived deliverable from a group of managers, err, editors.

For the last hundred years, the reviewers and even features writers, food or otherwise, that we remember and relish are the ones who made it personal and who gave real meaningful context.  If there’s anything to learn from This American Life, it’s that the bottom line to everything about life is the story.  If you tell a great story you can get away with anything, even reporting on mortgage backed securities or health care reform.  Ruth Reichl was a storyteller in everything she did.  At her very worst she was still an intrepid discoverer of something previously overlooked by the haute bourgeoisie foodies.  That’s why we love her.

That’s what frustrates me so much with Chicago’s major reviewers, Bruno, Vettel, and Dennis Ray Wheaton among others.  Their work is a checklist type affair of blow by blow course descriptions punctuated with cheap adjectives.  Anatomy of a typical review: Open with joke about noise or hot blondes or history of the chef.  Then, start talking about décor.   Get annoyed at noise level or server.   Finish with an anecdote about dessert.

Vettel is probably the best of the three and the most talented.  Every once in a while he says some really smart things, and if you were say 50+ years old and you remember when Le Francais was really something, you are probably entertained by his jokes on a regular basis. At worst he’s a decent writer who understands organization and structure. His features tend to be enlightening when he gets around to writing a few.

I appreciate Bruno from say 25 years ago.  There was a time when he was actually ferreting out the fringes, the far off Mexican spot or the mom and pop Italian joint that opened in a bad neighborhood. He was actually kind of a treasure in the mid eighties.  I don’t know what happened, but at some point he discovered he could collect a paycheck as long as he wanted by doing whatever he wanted and then writing a few bad paragraphs about it and he continues to do so.

What amazes me more than anything is that the organizations don’t demand more of these people.  I mean the thing about Kevin Pang is he could skate like these guys too I think.  His and Monica Eng’s success is pretty much a function of their personal initiative.  Not, only that, but the city and this food scene deserves more.   The reason we’ve come so far has nothing to do with the quality of our local stories, but of the national writers who swooped in and got it right. Everyone locally wrote some story about Michael Carlson and Schwa, but only Alan Richman came in and actually got it right.

But that being said, the tide is definitely changing.   Look at Chicago Magazine.  Dennis Ray Wheaton is out the door.  They didn’t hire a new writer.  Jeff Ruby took his spot and another editor took Ruby’s spot.  This to me looks like the first step in big organizations realizing they can’t justify paying a person to review full time if they’re not entertaining and drawing a real valuable large reading audience.  The irony of course is that I really believe and hope Ruby will be that kind of writer, and so maybe he’ll make the world safe again for those of us who love to read and eat.

As for anonymity, etc, again I’ve said a lot in other places.  Bottom line, my focus on anonymity and avoiding comps doesn’t have anything to do with j school lessons, old school guidelines, or some golden ideal.  For, me, human nature as I believe it is that when you get something from someone or put yourself in the position where one might give you stuff, relationships and actions change.  I want to avoid changing relationships as much as possible and just focus on what I can learn at the most objective level.

I understand that sometime to do so becomes a construct and/or getting closer than you would like or accepting something is totally unavoidable and sometimes it’s necessary to get a story, but I think if people would hew more towards the line of erring toward avoiding taking stuff or being friends, we wouldn’t be living in the ridiculous era of entitlement that we do.  I think part of the reason so many people are taking comps and asking for stuff etc and not feeling bad about it is, they’ve really come to believe that it’s all good and above board because the culture really says it is.

MICHAEL GEBERT: I haven’t seen that much of Ruby’s longform writing that I can recall offhand, but he seems to have a different sensibility from what’s become that magazine’s approach and I do hope he’ll bring new things to Chicago magazine. That magazine, to me, is probably in the position that Gourmet was in, maybe a few years ago, it has a solid moneyed subscriber base, but they also ain’t gettin’ any younger.

The Alan Richman piece on Schwa was one of those things where I just went damn, damn, I shoulda written that. I mean, I live two miles from Schwa, why couldn’t I just go hang out there day after day until I got that whole story? But then we come back to, if we’re doing this on our own, with no support staff, we can only do what we can do. I don’t have Richman’s name and I don’t have his budget, and that’s not just an excuse, it’s a real reflection of the limitations one faces as a one-man media outlet. Most of my podcasts are focused on one person in one place, because that’s what’s achievable for me to do with no organizational backup and maintain a schedule that can actually be considered a podcast. The fish ones got more complex because Carl made some connections for me and it was just lucky that the lady from Cleanfish was in town in the next couple of weeks. But normally, I don’t have the resources to get a zillion different perspectives— partly I do a This American Life of Food format because that’s what I can achieve by myself. So journalism is clearly going to change in big ways if it goes from being an organizational project to an individual one.

MICHAEL NAGRANT: One of the questions I have which really hasn’t been talked about regarding the future of food journalism, especially the written portion, is the prospect of making a full time living at it and how one does that, or if it’s even possible? I mean guys like you and [David] Hammond who freelance in the advertising and corporate worlds and also write, direct, or communicate very effectively, passionately, and deeply about food very much look like the future to me as things stand now.

Part of it still comes back to how we get people to pay for things on the net. Clearly you’ve shown you can get hundreds of thousands of people to view your videos. Likewise when I was doing Hungry magazine actively, I’d get 10,000 downloads a month of popular podcasts. If only each of those listeners paid 50 cents…blah blah blah….but the thing is getting people to do that actively is very difficult, and even if the payment method was ridiculously passive, the nature of the internet suggests that one cent is too much. We just expect things to be free. You may love what I do, but how I get paid is not your problem and it never will be. I’m definitely interested in some of these new methods, where say you can text a code and an amount and a charge will be added to your cell phone bill. I know micropayments have been talked about for a decade or so now, but they still seem to be a linchpin of sorts.

The other major idea at play is the difficulty of capturing people’s attention without resorting to being a major caricature or demagogue. Folks are still pretty adept at ferreting out quality when they see it, but there’s so much out there commanding their attention, they may never see it. Maybe it’ll come off as self-serving or egotistic, but this I believe, I’m really good at what I do. I’m not saying I can’t get better – I can get much better and hope I always believe that, but I know that what I do and the way I do it now, if I’d done it say twenty years ago, I really think I’d grown much more commensurate to my output and quality than I have in this era where everyone’s attention is divided a thousand times.

As for working for established organizations as a freelancer writing only about food, at least here in Chicago, it’s almost impossible long term. It’s easy if you’re early career, and if you work like me and write 25 pieces a month and work at last half the week in the evenings or weekends like you don’t have friends or family. If so, you can expect to earn about as much as you would in a very entry level job in corporate America or as an assistant retail manager. However, you won’t have benefits of any kind and you probably won’t make more than that in the future, as in four years of doing this, I have only seen one increase. Every single one of my other outlets has reduced pay or stayed the same over that period (and trust me not for lack of asking and negotiating).

While I love writing so much and have no problem writing until the day I die, my brain or my body may not always agree with me, and thus one does need some retirement plan. That’s pretty inconceivable for me right now, and I don’t mean I’m blowing what would otherwise be retirement cash on booze, babes, and baubles. I mean there is nothing left over after expenses related to the job and basic life stuff. Add in the idea of getting married and maybe wanting to have a kid, well, forget about sending them to college. However, I understand those are personal life choices and don’t apply to all, but we all have an expectation somewhere that’s reasonable that you can sub in for “family” or “kid” that can’t be met by food writing as a freelancer.

Even in the full-time world, I’m not sure I know many full time writers especially in their 20’s or 30’s who aren’t supplementing work with freelance and books, and not because they want to be famous, but because it’s tough to pay the bills on the salaries offered now. That’s why so many great writers become editors, because that’s how they get more money. Problem is they’re no longer writing, so they get frustrated and try to do their writing through their editing, and thus often restrain that personal voice we miss and value so much.

GEBERT: A big important subject (at least to those of us it affects; but it affects readers, too) and if I had the answers, I’d be out being a new media mogul making it happen. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet, and for much of that I have to blame my oldest profession, advertising. I was there as ad agencies let millions of dollars— their whole business, really— walk out the door because the people in charge only wanted to do the glamor part of the biz, TV commercials. So they let business walk to the sales promotion agencies and the direct mail agencies and then the internet agencies. And now much of the money that once went to support our media goes to end-caps in grocery aisles and beer company street festival sponsorships. I really feel like these people not only shot themselves in the foot (well, not personally, they’re all rich and retired in Boca) but did real harm to the journalism that supports democracy, because they were too goddam lazy and hidebound to steer their agencies into a new world where there would be solid ad networks capable of paying for all this new media and delivering measurable audiences to their clients.

So no, there is no clear path to making a decent living at this yet, and thanks to the internet all writers are sort of in the famous position of poets, that there are more poets than readers of poetry out there. And I suspect the dilettantes who dabble in food writing have always been a big part of the business— so much of the “lifestyle” side of journalism always belonged to women writers with lawyer or stockbroker spouses, or probably, editors’ and publishers’ mistresses (ah, the old days of journalism!). That said, I don’t rule out that there are lucrative pathways out there— Steve Dolinsky, after he attended that food writer’s conference at the Greenbriar (how can food writers afford the Greenbriar?), said a lot of the talk was about magazines, specifically microtargeted regional magazines, like all those Edible ones. They’re profitable because they smartly found an unserved niche— local restaurants and shops who might have a few hundred bucks to spend on an ad, but were being given the high hat by the big daily papers, who only cared about people with a few thousand and up to spend.

Create a quality, targeted environment a group of advertisers can afford, and hey, maybe you can vacuum up a lot of people with a little money each. (This is basically the same business model as one of your outlets, Chicago Social, except there it’s bars and jewelers.) So I believe there are opportunities out there, in a business sense (though ironically they still may be more in “dying” print than in wave-of-the-future online media). But if we had business sense, we wouldn’t be writers… or at least, we’d be James Patterson (another ex ad guy, by the way).

TOMORROW: Vegetarianism, charcuterie, and food as a matter of morality

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