Sky Full of Bacon

A couple of notes about being a small, one-man media outlet in this fast-changing world, rooted in my corner of the world (Chicago foodblogging/podcasting) but surely applicable to any niche market in the new media world. If you’re mainly interested in food, feel free to scroll to the next post.

Data point #1: I commented on a blog post at a major Chicago media outlet’s food blog on either Friday night or Saturday morning. Then I thought, why did I just bother doing that? No one will approve the comment till at least Monday. (I was correct.)

Data point #2: Another major Chicago media outlet does food videos too, not exactly like mine. They host them on Vimeo too. So I checked their stats. Here they are, with a subscriber base in the six figures and celebrity chefs (okay, I have those now, but not until recently) and all the power of cross-promotion. And their videos… draw way fewer viewers than mine do. As in, the one I put up 5 days ago has already outdrawn the one they put up a month ago. As in, my most-viewed one has had six or seven times as many as most of theirs.

I point this out not to gloat but to make a serious point. For all that newspapers and magazines are going around bemoaning the impending porcelain swirl of their industry, these factoids suggest to me that they still haven’t grasped how to harness the power of new media and build an audience online. The things I know how to do that they still don’t, quite, include:

• Post frequently. Blogging isn’t even the main point of Sky Full of Bacon, the videos are, and yet I manage to get 3 or 4 posts up a week. Where oftentimes the bigger media, with contributing food blog staffs of anywhere from 2 to 10 people, manage to get… 3 or 4 posts up a week. If you can get a daily paper or a weekly magazine out, yet can’t manage to post new content online on a regular schedule, that says where your priorities still are.

• Post on an audience-timely schedule. I became acutely aware of when most people are at their computers while helping run LTHForum. It was dead till about 9:20 am, busiest from then till just before noon, dead from noon to about 1:30, moderately active till about 4:30, dead till about 7, moderately active from 7 to 9, then low but steady until past midnight.

So what’s the blogging schedule at most big media publications? I suspect it’s basically like this:
10:30 am: writer turns in blog post to editor
4:30 pm: harried editor turns from putting out fires on print edition to email box, reads and finally approves post
4:57 pm: post goes up just as audience shuts down computers and goes home

• Interact with your readers. The name of the game is reader loyalty— they have to want to come back. What makes them want to come back? Interaction. They come back to see if someone else responded to what they said. They come back to see if the writer of the original piece flatters them with attention. So how do you expect to build that if 1) you can’t even approve a comment in less than 3 days and 2) your writers are too busy on print assignments to check back and interact on the blog?

Fact is, I can’t remember on most of the big media blogs when there’s even been the least little sign that the bylined writers even read the comments. Which is why when a similar topic goes up at a big media outlet and at LTHForum, frequently the big media outlet with thousands of paid subscribers will be stuck at 3 or 4 responses when the LTHForum thread is on to its 3rd or 4th page. There may be far more readers at the former, but there’s far more positive reinforcement at the latter, and that’s what builds audience loyalty and keeps them coming back.

That’s why, even though I don’t get many comments, I take the possibility of comments very seriously, and check my blog at least a few times a day to make sure I can approve any that have appeared. And I try to respond in comments to any comment I have anything of value to say about. I am grateful for the time commenters take to write anything here and try to reward it with appreciation.

• Don’t underestimate the audience. A few people questioned, when I started doing these videos, if people would sit still for 15 or 20 minutes on these subjects. It’s odd, 15 or 20 minutes is, of course, shorter than any food TV show, but the perception was that online video needed to be 2 or 3 cute, snappy little minutes at most; the idea of spending 20 minutes going somewhat in depth into a topic (and a restaurant, and the life of the guy who owns it) seemed like something nobody would watch.

Yet here we are about five months later and as the viewership stats at Vimeo demonstrate, there’s a much stronger audience for 20 in-depth minutes on the people and philosophy and technique behind something than for 3 quick little minutes on the technique alone. There’s a much stronger audience for something that represents a single podcaster’s quirky personality and way of looking at the world than there is for something that plays like a skillfully-made but rather generic food demo that just happens to have local chefs.

And I think that points to another thing about our new media world. Generic doesn’t sell, individual does. The sites I go back to are the ones where I feel some bond, some kinship with the blogger/podcaster/whatever, because of his or her unique personality. It’s not about getting a million vaguely interested readers with the common denominator any more, it’s about getting a thousand fanatically loyal ones because they feel they need to hear from you on the topic of the moment.

Follow these principles and the lowly individual blogger, with no more resources than his own sensibility, will and spare time, can be shockingly competitive with huge media companies in terms of audience gathered, and by some measures occasionally kick their butts. Which is an exciting thing for him, but will be tragic if it means the big media outlets sink before these lessons sink in. I don’t want a world in which the media I grew up on and still read pretty faithfully bit the dust and were replaced by I want a world in which they successfully made the leap from the print era to the online era by absorbing the ways in which online behavior and expectations and tactics are different.

And if any of them would like my help in getting there, they know where to reach me….

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My third podcast, the barbecue one, has passed over 1000 views on Vimeo. (You have to watch substantially the whole thing to count, so those are real views, not clicks to it who quickly clicked away.) Add in the iTunes podcasts— no exact number for views, but I have close to 100 subscribers— and the first podcast, the local one, currently hovering at 988 Vimeo views, is certainly over 1000 viewings total as well.

Okay, so my mom is proud, but is that really a significant number compared to the millions who must watch food TV? Well, yes and no. This is a Chicago-based podcast, although of course its viewership is not limited to Chicago. So how many people watch Food Network in Chicago? Without tracking down exact Nielsen numbers, we can get an idea from an article like this which says that the record for a Food Network show was Who Will Be The Next Food Network Star? which drew about 3.4 million viewers— or about 1.1% of the population.

If that’s the record, then the average is probably half that or less. So let’s call it half a percentage point. Half a percentage point of the population in Chicago would be about 40,000 people.

So my show, produced for the cost of videotape and the occasional lunch, draws about 1/40th of what the multimillion-dollar Food Network does in Chicago. That may not seem like that much, but it’s also worth remembering that there’s a big difference between flipping the TV on, which you may or may not actually pay attention to, and seeking out a podcast which you sit and watch during its brief run. So in terms of actually committed viewers… well, who knows how to measure that. Suffice it to say the gap between me and Food Network just got smaller yet by some indefinable amount.

Now, I don’t think guys working in their basements will ever replace multimillion-dollar TV networks. But what I do think this demonstrates is that we can now find an audience of decent size which will choose to watch well-produced video like this and doesn’t have to be approached in a glitzy, sensationalized way. We can make shows about real food, not hyped-up game shows (which I have nothing against, but they do demonstrate how TV is always about TV first and the actual subject second), and attract, if not a huge audience, a sufficient, highly-interested-in-food audience who justifies doing it—and which some ad agency will find sufficiently attractive, less because of its size than because of its quality.

Will this ever actually be a business? Who knows. The web itself seems to be a mass experiment in finding out what people will do for attention and not money. Being a Food Video Podcast Star may never amount to anything beyond, as somebody said in inverting Warhol’s cliche, “In the future everyone will be famous to 15 people.”

But I have more than 15 people. I got over 1000 for two different podcasts, and I did them my way. That’s pretty damn cool. Cool enough to keep shooting and see where it leads to next.

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UPDATE: Helen at MenuPages has been blogging this deathmatch but Serious Eats actually responds in a shockingly reasonable way.  That’s no way to run a feud, guys!  Walter Winchell and Ben Bernie didn’t become famous by shaking hands and saying “Good game!”  (I realize you’ve probably never heard of at least one of those guys, but trust me, they were famous once.)  There’s somewhat more nasty fun to be had in the comments below.  

I will quibble a little with the idea that any list like this can be “authoritative”; I think any list like this is worthwhile only in that it gives you a strong selection of places to try for yourself, but the question of best can never be settled, should never, except personally.  That’s why the LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurant awards don’t pick the best Thai restaurant in Chicago, they give awards to four different ones (I think) which each represent a very high level of achievement above the pack.  I know which of those I think the best is, I named it below, but all that is is my choice.  So, we’ll look forward to what Serious Eats’ Chicago guy picks across the board… and we’ll maintain our private opinion that there would have been a lot more slagging on the idea of deep dish if we hadn’t called them on it in advance.  Take that, Winchell!

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Ed Levine is a smart guy who loves New York pizza and food generally, and has a blog called Serious Eats which (MenuPages informs us) now intends to provide a guide to essential eating experiences in major cities. (You can see New York’s here.)

The problem is, Ed Levine hates Chicago pizza. No, perhaps it would be fairer to say Ed Levine has a blind spot for Chicago pizza. As in, Ed Levine, looking at a map of the United States, would not see anything between Brooklyn and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, basically.

So Ed Levine writing about essential Chicago foods is going to be sort of like Sean Penn’s guide to Great Republican Secretaries of Defense. There are many things I would like to hear from Ed Levine, but I can’t see how this list is going to be anything other than tired old rehashings of tired old New York-Chicago rivalries. Anyway, in advance of Levine’s list, I’ll use his categories for New York (don’t know if his list will use the same ones, but whatever) and offer a non-jaundiced local’s alternative set. If anybody else wants to play the game, do so in comments, I’ll be happy to see your list too.

Best Pizza: deep dish, Art of Pizza spinach. Thin, Vito & Nick’s sausage.
Best Burger: Top Notch Beefburger in Beverly.
Best Ice Cream: Scooter’s.
Best Late Night Eats: I dunno, I don’t eat out late. Kuma’s, since they didn’t make the burger spot?
Best Bar Food: Avec, in a walk.
Best Date Night: Surely this category says more about you than about the restaurant scene, depending on how you determine what makes an ideal date night, but I’m going to say that the most romantic place I can think of, good food in a great building, is North Pond Cafe. If you want energy and scene, though, you’ll want something else entirely.
Best Japanese Food: Katsu.
Best Cocktails: Just to be difficult, I’m going to skip the obvious choice (Violet Hour) and plug the surprisingly great natural-organicky cocktails at Crust (though it’s not much of a bar).
Best Market: Again, what do you want precisely? I suppose I’ll say Paulina Meat Market, a Germanic place being quintessentially Chicagoish.
Must Eat Before Leaving City:
see Best Pizza.
Best Bagel: Ironically, NY Bagel & Bialy on Touhy. Or go have an apple fritter at Old-Fashioned Donuts.
Best Eating With a View: Long time since I ate with a view I paid much attention to. North Pond again? Mercat a la Planxa? (Though I’m not convinced you actually get that view from most of the tables; it’s best when you walk in.) Tank Noodle?
Best Chinese: Sun Wah! Well, for that style, anyway.
Best Old School [Chicago] Landmark: We’re kinda shy on those any more, there really isn’t a Peter Luger of Chicago (yeah, Gene & Georgetti, I did remember you and I still stand by it). Manny’s?
Best Deli: Manny’s. Gee, that was obvious.
Best Streetside Bargain Lunch: Humboldt Park vans.
Best Fancy-Pants Bargain Lunch: huh?  (EDIT: My wife suggests Trotter’s To Go, where she eats soup for lunch practically every day.  Makes sense to me.)
Best Brunch Without the Wait: Go early, sucker. Over Easy Cafe.
Best Bargain Italian Food: I’m not convinced there is one.
Best Barbecue: Uncle John’s.

I guess New York doesn’t have a Best Indian place. Too bad, Ed, maybe next time you can skip pizza you don’t like, and eat at Khan BBQ. Then have Best Thai at TAC (there’s something I have, if not before leaving city, certainly after spending any length of time in a Thai-deprived zone), and Best Mexican at Maxwell Street on Sunday morning. (I have to say, a New York list that’s focused so much on burgers, Italian and old school fancy pants dining seems a little fusty to me. That’s just not the food that keeps me prowling this burg. Here’s hoping Chicago isn’t forced to follow New York’s categories exactly, and can shine on its own in a few specific areas.)

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