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The State of Food Journalism and Print Media: Hold on to Your Effin Hat

get off your soap boxTechnically I am on vacation this week, but I cannot relax. The demise of Gourmet coupled with Robb Walsh’s recent reveal that he will no longer remain anonymous makes me sad and nervous. Sure, they are two separate issues, but combined they illustrate that the business of writing about food and reviewing restaurants is changing. Fast.

This morning, Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times has an interesting story: Apres Gourmet: Food magazines find their niches. Parsons interviews Robert Boynton, director of the literary reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Boynton says:

“I think of Gourmet closing as part of the bigger story of the demise of the general interest magazine. It was the closest thing the food world had to a Life or Saturday Evening Post. But in publishing today, it has become easier and more profitable to disaggregate or divide up readership into small groups.”

Jump from the ledge with me, please.


Further down in the piece, Parson writes:

Boynton argues that if Gourmet had a major flaw, it was more likely trying to be it was more likely trying to be a department store in what has become a specialty-store publishing world. It tried too hard to be all things to all people. Recipes? Check. Long, writerly pieces by big-name bylines? Check. Short practical cooking pieces? Check. Travel, both high and low? Check and double-check…In a narrowcasting world, the magazine’s demise may have been caused by its inclusiveness.

According to her Twitter page (Lord, did I just type that?), former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl agrees. She tweets (ouch, that really hurts): “Probably right; we were too ambitious.”

Hmm. Too ambitious? Targeted and tightly focused sells? Conde Nast just figured this out?  Methinks the “long, writerly pieces by big-name bylines” are expensive to produce and not selling. And that makes me sad.

Rosemary's babyWhich brings me to blogs. Did you ever see the movie Rosemary’s Baby? Sometimes I feel like the editors at D Magazine went to sleep one night and a wretched creature snuck into the bedroom and impregnated me with SideDish. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes our little baby is cute, informative, funny, and helpful, but a lot of the time it is a living, breathing monster that must be fed raw meat around the clock by magazine writers, reporters, and outside sources. It can suck life out of the print product.

We do our best to review restaurants, take photographs and videos, relay up-to-the-second news, and have some fun. In return, we make a few friends, but mostly blogs have thrust–and I’m going to stay with dining here–food writers and reviewers into a mosh pit with readers and restaurateurs. Our photos are never good enough; reviews are not detailed or copy edited enough; publishing food events is considered shilling. It’s can be a real lose-lose job.

Which brings me to former newspaper-dining-critic-turned-blogger, Robb Walsh. He has decided toss in his cowboy hat and sunglasses and go public. He writes:

“The fact is, my job is changing. I was hired as a newspaper restaurant critic and feature writer. Today I am, first and foremost, a blogger. It’s a little ludicrous to try and maintain your anonymity while you are photographing your plate. And sometimes you need to identify yourself to get a interview. The time has come to adjust to fit my new job description.”

So adjusting to your new job description means that you feel it is important to be recognized? You can’t do a follow-up interview on the phone or by e-mail? Perhaps Walsh has a reality TV show in the works or just wants to have his photo published on the jackets of his books, but, Mr. Walsh, please don’t think you are gaining credibility by announcing yourself during a restaurant review. What service are you providing to your readers?

The thought of not wearing wigs, glasses, falsies, and other tricks of a restaurant reviewer’s trade, is very appealing to me. Trying to fly under the radar of chefs you’ve interviewed or traveled with for stories is hard. (Don’t cue any violins here.) I see Ruth Reichl flying around the world doing a foodie TV show and I am jealous. I watch former NY Times critic Frank Bruni talk about his eating disorder on the Daily Show and think “why in the hell am I still padding my bra so that Dean Fearing doesn’t recognize me?”

I do it because it is my job and I feel strongly that other restaurant critics—blog or print—who chose to review restaurants have to continue to try to be anonymous. Sure, you’re going to get busted a few times, but it usually doesn’t matter. And if it does, you report it, blog it, and Tweet it until you get your own TV show or your magazine or newspaper goes under.

Tannis anyone?Bon Appetit.

15 comments on “The State of Food Journalism and Print Media: Hold on to Your Effin Hat

  1. Nicely done, NN. My friends and colleagues in PR and publishing are so sad these days. We’re lamenting the loss of beautiful magazines and the layoffs of reporters and editors we loved working with. I miss the really full Food Section that used to appear in newspapers. I’d come home from school and lay out the paper, getting my inside forarms and fingers covered in black newsprint. I have decades of Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines that I still visit when I need an escape. I’ve been in PR for nearly 20 years and part of the crazy thrill and fear of getting reviews is that we never know who the reviewer is and when he/she is coming in. It’s a bonding thing to try to figure them out. I don’t like where the media is going. I want to smell ink and feel the slick pages between my fingers. I love magazines with beautiful photography and black words on a white page that are so colorful and descriptive they transport.
    I want to go back to the way it was.

  2. Hey Nancy,

    My yogi says: “Relaxation and tranquility will come when you are one with yourself”. So, in that spirit, I want to suggest reconciling your two selves while on vacation.

    Yes, your somewhat rigid and nostalgic self above, which was able to misconstrue Robb Walsh’s adieu to anonymity and come up with a rejoinder like this: “So adjusting to your new job description means that you feel it is important to be recognized?”

    No, Robb doesn’t feel it’s important to be recognized, if his words are any indication: “I won’t be making reservations at high-end restaurants under my own name or otherwise calling attention to myself either. And I won’t be hanging out with chefs…”, he concludes.

    So, while this Nancy laments that Walsh is ditching the disguise and killing credibility, the other Nancy is all jiggy-progressive, claiming: “Times have changed. The advent of the Food Network and the emergence of chefs and dining critics like John Mariani as high-profile celebrities have put pressure on food writers to increase their visibility and feed the public’s curiosity. I, too, have done my fair share of TV and radio.

    In the long run, being recognized doesn’t matter anymore—at least where the food is concerned….A chef can either cook or he can’t. My presence won’t suddenly make him better.”

    http://www.dmagazine.com/Home/2004/12/01/Romanos_Revenge.aspx

    So, which is it? Anonymity doesn’t matter anymore…or now it suddenly does? As the debate rages within your head, best wishes for a speedy resolution, and finally a grand relaxation that comes from Oneness.

  3. Well Grasshopper,

    If Walsh isn’t “making reservations at high-end restaurants under my own name or otherwise calling attention to myself either. And I won’t be hanging out with chefs…” then why did he call attention to the fact that he isn’t going to be anonymous anymore? So he can feel comfortable taking pictures in barbecue joints?

    I’ve always felt that a critic should do their best to remain anonymous. Thanks for pulling my quotes to demonstrate the point. However, you misconstrue my long-held belief if you think the 2004 quote–“In the long run, being recognized doesn’t matter anymore—at least where the food is concerned….A chef can either cook or he can’t. My presence won’t suddenly make him better…”—fully represents my position. I said that being recognized doesn’t matter as far as the food is concerned.

    Yes. I think the fact that Walsh is “ditching his disguise” is significant and disappointing. It may sound silly to you, but Walsh’s actions could influence other reviewers to do the same. If it takes wigs, fake names, cowboy hats—whatever—a dining critic has to try to remain anonymous. Maybe I’m too close to what I wrote in the post, but I feel that my feelings on the topic have been consistent. You boys in Houston have a nice night.
    Peace out.

  4. Dearest Nancy,

    You’ve done television spots in which you appeared without any disguise. You’ve made photos of yourself available in print and online. You’ve dated, befriended, and traveled with people in the local restaurant business. If you don’t think that compromises your “anonymity,” maybe Walsh will be just as successful in navigating those straits.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, when it comes to anonymity, to quote the great Inigo, “You keep using that word — I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  5. “If you don’t think that compromises your “anonymity,” maybe Walsh will be just as successful in navigating those straits.” You know what, Cornoglio? You are right.

  6. who is the target audience of restaurant reviews going to be in the future? Who drives the revenue? Average families who eat at Chili’s half the time? Expense account business travelers eating at Steakhouses? Weirdos like me who are just looking for something different? If things are really becoming more specialized, maybe anonymity means more to some customers than to other..but the question is, which ones are “paying” for the reviews, right?

  7. NN: You asked why he announced it, and I’m guessing most likely because it was a long-standing and strictly enforced policy of Houston Press, a policy which has now changed. And because, as he said, the nature of his job has changed and now encompasses a large load of blogging, which might necessitate meeting with a chef or other restaurant personnel sometimes.

    But, I think you needn’t fear that Robb will ‘go Mariani’ on us, and start having a secretary call restaurants to see if they might like to host a ‘Robb Walsh Dinner’. Just because Robb alerts us that strict anonymity is no longer in force, it doesn’t mean that he will suddenly become a publicity seeking, glad-handing reviewer of restaurants….you know, the complete opposite of his former role. He says as much as much in the piece you linked to.

    You said it best yourself five years ago: “Times have changed…”. Even more’s changed since then. Roll with it, embrace it, just don’t capitalize on it with a newfound, moralistic dirge.

  8. Slug, that’s why I asked ‘So, which is it?’.
    Or are you suggesting both her claims are false.

  9. Very interesting article. Couldn’t of written any better. Reading this post reminds me of my old friend. He constantly kept speaking about this. I will send this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good chuckle. Thanks for sharing! :)

  10. Pretty interesting article. Couldn’t of written any better. Browsing this post reminds me of my old mate. He constantly kept speaking about this. I will send this post to him. Am sure he will have a good chuckle. Thanks for sharing! :)