Technically 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.
Which 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.