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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015
In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, [...] experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up," effectively mourning the birth of the social media influencer and the Yelp critic alongside the death of the old-guard food writer.
Earlier this year, Chef Marc Vetri took similar mumblings public with his article, "How food journalism got as stale as day-old bread," insinuating that food media is awash in a clickbait and listicle crisis. He claimed that instant access to buzz content has forced "real journalists" to downgrade their standards by "pandering to the most basic, low-brow instincts of readers." Separately, Food and Wine launched FWx.com -- a digital platform aimed at "food-obsessed" Millennials -- in 2014. The difference in brands was stark, from a completely different design showcasing editorials titled "How to make reindeer cupcakes."
Recently, food media has seen even more changes with the departure of food writer Mark Bittman from New York Times, the resignation of long-time Food and Wine editor Dana Cowin, and locally, the exit of Tribune feature writers Kevin Pang and Mark Caro. On the heels of planning for this article, the news that Gapers Block was going on a hiatus dealt another local food media blow for Chicago. Ask anyone on the inside about the state of food writing and you'll likely get a mouthful.
Before network television made food culture ubiquitous, we experienced food through gatekeeper food writers like M.F.K. Fisher and James Beard. Julia Child brought French cuisine to America and turned every home cook into a gourmand; The New York Times was the authority. Then digital put a damper on print's parade as publishing platforms gave us instant access to information as well as new culinary experiences and voices, allowing faster and more frequent content. Blogging platforms and Yelp made everyone a "food writer" or critic, and media now had cold hard data of page clicks and eyeballs (usually inflated) to sell to advertisers. Where to eat, what to eat and what's trendy in a noisy space birthed the clickbait and easy-to-digest listicles.
"I think on some level it's a false idea that people used to read all this thoughtful stuff, and now they don't," says Michael Gebert, local food writer, and founder of newly launched Fooditor. "If you wrote a piece in a major newspaper, you didn't know how many people looked at that article. Now you know exactly how many people did, and I think we are depressed because we've learned the truth." On one hand, you could say we've ushered in awareness of exposure, but on the other hand, we are lamenting the unfettered noise.
But food writing also suffered, and not for lack of talent or "pandering." In 2012, former New York Times food writer and editor Amanda Hesser came out saying that the struggle to make it as a paid writer was only going to get worse, especially as the popularity of food blogs deemed content a commodity. At the same time, online media allowed entry for more media start-ups, so where there "used to be one publication paying $1,000 for a piece," says Gebert, "now there's 100 paying $10." On the good side, there's more opportunity to enter the market; on the bad side, good luck feeding yourself off of it. To add fuel to the fire, expense accounts are far and few in-between, yet the expectation to have an authoritative voice is still there no matter the channel. And with the rise of native advertising as a practice, the pendulum is swinging further and further away from the writer.
Yes, food writing has changed because food media, the food landscape and the consumer has changed. We have more access to what used to be called fine dining; we can rub elbows with chefs. The oversaturation of restaurants has diluted the conversation. The age of information gave everyone a voice and a palate. The card is now in the reader's hand.
If we are mad, we only have ourselves to blame. We served up the bacon-wrapped hot dogs, the oversized cupcakes and "top ten hot spots" like a Pavlovian experiment; people voted with their clicks, and we turned around and sold it back to them. Gebert is hoping to lead that charge locally with Fooditor, focusing on more in-depth longform articles and storytelling. "Somebody needs to experiment, and I figured I was a good person to do that." Time will tell if it's what people want.
Gebert sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "I think we are in the exciting but low-paying. It's taking a lot longer than I thought, but the things that drove the ad business in the first place still exists, and somewhere, someone will figure out more and more ways of doing that to where enough money with flow through and it will work. We are the settlers in the old west trying to survive."
Food journalism isn't stale, nor is the food writer; they're just vying for space in the crowded model that feeds it. As long as we continue to measure content, the one that's easiest to digest may always win.