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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Culintro Panel Series: The Future of Food Journalism

Print is dead. Film is dead. We might as well be all-inclusive: media is dead. As a former filmmaker, I’ve heard similar laments: the future of sitting in a dark room with a large screen is constantly being questioned and the coming of YouTube was hailed as the end of a profession. Now an aspiring food writer, I recognize a similar environment of fear and doubt present in the publishing world. As Bob Dylan aptly pointed out, “The times they are a-changing.”
To get a better perspective, I recently attended a panel called The Future of Food Journalism, hosted by Culintro. I was particularly intrigued by their choice of panelists. Rather than sitting down the editors of Conde Nast’s food magazines or former restaurant critics, Culintro invited the food editor of Time Out New York Gabriella Gershenson, senior food editor of Salon.com Francis Lam, Tasting Table creator Nick Fauchald, and Edible New York/ Brooklyn/ East End magazine’s Brian Halweil. Young, niche, community-based writers and editors in the midst of a changing industry so I felt hopeful about what news they would bring from the trenches.
Understandably, though, the moderator, food historian Andrew F. Smith, began the evening on a bit of a gloom and doom note by talking about the folding of Gourmet magazine. The big question was the first question he threw at the panel, starting with former Gourmet editor Francis Lam: Is print dead?

Lam answered with another question, "What is print? Do you mean paper?" Or writing in general? This was an interesting distinction that became a central topic during the discussion. It brought a smile to my face because of how closely it echoed another question I’d heard often: Is film dead? You mean 35mm or movies in general? He went on to tell the story of a man he met at a bar who spoke very sensuously (Francis admitted the man may very well have been trying to pick him up) about the experience of reading magazines and his love of magazines. The physicality of printed paper cannot by recreated by technology, pointed out Lam. The point was further driven home when Smith asked the audience, would you take the iPad to bed to read? Barely anyone raised their hand. Print isn’t going away, but neither is the internet.
What the whole panel seemed to have in common was the acceptance that what their readers want and expect from them has changed. Accepting these new tendencies is the only way to survive.
Shorter attention spans because of television, blogs, and just a more harried way of life means people aren’t willing to read the 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 word pieces of yesteryear. The days of leisurely entering into a story are over. "You gotta give them the sex upfront," said Nick Fauchald, whose entire publication is email-based. Now you get 800 words if you're lucky.

People now want to experience/make/visit what you are writing about rather than just be satisfied reading about it. This has in turn given way to the success of smaller, niche publications, and an abundance of recipe resources. City-specific magazines such as the Edibles, are given away at strategic locations, and they are doing very well. Meanwhile, bigger, national publications available everywhere for a price are straining under their own weight. Since so much is available for free on the internet, subscriptions are down and advertisers go with the numbers. Which leads to the next point...

He who fails to embrace the web is destined to perish. Even Gabriella Gershenson admits that while she received Gourmet in the mail, she read it mostly online. "I'm both helping and killing this medium," she admitted. Gabriella told of when she was hired as a staff writer at Time Out, she had no web responsibilities and the goals and priorities of the magazine were very different. But where Time Out has succeeded (and where Conde Nast has failed) is that they recognized that print and web are friends. They feed each other and there are things you can do on the web that you simply can't on paper. It's telling that the day Francis Lam was let go from Gourmet (along with the rest of the staff), he was hired by Salon.com. 

The question of money is the most pressing now that media is available for free 24/7 on the internet. How can a publication on the verge of bankruptcy or one that is not making any money pay professional writers? The nytimes.com paywall is a promising experiment, and a huge gamble for The New York Times. But the fact is that many publishers do want to pay writers for their expertise, for good reporting, or for ethics and fact-checking. The demand for good food writing is there and the distinction between noise and professional writing is becoming more and more distinct. The print world is accepting its evolution and adapting. Take the fact that every publication represented on the panel does pay their freelance writers.

After the panel, I walked into Grand Central station and couldn't help stopping by the newsstand. I already had a free copy of Edible Manhattan but still bought two more magazines for $10 total. That’s several hours of entertainment and information. I pay $12.50 for a two hour movie. Buying magazines is a bargain in comparison and I can take it on the subway. If movies were able to break box office records in the middle of a recession, with ticket prices at an all-time high, print should be OK.

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