Tiburón -Shark- Žralok

Tiburón -Shark- Žralok: Writing Cooking Traveling

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Future of Food Journalism

With an imminent relocation from New York to Austin, monthly metro card to auto insurance, from aspiring filmmaker to aspiring food writer, I bought a seat to a panel called The Future of Food Journalism. I wanted to know what I was getting myself into and, with a cocktail hour preceding the event, I thought maybe I could make some connections on the way. I even packed some business cards (the ones for the company I no longer work for, still, business cards). But the mass of people I came upon when I came through the glass doors of Culintro, the venue hosting the event, put a stop to any delusion I had of talking to anyone that night. Not while wearing snow boots and a shirt from K-mart anyway. This panel was already proving to be informative.

Networking is the bread and butter of the freelancer and I was learning how to do it by making a series of mistakes. Lesson one: dress well. Lesson two: bring writing utensils. Lesson three: get your business cards up to date. Lesson four: talk to people. While lesson four was being forced upon me (someone sat down next to me and started talking to me, prompting me to respond) the panel, finally, started.

The industry professionals who would be talking to us tonight included: Gabriella Gersherson from Time Out New York, Nick Fauchald of Tasting Table, Francis Lam of Salon.com, and Eric Halweil of the Edible magazines. It was the quality of the panel that had sparked my interest in the first place. I was expecting very gloom and doom prophesying on the death of food writing (akin to my professor David Leite's slap across the face to my food writing class: "You can't make a living doing this.") but hoped for good news. The moderator, Andrew F. Smith, gave a short intro centered around the folding of Gourmet magazine and started off by asking Francis Lam, a former Gourmet editor, if he thought print was dead. Francis' 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.

Food writing is more popular than ever (similarly film box office numbers broke records during a horrible recession yet people are still lamenting the death of film) and what's been happening is that the industry is reinventing itself by embracing new tendencies in the demands of their readers (which in turn satisfy the needs of advertisers):

Shorter attention spans (because of getting most information from a screen) means shorter articles. The days of 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 word pieces and 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, more community-based publications, niche publications, and an abundance of recipe resources. The Edible magazines, which are small city by city magazines are basically given away at strategic locations but are doing very well economically. Meanwhile, bigger, national publications are straining under their own weight as subscriptions are down (because so much is available for free on the internet) 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, who is food editor for a print magazine (to which R and I subscribe to) 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 (a position that rarely exists anymore, ergo the need for networking) and how different the goals and priorities of the magazine were back then. She remembers having no web responsibilities whatsoever. But where Time Out has succeeded (and where Conde Nast has failed) is that they did not go into denial about the power of the internet and how important it would be to their magazine's survival. 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.

Those were some of the key points about how food writing was going to live on, but inevitably the question of money, and specifically paying writers came up. Food writers are famously underpaid, having to teach, write books, and become editors (or marry rich) to be able to do what they love. Things have only gotten worse because of the free for all that is the internet. Tasting Table and Salon pay their freelance writers but that's an anomaly. Most websites want writers to work for free, paying them $50 is they're lucky. Meanwhile the bigger publications have brought their rates down considerably. While this question wasn't fully addressed (its hard to answer something nobody knows yet), I did get the impression that we're that much closer to the answer. That the panel was composed of (young) people who were making a living at this particular profession and who have embraced the change of tides that come with innovation, is a clear indication that its still possible to make a living as a food writer. There's also the fact that with the New York Times setting up a paywall on their site, a precedent may be set that, if it sticks, might be what the web-publications need to be able to shell out cash for better work. More importantly, a demand is in place for the product food writers peddle and people are working with creating new ways of selling it (I think Tasting Table is a great example of that).

But in response to the question of print, of magazines, of paper, Francis told 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. And when the audience was asked if they would take the iPad to bed to read, barely anyone raised their hand. When asked if they would take a magazine or a book, it was almost unanimous. What gives me hope is knowing that these questions are not exclusive to one particular form of media. In film, the question of 35mm versus HD, seeing movies in a theater versus on Blu-Ray, the rebirth of indie film without studio involvement, hell, the moneyless film world of Youtube, are all weighing down on the industry but people are figuring it out. The music industry still exists, even after Napster and Pandora.

Overall, it was a very informative evening and while of course there are still questions up in the air, I had a sense that I knew what to expect, both in my pursuit of food writing as a career and as a networking freelancing writer. After the panel, I walked into Grand Central station and couldn't help stopping by the newsstand and showing my support. $10 for two magazines, how much cheaper do you want it to be?

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