The Future of Food Journalism
At a recent panel entitled The Future of Food Journalism, the future proved, once again, to be unknowable. Will it, as panelist Francis Lam over at Salon.com is hoping, look like longish format (you know, long for today’s attention span, like 500 words) experiential food writing that allows for immediacy and flexibility? For Lam, this means that one day he can post about General Tso’s chicken, because he’s thinking about it; the next day he can knock on a neighbor’s door and beg a cooking lesson, notebook in hand; then he can crowd-source, calling in recipes for a quirky contest and publishing the winners.
Perhaps the future will look more like panelist Gabriella Gershenson’s experience at Time Out: print readers who also become web readers hungry for more content; readers who crave up-to-date, hyper-local, consumable information that will allow them to go out and have experiences with food by trying a new product or restaurant or participating in a foodie event.
According to panelist Brian Halweil of Edible Manhattan, Edible Brooklyn and Edible East End, food politics and sustainable/local are the future of food writing, and those topics are booming. Edible reflects these issues in their successful business model, which has a stay-small, focus-local, grassroots mentality.
Panelist Nick Fauchald of The Tasting Table describes the future of food journalism in terms of giving readers the sex up front (a concept he laments but uses). His daily emails are short (200 words) and offer plenty of opportunities to get the goods by trying recipes, using discounts or getting in on the ground floor of the newest food and drink trends.
The worried audience members seemed to be bottom-line-focused. Who can afford to be a food writer, and what kind of food writing will sell? The democratization of the internet means that everyone’s a food writer, and this had the restaurateurs in the audience wondering who’s in charge if anyone can post a negative online review. While most food bloggers make bupkiss, moderator Andrew Smith pointed out that some, like Heidi Swanson, pull in six figures from their blogs. Then there are the issues of authority and integrity: do you know what you’re talking about when you pan a restaurant? do you accept bribes? Panelists seemed to hope that readers would continue to become more discerning while the unworthy simply lose out to more trustworthy writers and publications.
One of the more interesting concepts for me came up in observations the panelists made about tangibility as it relates to the past and future of food journalism. Once upon a time, food writing fell into two camps: there were the “home ec” newspaper food sections (often referred to as ‘the woman’s sports pages’), which focused mostly on the practical aspects of cooking; then there were long-format, well-crafted pieces published in magazines. The latter offered escapist entertainment in the form of writing about places, traditions and destinations that readers might didn’t need to experience themselves to enjoy reading about. Over time, these camps have essentially merged: readers want well-written, transporting and evocative recipe pieces, and they want to read about places, traditions and destinations that they can reach out and experience for themselves. The desire for tangibility has created readers so hungry to grab what they’re reading about that they’re unlikely to plow through a whole long mouth-watering essay on the topic.
Francis Lam began the panel discussion on the topic of tangibility as it relates to print. The late-lamented Gourmet, where Lam got his big career break, was most certainly something to hold in your hands and flip through for the sensual experience of looking at the gorgeous photography. It was a magazine with pieces long enough to read before bed, and recipes to dog ear for future endeavors. It was also hemorrhaging money, so it folded. Will its readers get over print, Lam wondered. Will the internet, with its attention-span-shortening sensory overload and endless free content, change how we enjoy food writing forever? Is 500 words the new 20,000? Or will magazines, like the gorgeously yet economically and environmentally-produced Edibles, soldier on as a respite from the noise online? Will the same urges that send us to the web to find recipes or obsessively follow restaurant world gossip also keep us loyal to magazines we can hold, take with us out of internet range, read in the tub, display on a coffee table and save on a bookshelf? Or will the vestigial habit of reading off-screen fade in a generation?
Either way, the encouraging fact remains that our gluttonous society is hungrier than ever for food news, recipes, information, inspiration, legislation… This is a thrilling time to read and write about food—and if you are interested in either activity, you’ve got plenty of company. What emerged from the panel for me is the sense that market forces will stabilize the field of food writing…eventually. Writers who have the backing—be that a trust fund, an employer, a wildly successful ad-supported blog or even just a day job and a lot of drive—will continue to create well-written, well-researched and well-tested or fact-checked food content, even without the benefit of extensive editorial and art departments. And the humbling gods of internet traffic will give and take away accordingly.
Whoever is left food writing when the dust settles will once again have a shot at making a living doing whatever food journalism becomes in The Future. Personally, I hope to see less ‘this is what you should eat right where you live right this minute,’ less ‘this is why everything you eat will kill you’ and more ‘this is how food culture makes our world a larger, more beautiful place.’ The real question though is not so much what The Future of Food Journalism will look like as when that future will arrive. Some of us would really like to know.
Photo by DerrickT
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