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WSJ article about food blogs

subscription or buy 10/6/07 weekend edition

"Chowhound" leads the way in integrity, everybody else is...

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB11914...

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  1. Thanks - an interesting read.

    1. Thanks for posting this -- I hadn't seen that. I was able to view it without registering or anything.

      1. The original comment has been removed
        1. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was somewhat taken aback at the fact that so many bloggers accept comps and freebies (not to mention undisclosed payola).

          How do their reviews help me - the average consumer - know what I am getting in terms of food, service and value?

          14 Replies
          1. re: Seth Chadwick

            I don't think freebies of products are that big of a deal as long as it's transparent that's where the product came from. People who review movies, cars and music usually get them for free. Why should the latest spatula set, collection of single origin chocolate bars, knife or stand mixer be any different? We all understand that and accept it. (Mostly because the inert object doesn't change whether it's paid for or comped.)

            I do agree that a service oriented experience like dining needs to be on the up and up. It's one thing for someone to be comped into a "tasting party" along with dozens of other writers ... we understand that when reading an article. But if the reviewer sits at a table and every staff member at the restaurant not only knows that they're there to size them up, but also that they're not paying for it, they're getting a different experience that I'll get when I show up with my own money. There will certainly be things of value in that review and some reviewers are great no matter who pays, but I think we all know that the restaurant is giving them "more for their money" than we'd get.

            This is one of my issues with The Food Network's programming. Thanks for showing me all these exotic locales ... but they're basically commercials for those restaurants, there's no editorial rigor applied!

            (Full disclosure: I accept free products for review on my blog. I've also panned some of them ... never written about others and refused to even consider just as many.)

            1. re: typetive

              "It's one thing for someone to be comped into a "tasting party" along with dozens of other writers ... we understand that when reading an article."

              Gotta disagree, not everyone understands that, not every reader is able to discern the subtleties, not every reader brings some measure of healthy skepticism to everything they read.

              I believe anyone writing about restaurant experiences, whether for a traditional publication or in their blogs should fully disclose their own practices (i.e. to either never accept a free meal, to sometimes accept a free meal, or to shamelessly accept any form for remuneration in exchange for providing favorable publicity). Of course those possibly in the second, and those most likely in the third category above cannot be expected to be honest about it.

              I think that if all "reviewers" and their reviews are taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, and factored with my own field experience when possible so I can compare my experience, or compare with the reported experience of others, such as Chowhounds who I have learned to trust and who I have learned have similar tastes to my own, with what they report, I can fairly reliably establish who's reviews I can "trust".

              Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for many businesses, I don't think the general public are quite as discerning, that certainly explains the success of the Food Network.

              It was quite heartening to read that of the rundown of food discusion sites, that Chowhound was cited as about the most honestly run.

              1. re: typetive

                Well, the difference is that the bags of candy and spatula sets are mass produced and distributed. Unless I am not "in the know," I don't think producers of the lastest flavor of M & M's make a special bag to send to reviewers and then go back to a cheaper product for the general public. It is no different than the cutout CDs record companies send out to music reviewers nationwide. Because it is mass produced, everyone is getting the same product.

                When I read that section about "Tablehopper" who stated that 2/3rds of her reviews were based on comped meals, my jaw nearly hit the floor. Her justification was that her budget just doesn't allow for her dining out on her own dime. Wow. Just wow. How can her reviews not be tainted by that admission?

                In any event, I do understand your point and appreciate the feedback and spirited discussion.

                1. re: Seth Chadwick

                  Her reviews can't be untainted. At the very least, in the back of her mind has got to be an awareness that if she posts too many critical reviews, her freebie invitations are going to dry up. I'm also curious, does she disclose on her blog entries when a meal is comped?

                  1. re: Seth Chadwick

                    Tainted as compared to someone like Frank Bruni, yep. But, she's also not trying to do what Frank Bruni does. Much of her website and weekly "newsletter" is devoted to restaurant gossip, events and special parties that are coming up in the near future, openings and closings, etc. She is also completely forthcoming on her website about the fact that she gets free meals and recognizes how that can affect her reviews. She points out that she's always careful to call herself a "food writer" and not a "critic."

                    To my mind, just as is the case with things like split plate charges and sharing fees....as long as the person doing the writing is up front about how they get the food and what they're doing, it's fine with me because I can make up my own mind about whether I think it's useful for me. Media is changing and has changed from the traditional ways that many of us remember and I think we have to recognize that different kinds of writing and work have different places in the spectrum, in food as in other areas of life. Doesn't mean you have to accept what someone writes, but I'm not sure that it's automatically the case that an "anonymous" critic is more valuable than a food writer to accepts meals from the restaurant and says so. In this specific example, I actually find tablehopper to be much more useful to me than Michael Bauer in the Chronicle.

                    1. re: ccbweb

                      So basically, she's doing semi-pro PR (she's getting compensated for publicizing the places she eats). I suppose the actual information content is useful (who is going what where), but her opinions aren't worth more than any PR flack.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        I agree with you, basically. I just don't think that PR flack information is, by definition, useless.

                      2. re: ccbweb

                        I don't disagree with your analysis, but the WSJ article is asking the question of whether or not there is integrity in writing a review if you received a comp, freebie or payola. If Tablehopper was strictly a gossip sheet, I would say all bets are off, but she does review food and restaurants and while she may not be a critic, she most certainly is a restaurant reviewer.

                        Additionally, her public disclosure is admirable, but I see no difference between that and the politician who gets a campaign contribution from Corporation X and says, "Well, I disclosed it, so you don't really need to worry about me being influenced by that check."

                        1. re: Seth Chadwick

                          Is there an article that goes with the list of websites? I'm not being flip at all, I just didn't see any analysis of the level of integrity, really...just the list of sites. I also thought that tablehopper actually had one of the more clear/transparent/straightforward "graft" policies. Other than Chowhound, most other sites allows freebies or trust that each individual "reviewer" will self-report every time. The couple of other one-person blogs say they stopped taking freebies about a year ago, so I'm not sure how that might still play into what they write.

                          To my mind, the difference between the politician and the restaurant reviewer is simply one of stakes. I'm more willing to accept a restaurant reviewer who is above board about accepting free meals and still consider whether I think what they write is worth anything to me than I am a politician who accepts very large sums of money that could influence public policy. On a philosophical level, there may not be a difference but on a practical level it plays out very differently for me.

                          1. re: ccbweb

                            ccb,

                            The article linked above appeared as the "sidebar" to the main article which is here:

                            http://online.wsj.com/article/SB11916...

                            Not to worry. It took me a few minutes to figure out that it was a sidebar as well. :o)

                            1. re: Seth Chadwick

                              Thanks for posting that - hadn't noticed it.

                              1. re: Seth Chadwick

                                Yes, thanks for posting the link, I didn't see that on the site.

                                It does present the landscape fairly well.

                                1. re: ccbweb

                                  My pleasure. I didn't catch it either until I saw the headline in the "other stories" box on the side.

                            2. re: Seth Chadwick

                              The major difference here is the politicians are required by law to disclose contributions, including "in-kind" contributions, and there is nothing to require bloggers to do so. (Incidentally, corporate contributions have been illegal at the federal level for close to 100 years despite what people continue to think.) It's easy to see from voting records which politicians are bought and paid for and they can be prosecuted for certain actions.

                              Readers have to depend on bloggers to self-disclose. Then by reading their work over a period of time, it's possible to ascertain their credibility. If they establish a following (authority on Technorati) and others agree that their reviews are valid, then that particular blogger will be seen as having integrity regardless of the financial arrangements. The hospitality media has different rules than some of the other media.

                    2. Kudos to Chowhound.....(I also liked the article in todays WSJ about movies made from legos. )