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WSJ article about food blogs

byrd Oct 6, 2007 02:32 AM

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. MMRuth RE: byrd Oct 6, 2007 05:56 AM

    Thanks - an interesting read.

    1. Chowpatty RE: byrd Oct 6, 2007 08:51 AM

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

      1. Seth Chadwick RE: byrd Oct 6, 2007 11:17 AM

        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
          typetive RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 6, 2007 05:27 PM

          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
            ChinoWayne RE: typetive Oct 7, 2007 09:41 AM

            "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
              Seth Chadwick RE: typetive Oct 7, 2007 10:52 AM

              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
                Ruth Lafler RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 12:54 PM

                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
                  ccbweb RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 01:26 PM

                  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
                    Ruth Lafler RE: ccbweb Oct 7, 2007 01:52 PM

                    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
                      ccbweb RE: Ruth Lafler Oct 7, 2007 03:17 PM

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

                    2. re: ccbweb
                      Seth Chadwick RE: ccbweb Oct 7, 2007 02:38 PM

                      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
                        ccbweb RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 03:24 PM

                        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
                          Seth Chadwick RE: ccbweb Oct 7, 2007 03:45 PM

                          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
                            MMRuth RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 04:18 PM

                            Thanks for posting that - hadn't noticed it.

                            1. re: Seth Chadwick
                              ccbweb RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 04:40 PM

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

                              It does present the landscape fairly well.

                              1. re: ccbweb
                                Seth Chadwick RE: ccbweb Oct 7, 2007 06:26 PM

                                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
                            m
                            MakingSense RE: Seth Chadwick Oct 7, 2007 10:34 PM

                            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. Marcharlan RE: byrd Oct 6, 2007 02:15 PM

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

                    1. MC Slim JB RE: byrd Oct 6, 2007 09:23 PM

                      Fascinating article.

                      If you're an amateur (someone who writes about food for the love of it, like most Hounds) or an unpaid blogger who accepts targeted freebies (as opposed to the kind of comps you get for being a genuine regular) and allows them to affect what your write about a place, shame on you.

                      If you're a professional who doesn't strive for anonymity and doesn't think that being recognized as a food writer doesn't unfairly skew your dining experience in the restaurant's favor, you're either an idiot or a hopeless naif.

                      If you're one of those food writers who freely identifies themselves as a food writer to people in the restaurant industry, you're a joke, effectively useless to the consumer looking for credible advice on where to dine.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: MC Slim JB
                        r
                        rieslingme RE: MC Slim JB Oct 8, 2007 09:50 AM

                        "If you're one of those food writers who freely identifies themselves as a food writer to people in the restaurant industry, you're a joke, effectively useless to the consumer looking for credible advice on where to dine."

                        I agree with your statement if you are a food critic, but there are many food writers that don't do restaurant reviews. They cover food trends; chef techniques, industry news, or pen food essays. There are plenty of times where a writer may want to identify themselves with good reason, and it doesn't make them a "joke". I get your point, but not all food writing is reviewing, and that generalization is pretty harsh.

                        1. re: rieslingme
                          MC Slim JB RE: rieslingme Oct 8, 2007 03:19 PM

                          I think this is a fair qualification to my point, rieslingme: I was referring specifically to restaurant reviewers, not journalists who write more broadly about the industry (though they too need to be forthright in disclosing comps).

                          This particular point has been flogged a bit here since Danyelle "Restaurant Girl" Freeman, a blogger who has done the opposite of hiding her identity, was named the NY Daily News' restaurant critic. She contends that being well-known and easily identifiable as a critic doesn't materially affect the quality of the experience she receives at restaurants she's reviewing. I think that's patently self-serving and ridiculous.

                          1. re: MC Slim JB
                            f
                            FeedMeMore RE: MC Slim JB Oct 8, 2007 04:02 PM

                            Whole-heartedly agree with that!

                      2. jfood RE: byrd Oct 7, 2007 08:19 AM

                        Noone should tell the reso that they are a blogger and will be writing a review of the resto and those who accept money for this should absolutely tell the people reading the blog. I would absolutely take with a pound of salt any food blog that accepts money from a reviewed resto.

                        when i read a blog i want the review from the normalperson;s point of view, not from the "special" situation of a paid reviewer. There is no way you can maintain integrity and review a resto if you accept freebies or anyting else. Period.

                        8 Replies
                        1. re: jfood
                          Veggo RE: jfood Oct 8, 2007 09:26 AM

                          Pertinent to your first paragraph: For those in the game who do not comport with your very reasonable guidelines, I suggest that they be referred to as "food whores".
                          These's no innocence,objectivity or naivete here. They know precisely what they are doing.

                          1. re: jfood
                            m
                            MakingSense RE: jfood Oct 8, 2007 09:57 AM

                            It's pretty hard for bloggers to escape notice when they're taking photos of every course and copious notes. That behavior stands out - even without flash photography - because it's not the norm for ordinary diners. They may ask many more questions about the menu and the provenance of the food as well.
                            Even when a blogger is paid, he can give the impression that he isn't.

                            Or an unknown blogger may attack a Goliath, in an effort to get more notice for his little-known blog. Sometimes that "payoff" is worth more than a free meal.

                            1. re: MakingSense
                              jfood RE: MakingSense Oct 8, 2007 10:28 AM

                              such an easy fix.

                              1 - buy a blackberry. How many people do you see working on their e-mail during dinner. Just go to the memo icon and type away like your sending an email.
                              2 - eat first, take pictures later. On the first visits you eat and write and that's the review. if you want to have pictures, then return and order the same menu and take pictures. if the service is different and they gush all over you then you have an interesting angle that "I returned and when they thought I was a food critic the service was..."
                              3 - if a "goliath" is worried about every mini-blogger and offering free meals, that a great website to start, a list of restos that give away food. So if i pan Per Se on my blog I should expect a call from the owner offering me a free meal. Where do I sign up?

                              http://jfoodonfood.blogspot.com new post 10/8/07

                              1. re: jfood
                                TexasToast RE: jfood Oct 8, 2007 10:38 AM

                                but jfood, TT often asks very reviewer-like questions, mainly out of habit. And sometimes, TT doesn't even get a chance to say a word because someone has already mistakenly identified me as a reviewer (one time for the NYT no less), which TT is not. How do you get "normal" service in that instance?

                                TT

                                1. re: TexasToast
                                  jfood RE: TexasToast Oct 8, 2007 10:56 AM

                                  me too, but it's the thrill of knowing what you eat that makes the experience better for me. If i get treated better because i ask questions, then heck i'm a winner. It may be that the server knows your standards are higher because of the questions that he raises hios game for your table.

                                  http://jfoodonfood.blogspot.com new post 10/8/07

                                2. re: jfood
                                  m
                                  MakingSense RE: jfood Oct 8, 2007 12:50 PM

                                  Re: #3, jfood. Not talking about freebies. Talking about a blogger trying to get attention by throwing stones at Goliath.
                                  If he makes unprovable accusations/innuendos, such as saying that the fish might not be "grouper" or "wild salmon" but were lesser fish or farmed, perhaps that the produce wasn't really "certified" organic, wasn't "local" as stated on the menu, the tomatoes "possibly" weren't "heirlooms" and "who did the chef think he could kid" with that"? The blogger could cite "occasional rumors of unpaid vendors" and "understaffing" or "obviously disgruntled staff" that could be the result of "recent whispers that something isn't going so well."
                                  All the blogger needs is for other bloggers to pick up the innuendos. The "mights" get changed to "we've heard that..." and everybody starts talking and referencing the original blogger. Even if they disagree, he gets attention and can say that they weren't there the night he was.
                                  Google the restaurant and you get 2 or 3 pages of links to that blogger and maybe to postings on chowhound. There is no way that the restaurant can counter that. Can't prove a negative. The blogger only said "might be..." and it's just one person's opinion.
                                  The attention that the blogger gets is better than any free meal.

                                  1. re: MakingSense
                                    jfood RE: MakingSense Oct 8, 2007 01:35 PM

                                    fair point, but you can lie only so many times and one law suit from the resto may stop that practice pretty darn quick. I am not sure how many bloggers would face jail time like many reporters to protect their sources if these were true stories and if they were not, it would be an interesting case of libel/slander or extortion.

                                    Likewise there are many bloggers/reviewers who you know do not have opinions that coincide with yours. I have one in my neighborhood that i view each review with a pound of salt. And a very long standing and respected reviewer.

                                    But back to the OP. It is incumbent that bloggers who receive compensation (including free meals) from a resto disclose this info to the readers.

                                    1. re: jfood
                                      m
                                      MakingSense RE: jfood Oct 8, 2007 03:39 PM

                                      unfortunately, that's not the way first amendment/media law works in practice. Restaurant owners are public figures and they have to prove malice, intention to harm and that the blogger actually lied, when in fact he might have only given an opinion. He may have even been "reporting" the opinion of others.

                                      You often call more attention to a charge by suing or responding. This is always one of the major decisions in crisis management. If the blogger is unknown, why should Goliath make him important? Getting noticed just one time may be the intention in attacking Goliath.
                                      The down side in not responding in some way is that charges sometime take on a life of their own as many major corporations have learned. The internet is full of unsubstantiated, unfounded stories that can be traced back to a single story from a single source that was repeated and embellished, or reports that were later found to be untrue, but once they were reported they took on a life of their own. That one incident might be enough to destroy a restaurant's business if allowed to get out of hand.

                                      An astonishing number of bloggers in all fields provide no bona fides nor information whatsoever. Either read them for fun or don't read them. Those who don't disclose that they're on the take are no different than crooked politicians. At least we can put crooked pols in jail.

                            2. The Chowhound Team RE: byrd Oct 7, 2007 01:44 PM

                              For posters who are interested, the guidelines for restaurant owners, friends and other insiders are posted here:

                              http://www.chowhound.com/topics/36760...

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: The Chowhound Team
                                Cheflambo RE: The Chowhound Team Oct 7, 2007 04:20 PM

                                It is interesting that the author of this article wants to put Adam Roberts (Amateur Gourmet) in the same league as Jeffrey Chodorow. I've been reading the Amateur Gourmet for about 2 years, and trust me, Adam WILL eat as many free meals has he can find. He's a profesional student whose parents have deep pockets and takes great fun in poking at the "hoi-polloi". ( If you dig deep enough into the AG archives you'll find a story about he and his parents went to Le Cirque and got what he thought was a poor table. Made such a fuss in his blog that his mom got a copy of Sirio Maccioni's book in the mail and an invitation to come back for a free meal) If he didn't seem so much like someone's little brother, I might not like him so much. He's witty, and got a cute little book out about his experiences. Chodorow? Well, he's at the other end of the spectrum.

                              2. Chris VR RE: byrd Oct 8, 2007 12:13 PM

                                LOL. I LOVE the way Eater seems to think they've singlehandedly discovered shilling and are the only ones out there fighting it.

                                "... where the story gets interesting is on the subject of sites like Yelp and Chowhound, where moderators have yet to focus in on rampant shilling the way we have."

                                http://eater.com/archives/2007/10/can...

                                Sorry kids, Chowhound was shill-hunting when you were trying to figure out what to wear to the senior prom.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: Chris VR
                                  MMRuth RE: Chris VR Oct 8, 2007 12:23 PM

                                  Yes - especially given these quotes from the WSJ article:

                                  On Eater: "Graft Policy: Free meals must be disclosed in posts, though free meals are not taken when the restaurant is being reviewed."

                                  On CH: "Graft Policy: One of the strictest policies online: No restaurants, people connected to restaurants or consumers who have gotten any freebies from restaurants can write anything on the site."

                                  1. re: MMRuth
                                    ccbweb RE: MMRuth Oct 8, 2007 12:26 PM

                                    Well, the quote about CH was, technically, incorrect. It's a strict policy, but that overstates the case.
                                    Personally, I read both CH and Eater on a fairly regular basis.

                                    1. re: ccbweb
                                      MMRuth RE: ccbweb Oct 8, 2007 12:32 PM

                                      True - I went back and read the policy about owners etc., and I think it says they can only post factual information etc. I don't read Eater - so I don't have an opinion about it one way or the other. Just seemed odd that they would suggest that CH doesn't "focus in on rampant shilling" given posts like this - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/447584:

                                      "Folks, guarding against "shills" (fake testimonials) is our top priority."

                                      Don't know anything at all about Yelp.

                                      1. re: MMRuth
                                        ccbweb RE: MMRuth Oct 8, 2007 12:46 PM

                                        Yeah, that was off base. CH definitely does look for and remove posts by shills.

                                        Eater is decent, though a bit too happy with themselves for knowing things about restaurants in the cities they're in (NYC, LA and SF).

                                        1. re: ccbweb
                                          MMRuth RE: ccbweb Oct 8, 2007 12:56 PM

                                          Thanks - I'll check out Eater - since finding Chowhound, I have to confess to not straying much further afield, other than to check Zagat (yes, I have an online subscription) to identify places that meet certain criteria.

                                2. singleguychef RE: byrd Oct 8, 2007 12:57 PM

                                  You know, I have to say, I've been food blogging for a year and I have never been offered any of these free meals or comps. Where are they?!@# ;-p

                                  I actually do some reviews on my site and I pay for all my meals. But I don't consider it real reviews like newspapers, but more a slice of life type of look at the restaurant and my experience at that particular moment.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: singleguychef
                                    ccbweb RE: singleguychef Oct 8, 2007 01:00 PM

                                    I do the same. It's a not a "review" but a sort of recap of our (usually with my wife) meal. I don't do any sort of "rating" system though I usually end by noting that we either will or won't be back to the place. Sometimes I note that we'll back soon and often which is as effusive as I can get, really.

                                  2. Chew on That RE: byrd Oct 9, 2007 04:32 PM

                                    Thanks for sharing this link! Great list they have; i LOVE the Amateur Gourmet. I think the list could have been a bit longer though...

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