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The decline and demise of professional food writing?

Is it me, or are professional food writers rapidly being replaced with bloggers and amateurs in publications that were once legitimate? In my local weekly (free) paper, the whole food section is being dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of food "journalists." I laughed at a couple of the articles that I found online, only to see them appear in the printed paper.

Don't get me wrong, I think there is a place and purpose for food bloggers. I did it for years before I decided to "retire." But it seems now that the local weekly papers have figured out a way to get plenty of free or cheap content and parade it around as "writing." I fear to give links or specific examples because I truly feel sorry for the professional editors that do this for a living. I assume they would be embarrassed with the content, right?


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  1. The food writing in local papers - based on what I have seen in the DC metropolitan area and in NJ - has always been abysmal. Note - I am not talking about the Washington Post or the Baltimore Sun (though it has never been the same since John Dorsey, some 30 years ago). Our local papers have "reviews" that are little more than descriptions of the decor and the menu. Makes you want to scream DID YOU EVEN TASTE THE FOOD? These people, I am guessing, don't actually know food. They are just local writers who were assigned the restaurant beat. I ignore them, and I actually find that bloggers are far more informative and entertaining. What I loved about John Dorsey was that you could actually imagine what the place was like and whether you would enjoy it just by reading his reviews.

    1. "But it seems now that the local weekly papers have figured out a way to get plenty of free or cheap content and parade it around as 'writing.' "

      Free and cheap is just the ticket these days when you realize that at some point hard copies of weekly papers will be a thing of the past.

      I think what you describe is happening to many aspects of media and the arts; just look at the music business. Anyone can put together a "song" or video, post in on you tube and be on the charts within weeks. That's a far cry from the way the industry worked for many years.

      1. I suppose it depends on what you mean by professional. Getting paid for it? Having a journalism degree? It's difficult to quantify. I would also point out that food writers who are or were employed at that job are blogging, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes after they've left a job. (Downsizing is hitting newspapers and magazines a lot as circulation drops.)

        As to the "reviews" that only describe decor and menu, those aren't reviews, of course, they're feature stories. Would those restaurants perhaps be ones who have ads in the publication? Always a giveaway.

        I know there are folks out there who really want to write about food and will do so for free in order to get what were, in the days of print's primacy, known as "clips", things that could be used to prove to an editor at a publication higher up the ladder to show what you had done and how you wrote. On the one hand, I understand that. On the other hand, I'm bothered that those folks value their own work so little that they give it away so other people can make money off it. At least bloggers know they probably won't make any money, but share their views anyway.

        1. I have noticed the decline in the quality and thoughtfulness of newspaper writing in general, but the pseudo-reviews of restaurants by staff writers come off like they just went to dinner and knew they'd get an extra twenty-five bucks if they submitted a few hundred words about it. Folksy style and devoid of knowledge, "my husband loved his well-done burger, said it was 'perfectly crispy and dry'." Dreadful indeed. I'll refrain from noting the poor grammar, punctuation, even spelling sometimes. . . .

          1 Reply
          1. re: MGZ

            "Folksy style and devoid of knowledge ..." and "I'll refrain from noting the poor grammar, punctuation, even spelling sometimes" both describe, to me, the vast number of blogs out there ... in particular restaurant bloggers.

            Granted the difference here is "paid" vs "unpaid", but I think that line is blurring quite a bit, and will continue to do so.

          2. The problem you are having is that you are reading the wrong papers.

            >>> In my local weekly (free) paper, the whole food section is being dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of food "journalists."<<<

            Find better reading material. Feel free to spring like $1 or so every once in a while for a real fishwrap.

            3 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              Good writers are abundant. Good editors and publishers are becoming scarce. Not just about food, everything. Except, of course, economics.

              1. re: Veggo

                Have to agree with you on that one. Even with a free paper I think to myself that surely there are better writers out there who will volunteer their time. We had one for a while who reviewed a lot of chain restaurants into the mix and commented primarily on the size of dishes etc. And now they have one who went back to the same tired places and the comment is primarily decor and what was overheard at the next table. Who picked these people?

                1. re: Veggo

                  >>Good writers are abundant. Good editors and publishers are becoming scarce.<<

                  I like to think this is true. I think it's about how high a bar that the paper sets. I'm in LA and I think our local rags have very good to great food writers (as well as writers on some other topics as well). The LA Times seems to get very little respect in general, but the Food section has some serious talent behind the press. David Karp, Russ Parsons, Linda Burum, Thi Nguyen, and Miles Clements off the top of my head - S. Irene Virbila is too controversial to make my list for now.

                  As for free rags, our local LA Weekly seems to do pretty darned good - Jonathan Gold is an incredibly talented writer whose write-ups I will read regardless whether or not I'm interested in the issue at hand. Amy Scattergood and Noah Galuten are other folks I like to read. It's kinda ironic - a lot of those names I mention have or had Chow pedigrees as well...

              2. In my opinion the problem is finding enough revenue to pay for the good writers. More and more people it seems like just want their content free and believe it should be so. But someone has to produce that content and they need to get paid. It's hard to find a high level of consistent quality if your rates are cheap or someone is just doing it for fun.

                That's a problem that's not unique to just writing. I love free as much as anyone but also realize the constraints. There is no such thing as a free lunch. A lot of times you just have to be willing to pay to get quality content and information.

                1. I gladly pay for quality writing and plunk down the $ for a New Yorker sub, among others. I ditched a long-running sub to a Toronto paper recently whose resto and food writing was either plain wrong, bad, boosted from other pubs or stealth ads or outright shills. Face it: while there's more being written on food, much of it is self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, painfully twee or just fanboy frothing.
                  It often doesn't inform and isn't even funny most of the time. What can I say, bad writing's easier than good writing.

                  1. Unfortunately anybody with a computer and a remote interest on any subject can instantly be an expert if they have a blog. It's just not food writing. It's writing in general. Bad grammar is now the norm.

                    1. I expect much less from blogs or free publications. After all, you get what you pay for, right? What’s most distressing is the quality of writing in many newspapers. With a blog, for example, one expects a certain amount of stream of consciousness purging. It’s not “real” writing; it’s keeping one’s journal on the kitchen table.

                      On the other hand, I expect the writing in paid publications to reflect a certain amount of review and rewriting by the author. I see frequent errors that should have been picked up by proofreading and thematic problems that suggest an absence of editorial intervention. I also feel that professional food writing should be a bit more creative that the "who, what, where, when” of reporting. Moreover, I read better and more interesting descriptions and reflections about restaurants on this website than in New Jersey papers that choose to cover the same places.

                      1. As a reader of professional food writers, I'm willing to cop to the reality that as a fan/follower/enthusiastic reader my habits have changed too. The abundance of material can be overwhelming. Finding what I truly wish to spend time reading takes time! Having online access is critical. Some of the "new writers" in todays urban dictionary world have me red in the face, while others really nail IT for me. I see neither decline or demise...just new territory.

                        1. To some extent, the decline of quality food writing is a natural by-product of the democratization of dining. Everyone eats, everyone's had a great dinner, so why should food writing require any more specialized knowledge than the ability to read a menu? The knowledge and literacy that comes with experience is devalued and the line between professional critic and breezy blogger is ever more blurred.

                          More and more I notice food writers who write their reviews in a stream of conscious style, offering up their ponderings and musings throughout a dinner -- questions that often touch on the most basic points of ethnic dining or professional cookery. In New York, where I live, it seems to be enough that you can get into the trendiest restaurants and write in an irreverent tone. One of the Post's occassional reviewers runs a website cataloging her reviews while demonstrating a complete lack of culinary knowledge, let alone a grasp of basic English grammar. To mimic a cosmopolitan air, she serially abuses French and Spanish with mistranslated tropes, while making grossly uninformed statements about cooking, and yet she succeeds in mass media because she writes like a privileged debutante in the age of "Gossip Girl." Beautiful writers like the author of The Spice Spoon labor away with relatively little compensation, whilst the illiterate are offered book deals.

                          3 Replies
                            1. re: HillJ

                              Yes. I only recently discovered her; I'm glad to see she's getting some recognition even while Simon and Schuster hires a writer who panned a Thai restaurant for its fragrant spices http://www.thelunchbelle.com/nycentri... and confuses Goya Sazón for saffron while basically suggesting her Mexican waitress is a pill-popper: http://www.thelunchbelle.com/nycentri...

                              1. re: JungMann

                                I'm with you I'd much prefer to read this. Thankfully there are plenty of food bloggers who know their craft!

                          1. Small-town paper food writing has long been pretty awful. If your best dining choices include national casual-dining chain outlets, what kind of talent can you expect to attract?

                            For me, the Rubicon of Pathetic Food Writing was crossed once the NY Daily News hired an unanonymous food blogger, Restaurant Girl, a/k/a Danyelle Freeman, as its regular critic a couple of years ago. She was so awful on so many levels that I started a "Restaurant Girl Howler of the Week" thread on this board to try to identify the single stupidest, most badly-written sentence in each review: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/489656

                            The Restaurant Girl experiment is mercifully over, but professional food writing, for better or worse, seems largely doomed. A handful of national publications and big-city newspapers will be able to pay folks with all the tools: serious writing chops, deep knowledge of food and drink up and down the dining spectrum, deep contextual understanding of a local dining scene. Old media is dying: every magazine and paper that vanishes reduces the universe of available pro food-writing perches. The rest simply can't afford quality food writing anymore; what you get with reflects the meager pay scale.


                            1. The biggest problem I have with food writing/reviews in local papers is that it's never objective, nor does it reflect the writer's views, regardless of how good or poor that writer is. It's simply nothing more than advertising. Have you ever read a piece or review on a local restaurant or market or other food "stuff" that mentioned anything even remotely negative?? And you won't, because the paper NEEDS those advertising dollars, & realizes they won't get it if they piss owner's off with any criticism whatsoever.


                              4 Replies
                              1. re: Breezychow

                                Most restaurants that rely on paid advertising should be spared the ignominy of an impartial review.

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  I disagree. You're either a decent restaurant or you aren't. Counting on some butt-kissing local newspaper reporter to boost your sales because his/her paper wants your advertising dollars is a sad way to draw in business.

                                  1. re: Breezychow

                                    Same point, I guess mine was not clear. An "impartial" review would roast them.

                                    1. re: Veggo

                                      What I don't understand is how people (& the papers) can be so stupid. I'd be much more likely to buy & read a paper with a restaurant reviewer who gave honest reviews. But those advertising dollars are what they're looking for, period. So around here a restaurant could be serving salads with cockroach garnishes & still get a sterling review in the local rag.

                              2. As others have noted, newspaper writing in general has gone downhill. The newsroom staffs have been cut to a fraction of what they were even a decade ago. Much of the blame is placed on the internet. Newspapers had the money and the technology to embrace the Internet. There didn't have to be a carsoup.com which took away probably 20% of newspapers' revenues. Newspapers used to earn another 10 - 15% of their revenues from the rest of the classifieds. They didn't adapt and so they bought out the contracts of high-salaried (read that as highly skilled) reporters and replaced them with young and inexperienced reporters.

                                Many newspapers have discovered they can get food writers cheap so they do it. I haven't seen the effect on food writing described by the OP in the Twin Cities major papers yet and I hope I do not.

                                As an aside, I grew up down the street from Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post.

                                7 Replies
                                1. re: John E.

                                  I agree that the internet killed newspapers, but I don't see how the outcome would have been any different if the newspapers has used their money and technology to embrace the internet.

                                  With the rise of the internet, newspapers were hit with a double whammy of loss of circulation from paid subscribers and loss of revenue from their advertisements.

                                  The irony is that more people can read a food article from a newspaper today than before the internet- look at the way bittman's no-knead bread recipe spread from the nytimes. But, the problem is that the ads the papers can charge from people reading it on the internet is much, much lower than what they could charge for an ad in the newspaper.

                                  As more people shifted from reading a hard copy paper you can hold in your hands to reading it on-line, the circulation numbers plummeted for the paper and they had to consequently charge less money for the ads in the paper.

                                  Plus, how were the papers going to recapture their revenue from classifieds against a business model like Craigslist which doesn't charge people to post classifieds?

                                  If the papers had to do a do-over, its arguable that they shouldn't have embraced the internet where they allowed their content to be published for free. And, instead of trying to match the instantaneous but shallow coverage of the internet, the papers should have gone for deeper coverage even if it meant that the article would get posted later.

                                  1. re: hobbess

                                    I was specifically referring to the auto classifieds. Carsoup.com could have been done by the newspaper industry. When I said 'they didn't adapt' I was referring not specifically to the classifieds but to giving away their product in general. I should have used more paragraphs and made my points clearer.

                                    By the way, I still read an actual printed on paper newspaper every day, sometimes two of them. One of the local dailies is starting to allow only 20 free news articles per month after that a digital subscription is needed. I think it will backfire on them because I think it will reduce their hits and the amount they can charge for their web ads and I don't think it will increase their revenue substantially because I don't think the digital reader will pay for the content. That horse has left the barn.

                                    1. re: John E.

                                      Our local paper, both in print and online has taken a nosedive. Neither outlet for their food reporting is paying seasoned writers well. The number of errors in a given story is only matched by the lack of time or research spent writing a compelling review. With so many outlets for quick news and news of the day avail to us the grandfathers of publishing have quit trying. Subscriptions, whether online or on the front porch are dwindling because the quality of reporting has changed. Lots of reasons for the general decline but I truly believe that is why Joe public has taken it upon themselves to become the new food storytellers (vlogs, blogs, webTV). Can you rely on what you read? Do you seek out a writer's work? The decline & demise of traditional pro food writers continues in part because there is a noticeable shift in what pays dividends. Self-publishing has never been stronger.

                                      1. re: HillJ

                                        As I indicated on an earlier post, we are lucky in the Twin Cities so far our newspapers have continued with their food reporting using the same reporters critics they have had for over a decade. I am not hopeful for the long-term survivability of newspapers however. What is curious is magazines. There are many magazines that are thriving. Food magazines apparently are doing very well generally. News magazines, like their newspaper counterparts, are doing poorly. Have you seen a Time or Newsweek lately? My father used to subscribe to two out of the three, US News, Time and Newsweek, alternating Time and Newsweek with which one gave him the better deal since he considered them interchangable.

                                        Whenever I read a restaurant review on the web I take it with a graiin of salt because I do not know anything about the writer. I still rely on the local newspapers for restaurant news.

                                        1. re: John E.

                                          Then you are fortunate, John E.

                                          I wouldn't say national food magazines are thriving. Online food mags have hired or recruited food bloggers to fill their pages with content more and more. I do see a good deal of self-publishing going on in the new food mag world. I recently check thru a Barnes & Noble magazine section and saw who is actually publishing thin on content, thick on advertising national food magazines...times have changed.

                                          1. re: HillJ

                                            I did not say all magazines are thriving. My point is that I find it curious that there ARE magazines that are thriving.

                                            1. re: John E.

                                              Funny, I didn't say all magazines either.

                                2. I miss Gourmet. But the New Yorker still has great food writing.

                                  1. Well, it looks like we've hit rock bottom here now. This latest one cracks me up. It's in the online version now but will likely be in print very soon.

                                    Looks like she copied and pasted an article via twitter from a Ohio housewife and even managed to get in a link advertisement to an online culinary school.

                                    I think the worst part is that it is such a generic article and out of the 5 San Francisco restaurants she listed, 2 of them are not even located in San Francisco (they're in Napa).

                                    Did my best to not name any names, but this is getting to be entertaining....


                                    1. It's not just publications and blogs, but I think part of the problem stems from the rise of websites like Yelp and Citysearch, which rely on adjudication by volume. These sites have become inordinately popular, and unfortunately, will remain so in the forseeable future. They index a wider array of restaurants than any newspaper columnist ever can, and are simply easier to access. A professional food critic churns out at most one review a week or so. And so we see the trend in casual, thoughtless reviewing, often from people who don't really care about their credibility or fairness as reviewers. It is exceedingly easy to slam a restaurant from the comfort of your couch knowing that there will be absolutely no ramifications for you afterwards. So what if John D. on Yelp hated a particular restaurant after one particularly bad visit? He doesn't go back again and to give it a second chance; the benefit of doubt. Professionals would. They're required to. Readers of Yelp rely on the collective verdict, not just John D.'s. This is one of the biggest differences between the casual internet reviewer and the professional food critic, outside of the requisite writing talent. I think the democratization of food culture in general is a good thing, but one of the sad side effects of this movement is this uptick in faceless reviewing. I mean, look at the proliferation of these sites: Yelp, Citysearch, Urbanspoon, Foodist Colony... even sites which ostensibly perform a different purpose, like Opentable (reservations) and Menupages (online menus) have little sections for user reviews. One to two lines of bad grammar and unreliable bile. Bah, such is the world we live in, I guess. Sad but true.


                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: restaurantbrat

                                        and in all fairness and respect to your post the omission of CH wasn't necessary. What do you believe is happening throughout the pages/Boards in this wonderfully generous community of wordsmiths?

                                        While the same could be said of movie review sites, music review sites, student research sites, Wikipedia...on and on.

                                        We all need to be better sleuths in this day and age but community speak isn't going anywhere.

                                        1. re: HillJ

                                          No, you are absolutely right. The omission of CH wasn't intentional. I'm still fairly new to these boards, so CH didn't immediately pop into my mind, but you make a very valid point. Having said that, CH at least is a forum, where two-way discussion takes place (as evidenced by your post in reply to mine). Most of these other sites that I highlighted simply present opinions without a real platform for dissent save for a "like" button.


                                          1. re: restaurantbrat

                                            Perhaps not as obviously but many "comment boxes" become chat areas btwn posters online and off. The only additional point I can offer in reference to your thoughtful point of view was that community speak, the whole vision for social networking as a tool, is still getting started in the business community and it is not just participating individuals making this happen but the companies themselves who see the vast potential of like-minded conversation and buzz. I have no personal interest in "like" buttons but plenty of interesting, thought provoking experiences are shared w/ and w/out the like button don't you think?

                                      2. I hate to depress you people even further, especially those of you who value fine prose as much as a delicate bechamel (did I spell that right?), but do this horrible horrible experiment next time you read a particularly uninspiring "review": highlight and copy a good chunk of it. Paste it into your favorite search engine. Sadly, you'll find plagiarism has a whole mise-en-abyme cannibalization food WEB (not chain) going on, such that the once-promising idea that food snobby writers might be market-forced to become actual prose stylists has been destroyed by the idea that writing is done by highlighting and copying and slightly altering these black shapes on white. I never thought (local) paper food hacks deserved even leftover sopapillas based on their antiliterate approach to entitled eating and then snarking, and I embraced the saucy injection of actual talent to the (blogo)sphere, but now pop is eating itself once again and the lamest texts with the most clicks will get the sweet CAMPBELL'S hi-sodium deal while all other writing nearby feels its fluids being absorbed to utter dessication.

                                        Write THAT, bitches!

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: gregsamsa

                                          a phrase like "mise-en-abyme" is employed and you're worried about the spelling of bechamel?

                                          yeah we're all writers now. i feel like a character in some tranked out goth-metal-pop song. "we're gonna take you high-er"

                                          I get the points made and I want to go back and read some of the links. I have known pro and semi-pro writers and they did feel passion for food (to the point of bossy notes in the fridge at home)

                                          but there does seem to be a need, a greater need, to cross reference reviews, replies and forae to get a half-decent idea.

                                          or just go and judge for oneself. that's what I usually do if it's not a splurge. plant/PR/mktg, the minute a place advertises it's placed its own obituary.

                                        2. I think you are very correct. A decade ago, I was writing for food-and-wine magazines professionally as a freelancer, sometimes making upwards of $1k an article. I had gone to cooking school, got an advanced WSET certificate and debated the sommelier program, and had been published elsewhere.

                                          When bloggers started their rise, I had many of my publications ask if I would be willing to write for significantly less. Why should a publication pay $1k for a professional who knew what she was talking about when there was a wanna-be writer (blogger) who was willing to write for free? Look how it killed Gourmet magazine.

                                          Yes, I believe the saturation of blogging has killed professional food writing and lowered the quality of what is being written. And, yes, I am bitter. I was making a decent income as a professional F&W writer a decade ago. Can't make that kind of money these days because the publications are willing to pay less for that which is so mediocre.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: CarrieWas218

                                            Even before the interent and bloggers, weren't there always eager, new writers willing to write cheaply for food publications to get their foot in the door so they'd have something for their portfolio or CV? Before the internet, why didn't those earlier writers drive down the price writers got from food publications?

                                            1. re: hobbess

                                              Because they couldn't get as noticed or get the following that bloggers could. It was much harder to get noticed when you couldn't write and present a proper pitch. A lot of bloggers did well because they had good photographs - even if they had bad copy... There were a handful of food bloggers who got famous for their excellent photographs, but if you actually read what they wrote, it was often atrocious.

                                          2. The problem is not with bloggers and amateurs. The problem is that there are few people qualified to be reviewing food. You need 1) an extensive knowledge of food, 2) developed palate and then 3) the ability to write eloquently. You're lucky if a food reviewer is only missing 2 of 3.

                                            Don't feel sorry for the "professionals". More often than not, the food reviewer has little to no knowledge of food and is learning as he goes. He has obtained his position due to connections and not through expertise. This is the state of professional food review.

                                            6 Replies
                                            1. re: Pookipichu

                                              Nor do most writers have the final say on edit. Food bloggers have the luxury of self-publishing, self-promotion and no one to answer to on content (unless they take their food blog it to a revenue-stream level). It's a completing diff genre....popular right now, yes.

                                              Frankly, I don't understand why any writer would even spend time dissecting the industry competiton vs. bloggers. Good, great, exceptional tends to stand out and not all writers are followed by words alone.

                                              Musicians certaintly understand this and "sound" today comes from every walk of life too.

                                              Focus on own your talents is the best advance I ever rec'd.

                                              1. re: HillJ

                                                Although all too often, focusing on one's talents can be incompatible with paying the rent. For those in the profession, it is not so much that opportunities don't exist, it is that writers that earned $4 a word now make $1 a word, staffers who filed twice a month now file three times a day, and writers who once made $1 a word may not be paid at all. It's kind of brutal out there at the moment - which is ironic, because the demand for great food writing has never been higher.

                                                1. re: condiment

                                                  $4 per word? Sounds great! Who used to pay like that, and when did they pay like that?

                                                  Sounds like I freelanced in the wrong industry.

                                                  1. re: condiment

                                                    Actually my comment about focusing on talent was more about NOT focusing on the competition of writers out there and focusing more on ones own talent. Anyone blaming the talents (subjective at best) of others for why their not getting work or that the public doesn't know good writing or that writing as a profession is in the dumper so why bother is (imho) focusing on the wrong thing....whether you earn $ or $$$ a word.

                                                    1. re: HillJ

                                                      Professional freelancing is, at base, small manufacturing. And if you manufacture a good, no matter how exquisite, without taking into consideration either consumers or competitors, you are likely to get trampled in the marketplace.

                                                      If you have a remunerative day job and are writing for future generations who may appreciate your genius, you can probably ignore the market. If you plan to make a living at this, best to pay attention.

                                                      1. re: condiment

                                                        I can respect your p.o.v., condiment while holding close my own. I see performer, performance, thru words. I say consider the competition but learn at some point to tune it out and hear your own talents. Concentrate on your own gifts. Wordsmiths, they catch attention on merit.