When a PR query from The Daily Meal appeared in my inbox, I jumped at the opportunity to interview the website’s accomplished editor about today’s food writing scene.
I was not disappointed. Below, you’ll see that Andrews is honest about how hard it is to be a freelance food writer, and why he feels fine about not paying for content.
I’ve been a fan of Colman Andrews since interviewing him for the first edition of Will Write for Food in 2004. Saveur magazine, which he cofounded in 1994, remains my favorite national food magazine. Andrews was its editor-in-chief from 2001 to 2006.
Now Editorial Director of The Daily Meal, Andrews has had a long career as an editor, author and writer. He’s an eight-time James Beard Award winner, most recently winning Cookbook of the Year in 2010. Here’s what he says about today’s food writing scene:
Q. You’ve done a lot of restaurant reviewing in the last few years. Is there enough work for freelance restaurant reviewers today?
A. It’s become crowd sourced. The power of Yelp reviews. There was just a study in the American Economic Journal about how a difference of half a star in a Yelp rating can make or break for a restaurant.
The issue there is whether there’s a place for a professional restaurant critic anymore. Would people rather trust one person who has experience and take their word or see what all their friends think? I have a feeling that the autocractic critic is less influencial now.
Q. Can writers still make a living as a freelance restaurant critic?
A. Maybe if you get into travel related stories. But it’s got to be really difficult, no matter what.
Q. You still do some freelance writing, despite your full-time job at The Daily Meal.
A. People ask me, and if I have the time and the interest, I do it. I’ve done two book reviews for the Wall Street Journal, I do an occasional article for Departures, and a piece or two a year for Australian magazine, Gourmet Traveller.
I might as well make a little pocket change and write the kinds of things I wouldn’t necessary write for the site. The stories are longer and more detailed. Here it has to be pretty quick and in and out.
Q. What’s it like to be a freelance food writer in 2012? Would you recommend it as a career?
A. I never would recommend it as a career. It’s always been difficult and demanding and a highly unpredictable way to make a career.
It’s got to be even tougher now than when it was when I did it. Most of the markets are online and most don’t pay or pay token amounts, ourselves included.
The whole nature of the way things work has changed. There’s a much larger group of people expressing their opinions. Before, when someone asked me for advice on how to be a food writer, I recommended people find someone who will publish you, build some clips, learn some specialties, approach a magazine ’96 a very lengthy process. Now all you need to do is open a WordPress account and later that same day you’re a published food writer online.
Now people want to build their own reputations or brand, so that when someone like the Daily Meal says we have 6.3 million uniques but we can’t pay you, but it’s payment enough for people wanting to build a career, or get advertising on their blog and a book deal.
So the model seems to be different. Not only is there much more competition but much fewer daily markets.
Q. So The Daily Meal doesn’t pay for stories?
A. We occasionally pay for pieces that involve heavy research but otherwise we don’t pay, and we have people lining up to work for us. Our stories get picked up by AOL and Yahoo or get retweeted and you can get picked up very quickly. People are almost more interested in that than money. It’s just a different game.
Q. What do you say to the freelancers still writing for money?
A. Well, God bless you. I’m happy if you can get the jobs. The other thing that has happened in print is that either the rates have gone down or they haven’t gone up since I was working for them 20 years ago. There was a time when established writers would have gotten $ 3 to $5 per word for articles. Now hardly anyone is paying more than $2 a word, and $1 word is standard.
It was not an easy way to make a living then and much harder now. If you have the energy and you’re a great promoter, you can probably still make it work.
Q. Do you feel bad about not paying people?
A. I can’t say that I do because a lot of people are more interested in the exposure than money. Most of the people writing are not exclusively freelance writers: they’re chefs, or employed in other fields, and they want to express their opinions. It’s a short step from writing a blog to when somebody says we can show you off to millions of people.
Q. Can these people write?
A. Some can and some can’t. One of the thing that surprised me is that whatever people might lack in fine tuning or fine points of grammar and punctuation, they made up for it in enthusiasm and real love for the story.
I’m reminded of a writer we published at Saveur. He’d turn in long rambling e-mails but the story itself had none of the energy and enthusiasm. So we learned to save the emails and insert bits of them into the story.
When you’re not writing for an editor and writing for yourself, sometimes the writing is better. Sometimes people freeze up when they’re “writing a story.” Frankly I was really surprised by the quality of a lot of blog writing.
Q. You said in an interview that your ability to write is kind of a mystery, and you don’t want to examine it too much because you’re afraid it could go away. Do you think people can be taught to write well?
A. I think people can be taught to write better, but I don’t think they can be taught to write. I can’t draw worth a damn. If I went to drawing classes I could do better than I do now, but I don’t seem to have that gene. But people who have never studied in their lives can do a good freehand sketch.
If people are in a position where they have to write, there are certainly ways to coach people better and more clearly, but to make them into a writer if they can’t do it, I don’t think so.
Q. How is it different to be the editorial director of the Daily Meal versus editor-in-chief of Saveur?
A. About as different as if I’d gone from being a tailor to an orchestra conductor. Some 10 to 15 percent is similar to what I did as a magazine editor. It’s a different medium — the way you approach stories, the speed, the level of cross checking and accuracy.
Q. How are the stories different from magazine articles?
A. They’re mostly very quick responses to news. The editors are the primary writers. Each editor here turns out four to six stories a day. Other stuff comes from freelancers or we link to things. We have about 90 bloggers, and the pick of their material. We put up 120 news stories a day, but many of them are two paragraphs.
But we have room for everything, so there’s nothing that couldn’t find a place here, such as 7,000 words on a new chile or a new imported fish or a cultural issue on native American cuisine. Obviously you can’t fill a website.