Home girl Novella Carpenter threw an open house Saturday and welcomed whoever wanted to come tour her urban farm, meet her goats, chickens, bees and rabbit; buy her book, Farm City; and exchange information about urban homesteading. I came home with a bag of ripe prune plums, made into jam, and goat poo and hay on one of my sneakers.
Recently I wrote a post about handling freebies that got a ton of attention, thanks to people who re-Twittered (re-Tweeted?) it. Some bloggers commented that they are not journalists, and therefore rules about handling freebies, reviews, and promotions do not apply.
I wasn’t so sure, and thought I’d do some research. Let’s look at three definitions of a journalist:
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, a journalist is
- a writer or editor for a news medium, or
- a writer who aims at a mass audience.
According to Dictionary.com, a journalist has several meanings:
- the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.
- the “press”
- a course of study preparing students for careers in reporting, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines
- writing that reflects superficial thought and research, a popular slant, and hurried composition, conceived of as exemplifying topical newspaper or popular magazine writing as distinguished from scholarly writing.
And according to Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why it Matters, “blogging could be journalism any time the person writing a blog chose to act like a journalist — recording and reacting to the events of the day, asking questions and seeking answers, checking facts and fixing errors.”
So according to each definition, food bloggers are journalists. You aim at a mass audience (your blog is public), you write in a popular, non-scholarly way, and you record and react to the events of the day (even if they occur in your kitchen), asking questions and seeking answers.
Semantics aside, most of what food bloggers write is the same format as published content. Publications have columnists who write humorous first-person essays or opinions about current events. They have cookbook reviews, recipes and product reviews. Sure, your posts contain links, the content is usually shorter, and photography makes step-by-step recipe writing clearer and visually appealing. But basically, it’s the same thing.
The bottom line is that you are not reinventing the wheel. You are producing recognizable, familiar material in a different medium. Therefore, rules of ethical behavior apply.
Time for an embarrassing confession: I stopped reading food memoirs. After leafing through dozens in the past few years I found they cover the same territory: nostalgic stories about growing up around food; cooking challenges; and/or escapist travels and idyllic stays in Italy and France. There’s a similarity to the authors as well. They’re mostly white, middle-class women.
Now, since I am a white, middle-class woman, I can’t say the themes are unattractive. I was just bored. Enter Novella Carpenter. I heard her read from her food memoir, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, at a Berkeley church. Now here’s a white woman who does the hard work of raising animals that I won’t do (including growing 350-pound pigs in an abandoned lot), in a part of Oakland that’s not gentrified enough for people like me. I thought she was a little insane, but I couldn’t get enough. She was hilarious, cranky, sweet, intellectual and humble in a hip, white trash kind of way. I don’t know any food writers who swear easily, mention chin hair, or dumpster dive to feed their pigs, for example.
But along with that foreignness, she fit in to where we middle-class white women are at. Right now it’s so cool to raise a few chickens, can your own produce from a vegetable garden, and wonder where your food comes from a la Michael Pollan. And when it came time to process one of her pigs, she ends up in a trendy Cal-Ital restaurant learning how to break down its carcass from a former Chez Panisse chef. Then she makes prosciutto and other cured meats, right back to the Eurocentric themes so dear to food writers and foodies.
Even when she writes about eating, it’s not the usual reverie. When her boyfriend tastes her home-raised braised saddle of rabbit, she writes: “‘This is better than chicken,’ he said, smacking his lips and slicing off another piece of juicy meat. Then, be still my heart, he gave me a sloppy kiss before stuffing more rabbit into his mouth.” How refreshingly politically incorrect.
After her reading, her professor, Michael Pollan beamed as he asked her questions. She was an older student at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Imagine getting support and advice from one of the most revered food writers of our day. I tried not to be too jealous. Mostly, I couldn’t wait to read the book.
I reserved my copy online at the Oakland Public Library. Only 45 people ahead of me. When my turn came, I read Farm City straight through, fascinated by the sacrifices she made to raise her own food in the hippest kind of way, quoting Wendell Berry and all.
I’m planning to take a tour of her farm during Oakland’s Eat Real festival weekend at the end of this month. She has foolishly agreed to give a tour to the public, and has no idea how many middle class white women like me plan to show up.
I finally saw Julie & Julia on Sunday with two friends, Suzan Bateson, Executive Director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank; and Faith Kramer of Blog Appetit. Faith suggested in her blog that the movie theater collect food for the food bank, and the theater obliged by giving free movie posters to anyone who donated.
The movie was was fast-paced, funny, sexy, and the food shots were gorgeous. Merryl Streep was totally believable as Child, and Faith said it was much more fun than reading Julie Powell’s blog. (I didn’t read it, and I don’t think it’s available online now.) I had such a good time that I found myself thinking, “What was all that about, where traditional food writers were jealous of Julie Powell? Can’t we all just get along?”
Connections to a few of the people involved increased my enjoyment. I met the movie’s food stylist Susan Spungen at an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference years ago, when she was the food editor of Martha Stewart Living. We had a hilarious conversation about people who had informational meetings with her to ask how to get her job. I enjoyed Amanda Hesser’s cameo, particularly because I interviewed her while writing Will Write for Food, and met her for breakfast at Balthazar in New York, where we inhaled a specialty, chocolate bread. I also interviewed Child’s book editor, Judith Jones.
My agent suggested in an email that EVERYONE (her caps) will want to be a food blogger now. Wow, I thought. Do they not understand how much work it is, that Powell was already a writer of sorts, and that they’re not going to get the same kind of attention and six-figure advance? Julie Powell started her blog six years ago, had a great hook, and the tie-in to Julia Child was essential to her success. Plus, a food blog was a rare thing then. I read somewhere there are some 45,000 food blogs now.
Will Julie & Julia send foodies dashing to WordPress? Can a newbie food blog garner the same success as Powell’s, or Clotilde Dusoulier (Chocolate and Zucchini) or Molly Wizenberg (Orangette)? Is the public still hungry for new blogs on cooking and food? Has fatigue set in for the blog-fueled memoir?
Two leaders in print food writing have acknowledged the power of online restaurant reviews. They’re not about to say they value the opinions, but it’s a start.
Sam Sifton, the new restaurant critic for the New York Times, says the net can add value where newspapers cannot. Answering questions about his new post on Diner’s Journal, he said, “The biggest change in restaurant criticism since my days at NYPress is — hands down — the Internet. I don’t know that I trust the opinion of that guy who loved the sandwiches at Xie Xie and wrote about it on his blog, or Yelp, or Eater, or Midtown Lunch. (Why prevaricate? I don’t trust his opinion.) But boy oh boy do I like the photographs he’s posted, the menu he’s scanned, the information he’s provided for all to share. For myself, I look forward to joining that discussion.”
(By the way, he failed to provide links to Yelp, Eater or Midtown Lunch.)
The announcement about the nation’s most powerful restaurant reviewer prompted some to ask if that title is still relevant, now that anyone can write a restaurant review online, whether a rabid citizen reviewer or a well-known blogger.
I’m biased enough to think the answer is yes, with a background as a print journalist. I can’t think of a single online reviewer with his influence, when it comes to the fancy restaurants. Can you?
Back in 2006, Gourmet Editor Ruth Reichl said that restaurant reviews in her magazine no longer make sense, because online reviews appear immediately. National magazines often work six months in advance, so scooping the net would be a “ridiculous” proposition. Now the magazine focuses on trend stories, adding depth and insights that online posts do not, and posts reviews only on its website.
She made these comments about print versus online food writing during a New York radio show about “Amateur Gastronomes,” otherwise known as food bloggers. Bloggers Josh Friedland of TheFoodSection.com (who just did what used to be unforgivable: posted a mugshot of Sifton August 10), Jennifer Leuzzi of snack.blogs.com, and Regina Schrambling of gastropoda.com were also on the show. It’s worth a listen.
The Federal Trade Commission has new guidelines that will require bloggers to disclose when they’re being compensated by an advertiser to discuss a product. If you read them, you’ll see that most of the language pertains to advertising, so for now, you’ll have to read between the lines. The guidelines don’t define a “payment,” for example, and don’t specify what incentives other than cash must be disclosed to readers. See this Cnet story for more.
This is old territory for me, a former magazine editor who made and enforced rules about reviewing. Ethics rules have existed for years but are hardly uniform. At my magazines, I thought I knew which reviewers received and returned which products, but I probably never had the whole picture. I hired a full-time editor whose job was to sift through press releases and write up products. He often hid from me the expensive gifts [Read more…] about 7 Guidelines for Food Bloggers on Freebies
Sometimes things happen for the best. Such was the case a few days ago, when a woman emailed me to say she had worked with two book coaches but was only 60 percent satisfied with her book proposal and wanted another coach. She had found me through a Google search.
I was skeptical. Why on earth should she need a third coach? Was this a bad sign? Plus, I don’t usually find clients this way. Intrigued, I asked to see the proposal.
I saw what was wrong immediately: 1. Part of any good book proposal is stating the business case. These two coaches had let her write a whole proposal without contemplating the book’s chances for commercial success. 2. Her idea was too broad and needed more focus to differentiate it. 3. She named only best-sellers as her competition, so why would anyone choose a book from an unknown? 4. She had not created a platform (her ability to identify and develop readers who would spend the money for her book) to attract agents and editors.
Worst of all, she had spent so much time and money, only to get to this state. What bothered me most was the realization that, even though she had hired professional book coaches, she would still be part of the 97 percent rejection rate. Momentarily, I considered the possibility that coaches don’t matter. Dismissed that. Then I felt more charitable towards the coaches. Was it partly because she wouldn’t hear their message?
I said I would only work with her if she would be willing to focus her book more sharply and do serious back-up work to create a platform. I said it that way because I just can’t take on a client whose book idea won’t succeed.
She replied that she would choose someone else. It was a relief. She was not ready to do the work required to be part of the 3 percent who succeed.