Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Why newspaper food writing is bad
I'm one of the most qualified people in America to answer this question, as I've worked on the staff of major newspapers first in sports, then in food.
Note from my headline that my answer is simple. It's not that sportswriting is good: newspaper food writing is bad.
I can count on one hand the decent newspaper food sections in America, and I've written for two of them (San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times). The New York Times is good. After that? Anyone want to make a case for their local food section?
Here are the four main reasons local newspaper food writing is bad:
Most publishers are men. Until recently, food sections were the exclusive provinces of women. This has far-reaching impact on the way food sections are run and what resources they have. Most publishers and executive editors don't relate to the food section in the same way they do to business, sports and features, and gender is a major reason.
Note that the three good food sections I've listed all have male executive editors. Is Michael Bauer better at running the Chronicle food section because he's a man? No -- but he is very good at convincing higher-ups to give him resources. A woman could do that job, but male higher-ups simply relate differently to male department heads.
I had better be clear that men are not, as a group, better writers, editors or managers than women. But we are different, we communicate in different ways, and ignoring those differences in the name of political correctness doesn't make them go away.
2) Focus on recipes rather than stories
Bruce is looking for something different from a food section than most food editors believe readers are. For most food sections, recipes are the foundation, and the section works around them. This leads to the next point.
3) Reliance on specialists rather than writers
Writers write better than non-writers, this sentence notwithstanding. Food is the only section in the paper where staff aren't mostly generalists. You don't find business people in the business section. Lawyers rarely cover legal news. But most newspaper food writers -- particularly freelancers -- are cooks first, writers second, in part because of the importance of recipes.
This should change as editors realize the nation is obsessed with food and everyone is blogging about restaurants, whether or not they have culinary degrees. But change will come slowly because of the next point.
4) Food editors are chosen and judged by different standards
Most publishers and executive editors don't understand food sections and don't want to delve into them. Many food editors are chosen specifically to create a fiefdom that supervisors can ignore.
They might get lucky, but most fiefdoms in any business stagnate quickly through a lack of original ideas. This is apparent in the newspaper industry because everyone can see the weekly product. But most food editors aren't chosen or judged on originality or even the quality of the section. They're expected to be one less headache, so comfortable mediocrity is a plus.
Other important reasons why newspaper food writing is bad, notably budgetary concerns and short staffs, apply to the rest of the paper as well. Food sections rely more on freelancers than other sections, but that's not inherently a weakness. The reason it often becomes a weakness is because of who the editor chooses to use, and that gets back to point 3.
Bruce specifically compared food writing to sportswriting, so let's look where it differs on the four points.
1) Almost all sports editors are men, and good ones know how to talk football and golf in impressive ways with the publisher and executive editor. All the higher-ups read and pay attention to the sports section; they don't consider it a section that's not for them.
2) There's no equivalent to recipe creation in the sports section. It's all writing, with the exception of boxscores, and those are automated.
3) There are few one-topic specialists in the sports section: mostly outdoors and fitness columnists, and they're usually the worst writers. Everybody else starts out as a generalist. Somebody might cover football for 20 years and become famous for it, but most likely she also covered baseball, basketball, Nascar, etc., early in her career.
I was once assigned to write a golf column for a summer while the regular guy was on leave. I had never played golf and knew nothing about it. That's an extreme example; my golf columns may have been original, but I don't think they were very good. But when I was assigned to cover football or basketball, nobody asked how good I was at playing these sports; unlike cooking ability for food writers, it just doesn't matter.
4) Sports editors are part of the newsroom and the promotion chain in a way that food editors never are. Sometimes news editors become sports editors or vice versa, but food editors generally were hired as food writers and never move up. The New York Times' Sam Sifton going from restaurant critic to national news editor would not be possible at almost* any other paper in America.
* (Michael Bauer becoming Chronicle news editor is not inconceivable, since he runs a significant part of the features section now.)
There's a fifth reason local sportswriting is superior to food writing: It's easier.
Any bright person watching a football game can see what the turning point is. Interview the guy who made the play -- or just take the quotes the PR guy feeds you -- and voila, decent sports story. You don't have to be one of the best of your profession to do this. An adequate writer can have a long, successful career.
Good food writing requires more skill and effort. You can't just sit down to an amazing plate of shrimp and grits and have a story. Very good critics like Jonathan Kauffman can make a meal sound thrilling, but the average writer needs to do more work -- interview the chef, maybe learn about where the shrimp are from, find some angle.
Keep in mind points 2 and 3 -- many writers talented enough to do this will never get the job unless they can demonstrate recipe-creation skills.
If America had started caring about food in the early '90s, before the Internet destroyed newspapers' business model, there would have been a good chance for all this to change. It's a shame: despite all the great food blogs available, I wish I could read better food writing in our nation's newspapers. But I'm sure I never will.