Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why newspaper food writing is bad

Bruce Schoenfeld recently tweeted "Why is local food writing so much worse than local sports writing?" I promised him an answer, so here it is.

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:

1) Gender

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


JodieMo said...

I've been a food blogger for 3 years and I am just beginning my foray into writing for my very small,local paper. I imagine "legendary food writer" will never follow my by-line, but there is certainly a conscious effort to make the column enjoyable to read. I agree with all of your points here and would probably add that food writing isn't even on the radar of most local papers. I know when I sent that first email asking for the position, a food column had never even crossed their minds.

Kent Benson said...

Blake, your point 3 brings up a broader point about journalism in general. I didn’t attend journalism school, so I may reveal my ignorance here. As a reader, if I had to choose between an expert who is not a trained, experienced writer and a trained, experienced writer who knows little about the subject at hand, I’d choose the non-writer, expert every time.

It comes down to trust. I trust the expert to give me reliable information, even if poorly communicated. I don’t trust the trained journalist who doesn’t know the subject well. If I don’t trust the author, why read it?

This is the primary reason I don’t read newspapers. Almost every time I’ve read a story about which I was intimately acquainted, the writer got it wrong – not just minor details, either. It was glaringly obvious that there was a considerable lack of understanding and knowledge. They were writers attempting to tackle topics they were ill-equipped to cover.

Of course, a good writer who is an expert at his subject is the ideal. Sadly, many newspaper writers are neither. Most newspaper articles I’ve read leave me totally frustrated. It seems the top 2 or 3 questions I consider to be the most obvious are rarely addressed.

King Krak, Oenomancer said...

Food Section writers (not at the Big Three) seem to
1) Have meager knowledge about food or the politics of food,
2) Be uninterested in expanding their food knowledge and sharing it with their readers. (Well, beyond learning more recipes)
3) proactively dumb-down their content.

To put it another way, these food sections are just not an intelligent part of the newspaper. It's extremely rare that one of the best writers for a newspaper writes for the food section. It's a section that's just not valued, despite the fact that people eat five or more times a day (it used to be three - no one believes this is true now), and with food politics (obesity, gmos, ag pollution, cafos, soda taxes, etc.) now being such an important topic.

No one at the top cares at most of these newspapers and they ain't gonna start caring.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: It seems like a fair point, but I've spent some of my career editing expert non-writers in addition to non-expert writers.

Non-expert writers are easier to read. I hear you about the quality of information, but you can't compare the worst of newspaper writing to the best of experts' writing.

Regarding your trust issue: Something I often have to do with non-writers is convince them to tell the unvarnished truth. So if you are getting good info from a non-writer, you most likely have to thank their professional editor.

Anonymous said...

One big piece of evidence of how pervasive generalists are in newspapers is the sciences. I have yet to see a non-specialist news outlet report a science story competently.

Bob Batz Jr. said...

Mr. Gray:
I'm a male food editor who still has a few great staff colleagues and several excellent freelancers and quite a good section, if I do say so myself, here at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Newspapers in their current state can be an easy target, but having just come back from the annual Association of Food Journalists gathering in Charleston, S.C., I can tell you that there still are a lot of newspaper food writers and editors who are passionate about doing great work, and not just at the biggest papers. Some of my favorite sections include The Washington Post's, edited by Joe Yonan, and The Milwaukee Journal's, edited by Nancy Stohs. And I've read great stuff from Minneapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Vancouver. There's also fine work being done locally by alt weeklies such as Atlanta's Creative Loafing. You can check out some notable stuff among the winners of AFJ's 2011 competition at afjonline.com, where soon you'll be able to read more of the best of food journalism (newsspapers and otherwise) more regularly. Don't write us off just yet.
Bob Batz Jr.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
p.s. You should consider joining AFJ and joining us for next year's conference in Washington. It's a great group of people.

Elyse said...

Not at a newspaper, but check out Kojo Naamdi (sp?) of WAMU -the NPR affiliate in DC. He won an award for his food reporting, if I remember, because he covers the stories and policy behind food - not recipes.

W. Blake Gray said...

Anon: But unfortunately, the average reader could not understand a scientific journal article.

I think you overstate your case. There's NEVER been a competent science article in the mainstream press? NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, never?

Bob Batz Jr. said...

Mr. Gray:
I'm a male food editor who still has a few great staff colleagues, several great freelancers, and a pretty good food section, if I do say so myself, here at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Newspapers in their current state are an easy target, but having just returned from the Association of Food Journalists conference in Charleston, S.C., I can tell you that there still are a lot of newspaper food journalists who are very passionate about doing great work, and not just at the biggest papers. My favorite sections include The Washington Post's, edited by Joe Yonan, and The Milwaukee Journal's, edited by Nancy Stohs. I've read excellent work in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Vancouver ... and there's great stuff being done by alt weeklies such as Atlanta's Creative Loafing. Check out the winners of this year's AFJ competition at afjonline.com, where soon people will more regularly be able to read the best of food journalism, newspaper and otherwise. Don't write us off yet.
Bob Batz Jr.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
p.s. Consider joining AFJ and joining us at next year's conference in Washington. It's a great group.

Anonymous said...

I second my editor, Mr. Batz. We've had an award-winning food section for years under the tenure of two different editors who are themselves fabulous writers and who encourage not merely recipe-of-the-week, but real storytelling. We need to be good cooks because we test our recipes before publication, but I would submit that most of our staff members would consider themselves writers first. Check us out at post-gazette.com.

W. Blake Gray said...

Bob: I confess I don't read the Post-Gazette, but have heard good things about the food section.

That still leaves me one finger on one hand ... OK, seriously, let's say you can name 10 papers that are doing good food sections. Or, and I'm skeptical that you can, 15. How many papers are there in the country?

I was in Florida last month and picked up several different papers' food sections. Uniformly bad. You want an example of a paper that cares about journalism but not about its food section? St. Petersburg Times, run by the Poynter Institute. But I'm only picking on it because I read it recently. Bad food sections are the norm; good ones are the exception.

Karin said...

Do you think that food writers need to be good cooks to write well on the subject?

W. Blake Gray said...

Karin: No, I do not. Unfortunately many food editors do. But this is not a standard applied to writers on other topics. You don't need to be a musician to write about music, or a filmmaker to write about movies.