Food writing endures digital evolution through need, indulgence

3 years ago by in 2013

By Laura D’Alessandro

Food is universal. M.F.K. Fisher, a great American food writer, once described food writing as intimately tied to human life because food is a basic human need. It therefore touches all aspects of life. It is both an essential and an indulgence. It can gather people together and divide nations.

When Debbie Moose first started as a journalist in the early 1980s, she had no plans to write about food. Moose is the president of the Association of Food Journalists. She was pulled off the news desk in her second newspaper job and asked to be the food editor where she learned just what Fisher had proclaimed.

Once coveted salaries for food writers are down in the dumps (above) while big brands dominate the food magazine scene (below). Circulation numbers are in millions.

“I quickly discovered that you can write about anything when  writing about food — love, history, science, humor, social issues, useful information. And that everyone likes to talk about food,” Moose says. “I was hooked.”

Thus, the stories behind food endure because food itself is such a powerful window into human life.

But, in 2013, the tragic story of the news media endures, as well,. According to a recent Pew report, newsrooms throughout the world are stripping down beyond the bare essentials, newspaper staffs are at record lows and magazines are continuing to lose ad revenue.

While the average editor on today’s news desk might consider a piece of food writing unworthy of a small staff’s limited time, many journalists continue to produce it.

Mark Bittman, the former Minimalist columnist for the New York Times, recently released a book and started a new column at the paper. Another New York Times food writer, Michael Moss, who has won the Pulitzer Prize, published a best-seller about the food industry in early 2013. Harpers Magazine recently commissioned immersion journalist Ted Conover to spend time in a meat processing factory and write an expose.

But that’s the big league. If journalism students have a hard time finding jobs as general assignment reporters after graduation,   writers looking to fill a niche have it even worse. Niche publications were in decline in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media report. And chances are, if there’s a niche to fill, someone is already filling it for free — look at food blogs.

Blogging has created a wealth of free content on the web, food-related and otherwise. For some food writers, self-publishing about food online has been a huge success. In 2005, Julie Powell published a book about cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Powell’s book turned into a blockbuster.

But Powell may have been one of the lucky few able to strike when the iron was hot, says Amanda Hesser, a former New York times food writer who now owns the recipe website Food 52. The web has since been flooded by food writers. The path to success as a food writer is forced to evolve again, Hesser wrote in a 2012 piece giving advice to food writers.

Blogging is only one piece of several avenues that today’s aspiring food writers need to pursue, she said.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer,” she wrote. “And I think it’s only going to get worse.”

Hesser had to change her advice to food writers in 2012, compared to the emails she answered five years ago, to reflect the industry’s challenges. But Hesser’s own passion for food writing clearly remains strong. Her website is preparing to launch a product store.

Q&A with Debbie Moose, president of the Association of Food Journalists

Dalessandro_FoodWritingDebbie Moose recently took the time to answer some questions about how the food writing sector of the news media has evolved since she started in 1979 and share her perspective on where it’s going.

When did you know you wanted to be a food writer?

Food writing was not even something I thought about in journalism school (I graduated from UNC in 1979). I was in my second newspaper job, at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., as a feature writer when the food editor left. The features editor approached me because she knew I could meet deadlines and had editing experience. I knew little about food. She told me to approach food the same way I’d approach any beat, find out what people wanted to know about it, what the trends were, important issues, important figures, and so forth. She also said I could try it for six months and if I didn’t like it, I could go back to feature writing. I quickly discovered that you can write about anything when writing about food – love, history, science, humor, social issues, useful information. And that everyone likes to talk about food. I was hooked.

Has it turned out the way you thought it would? How has the evolution of the industry affected your career?

I don’t think anyone who started their career in the late ’70s and early ’80s, as I did, could have foreseen how much the industry would change. (If so, I want them to pick lottery numbers for me.) I went into journalism in the first place because I love to write. Now, my work as a freelancer is at least as much non-writing pursuits as writing ones, but all relating to food. And the explosion of interest in food on social media and the Internet has been challenging. I look at my work more as a conversation now, one in which I hope to provide people (in all media) with reliable, unbiased information as a trained food journalist, as opposed to what they might hear from a blogger who may have a hidden agenda or be working for a food corporation. One thing we do in the Association of Food Journalists is work to promote professionalism in food journalism (in all media) and unbiased restaurant reviewing. AFJ believes this is the best way to serve the public in this ever-changing food world, to provide information that the public can rely on.

How has the food writing sector changed since when you first got into it?

See above. Plus, as newspapers have closed and consolidated sections, online writing is more important. It has also increased demands on food journalists’ time. Those who still work for publications are now writing articles, blogging daily, doing videos for online and editing sections, often as a one-person shop.

Was do you think was the pivotal moment for the sector as digitization forced it to change? Was it when Gourmet closed its doors – which is what many people say – or do you think it was something else?

I think there were signs before the closing of Gourmet. In AFJ, we were talking about how to bring in ethical food journalists from other platforms than newspapers and magazines before that time. The question now is: What is a food journalist? Is it someone who blogs about what they had for dinner or is it someone whose experience and training informs their work with perspective and unbiased reporting which provides the public with the best information possible? I do think that print media in general was slow to realize the digital revolution.

Have you noticed any specific instances where digitization has had a real effect on the sector as a whole or perhaps even on your writing personally?

I think that there are fewer opportunities for food journalists to write in-depth pieces on issues concerning food and investigative food journalism. Primarily because of time demands I mentioned above. And because journalists have to feed the blog (or the Twitter feed or the Facebook page), there can be more susceptibility of companies and restaurants who want to promote their businesses. I can’t name anything specific, though, unless maybe the proliferation of restaurants offering blogger lunches, which are not news events but a way to promote their businesses.

What is your take on how the sector is evolving now paired with the continued evolution of long-form journalism online? What do you think is next?

Oh my gosh. My crystal ball fell off the desk and broke years ago. My feeling is that people will eventually be overwhelmed by the constant flow of information and look for more objective sources of food journalism, but that’s just a feeling.

What is the one most important piece of advice you give to aspiring food writers?

Do what you love and don’t let yourself get distracted by the medium in which you do it. Food is a wonderful topic through which you can write about anything at all, so do it!

I am a multimedia journalist and editor. I edit multimedia for a trade association and think about food the rest of the time.