Newspaper food sections
Posted 14 October 2003 - 09:00 AM
In answering a question from eGullet's Caroline you mentioned that a newspaper food section should fit into its surrounding community, seamlessly was the word I believe.
Do you think the LA Times food section achieves this? Is there an optimum intended ratio of local-to-international stories? How popular, or necessary, is the single-subject-short-lead-several-recipes story model? (Aside from columns exploring a single subject -- different!)
Posted 14 October 2003 - 09:22 AM
Our section has changed dramatically over the last couple of years. Part of that is because of a difference in editor's philosophy, part of it is because of a difference in the larger philosophy of the newspaper and part of it is because of structural changes. In fact, of the three, the difference in the individual editor's philosophy is probably the least important.
When I was editing the section, I think I had a little more interest in practical cooking stories than Michalene Busico, the current editor, does. But that's hard to judge because of the changes brought by the other differences. In the first place, we now include restaurant reviews and restaurant news coverage in the food section, something I had fought for for years (the theory of the previous administration had been that restaurants were entertainment, not food, so they went to the Calendar section and then to the Sunday magazine, which needed a draw). You can't add coverage to a section without subtracting from somewhere else (space is dictated by business reasons ... it's not the web). The other big difference in the section is our use of staff writers vs. freelance. When I was editing the section, I had two staff writers. I had to rely on freelance and that tends to dictate a certain kind of story. Today, I think we have six or seven staff writers (at the same time the new Food section was launched, a general features section ws closed and some of those reporers turned to food). In my experience, most freelance writers are pretty weak reporters but are good at writing "personal experience" stories. Most staff writers (another broad overgeneralization) are the opposite, more comfortable going out and interviewing people, collecting and synthesizing information. One isn't better than the other--personal stories do a better job of taking you inside a situation, but are inherently biased in that you get all the cultural assumptions that go with that situation. They're also limited in that you only get the experiences you can find writers to describe.
All of that is way more wordy than it ought to be. Here's how newspaper marketing research works in editorial: After a section runs, if I get the same number of people hating it because it's practical and hating it because it's too high-end, then I'm on the right track.
Posted 14 October 2003 - 10:07 AM
(Restaurant reviews in Food rather than Calendar ... much much better.)
Posted 14 October 2003 - 10:56 AM
But I digress. Both readersare valid and we have to offer stories that appeal to both enough that they will put up with the other. Some editors try to do this by playing the ball right down the middle, averaging everything out. I think our philosophy at this paper, at least since Ruth Reichl took over the food section, is to try to offer a mix of stories that offers everyone at least one thing that they'll like to read. The downside of that is that everyone will probably find at least one story they can't imagine what in the world we were thinking about when we ran it.