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Educating your audience


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#1 Bux

Bux
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Posted 28 May 2002 - 07:52 AM

In another part of this site I just posted this comment about restaurants and reporting.

Culinary journalism and travel can create a more sophisticated audience that in turn demands better food and service with a more critical eye. This of course, makes books and articles that pander to cynicism with gossip so infuriating.

Care to comment? I know a major newspaper in a major metropolitan area has a wide audience to reach and entice to its pages. I believe the questions on the minds of the least sophisticated segment can be addressed without pandering, but how much focus can you afford to raise the bar at the top? On the same subject, at least in my mind, is how much fact checking do you do on articles? Is it assumed that younger journalists have done their homework?
Robert Buxbaum
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#2 Jeanne McManus

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Posted 03 June 2002 - 02:54 PM

This is one of the most difficult challenges: do you teach readers to make buche de Noel or do you give them a recipe for a sugar cookie dough with five variations? That’s the sort of real-life choice, I think, that your question raises. And I guess I would say that I try to do both, and I try to surprise readers as to what we’ll be doing every week.

But it always amazes exactly what stories are reader turnoffs and what are not. Last summer, we ran a piece about variations on summer rolls: take some crab meat and mango, moisten a rice paper, roll up the seafood and crab with some fresh herbs, make a dipping sauce and devour. To me, nothing is easier than making a summer roll or a spring roll. You don’t have to make the dough!

But I got some cranky cranky responses from readers who though that to do this would require an enormous investment of time and energy.
On the other hand, one of those same readers raved about a piece in which we taught readers how to make lasagna sheets that had flecks of herbs in them. You had to make the dough, roll it out; you needed the equipment to roll it. You had to mince herbs, press them into the lasagna sheets, and then roll some more. And then…. You had to make a lasagna. I tested the recipes and thought they looked great, had a lot of bang for the buck. But they took a lot of time and I wondered if anyone would ever make them, including me.

This relates in another way to your question about culinary travel. Was the summer roll piece perceived as more difficult because summer rolls are not as ubiquitous in “American” life as lasagna is?  We don’t have a huge budget in Food, and certainly not one that can accommodate a lot of travel. So I like to make the best of the “travel” aspects that are available right in our own back yard, and explore the markets, restaurants and people in our region.

I was most proud when Walter Nicholls’ “Gourmet Trail of Rappahannock” was nominated for a James Beard Award.  It lost, in the end, to a piece from the LA Times about a culinary tour of Sicily. We can’t afford to send Walter to Sicily: but we took a region, an hour’s drive from D.C. (well, an hour if my husband is driving) and tried to give it the look and aspect of travel in a foreign country, the sense of discovery and exploration.

Re fact checking: Yes, yes, and yes, until the piece is etched in stone. I like to sleep at night. I’ve found, over the years, that I sleep a lot better if I’m not worried about some niggling detail that I might have not attended to. So I attend to it. Do we make mistakes? Yes, but we go down trying.

The staff writers are rock solid, but still we check each other’s work and ask each other tough questions. And I don’t assume that younger journalists have done their homework, I don’t assume that older journalists have done their homework. Assuming and presuming scare me and as long as I’m an editor you’ll never see the words “assuming” or “presuming”  or “presumably” in anything I edit. Nobody in journalism should be allowed to use precious white space to wonder aloud.

To me, the most important fact checking we can do in Food is with recipes. If someone goes to the trouble to buy the ingredients and try a recipe, we have failed them completely if they wind up scraping $30 or even $3 worth of ingredients down the drain.  I think it’s key to gaining a reader’s trust: they have to know we won’t let them down. I understand that not every Food section does test recipes. I can’t imagine:  I would never sleep. I’d have to find an all-night bakery or something just to make it through the night. There isn’t one recipe, with the exception of a Julia Child recipe, that we haven’t modified in some way for our readers, no matter how slight.