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Newspaper Food Sections and the Future


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#1 russ parsons

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 10:09 AM

Hello Ms. Reichl,

It has been more than 10 years since you edited a newspaper food section and what a busy decade it has been--for you, that is, maybe not for food sections in general. After your experience editing a national, food-focused magazine, I was wondering if you had any ideas about how newspaper food sections should move forward? Are we best serving our readers as general interest umbrellas, trying to please as many as possible--from time-pressed home cooks to high-rolling gourmets? Or would we be better served focusing on the relatively small percentage of our readers who are really devoted to the subject? How would we best do either one? Are there stories, angles, aspects left uncovered? Is there too much reworking of well-trod ground (well, forget that last one)? And have your thoughts on this changed since your days at the LA Times?

best,
rp

#2 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 10:27 AM

Hello Ms. Reichl,

It has been more than 10 years since you edited a newspaper food section and what a busy decade it has been--for you, that is, maybe not for food sections in general. After your experience editing a national, food-focused magazine, I was wondering if you had any ideas about how newspaper food sections should move forward? Are we best serving our readers as general interest umbrellas, trying to please as many as possible--from time-pressed home cooks to high-rolling gourmets? Or would we be better served focusing on the relatively small percentage of our readers who are really devoted to the subject? How would we best do either one? Are there stories, angles, aspects left uncovered? Is there too much reworking of well-trod ground (well, forget that last one)? And have your thoughts on this changed since your days at the LA Times?

best,
rp

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Hi Russ,
As you know, from the time when we worked together, this is a subject I can talk about almost endlessly. My basic feelings haven't changed, except to say that these days newspaper food sections are more relevant and more needed than ever before. There is so much to talk about in food these days, so much help that people need in navigating through the modern food world, that I'm shocked at how narrow a focus most newspaper food sections still have. Most act as if they're still "women's sections," most are still underfunded, and most don't get out into their own communities very much.

I think you're wrong when you say that most of the readers aren't devoted to the subject. Everyone eats, everyone feeds their family (or wishes that they did). We need more people talking about technique, more people introducing us to ethnic cuisines, more people exploring our neighborhoods, and more people looking at the politics and science of food. WE need food sections writing about the business of food; why the business sections have taken this completely over is insane to me. WE need food sections talking about agriculture....

I have to go down to the kitchens now - it's a tasting time here at Gourmet - but I'd love to continue talking about this....

#3 Chris Amirault

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 10:34 AM

OK, here's a prompt. I used to review movies for a short while, and once I was on the appropriate lists, I got stacks of promotional material, from which I could write "reviews" without seeing the film, "interviews" with the stars, and other related feature pieces. I never did -- but boy was it interesting to see paragraphs lifted verbatim from that press material in the copy of well-known national critics!

When I read a lot of local newspaper food sections, I get a similar sense. How often do you think local food sections are primarily (or merely) collections of press material, with the odd wire service feature thrown in?
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#4 russ parsons

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 03:39 PM

hmmm, so what you're saying is, we need to write good stories. i was hoping for something easier.

#5 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 03:48 PM

You write good stories. As I've said before, I don't think anyone writes better about the act of cooking than you do. It's a gift.

But there are too many food sections which continue to operate on a lower level than the papers they're in. And too many, yes, that recycle canned material because they don't have the staff to fill the section with their own stories. And far too many, I think, who consider advertisers before readers.

#6 russ parsons

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 04:48 PM

well, my hat size just went up two notches. of course, i've had some pretty good editing from people who saw food and cooking as a broader and more challenging field than simply "dinner in 30 minutes" (not that there's anything wrong with that). i guess that's what i was hoping you would say--that the secret to attracting readers is trusting that they're as smart and as interested in all aspects of food as you are.

#7 fifi

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 06:46 PM

So . . . Is there anything that us poor readers can do?

Our Houston Chronicle is an up and down situation. They seem to get better then backslide as they have lately. I agree that I think it as still seen as "the women's section." As far as I can tell, Houston is a huge food scene, in the kitchens as well as the restaurants. We have some of the most fabulous groceries on the planet and just about every ethnic market you can imagine. The cooking equipment stores are doing a gangbuster business and you will see as many men buying as women. Our guys moved on from the BBQ pit and grill a long time ago. (Although they still do that, too.) The high point is when The Barnacle picks up one of russ's articles. And, I second the motion to get into the deeper economic and politcal aspects of food.
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#8 Dave the Cook

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Posted 28 November 2005 - 10:35 PM

[. . . . . }
I think you're wrong when you say that most of the readers aren't devoted to the subject. Everyone eats, everyone feeds their family (or wishes that they did).  We need more people talking about technique, more people introducing us to ethnic cuisines, more people exploring our neighborhoods, and more people looking at the politics and science of food.  WE need food sections writing about the business of food; why the business sections have taken this completely over is insane to me. WE need food sections talking about agriculture....
[. . . . . ]

If you look at the food section for any major city paper, you can see that ad content compared with editorial usually exceeds the average for the rest of the paper. Do food sections subsidize editorial and reportorial content for other parts of the paper? If they do, what do you think is the rationale for that, given your assertion that readers are devoted to the subject of food?

[. . . . . ]
But there are too many food sections which continue to operate on a lower level than the papers they're in.  And too many, yes, that recycle canned material because they don't have the staff to fill the section with their own stories.  And far too many, I think, who consider advertisers before readers.

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It's hard for me to buy, at least on its face, the argument that newspapers in places like Houston, San Francisco or Atlanta "recycle canned material because they don't have the staff to fill the section with their own stories." Are you saying that they can't pay reasonable rates, or that they won't? Or is it that they can't find people to fill the need at any price?

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#9 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 06:01 AM

[. . . . . }
I think you're wrong when you say that most of the readers aren't devoted to the subject. Everyone eats, everyone feeds their family (or wishes that they did).  We need more people talking about technique, more people introducing us to ethnic cuisines, more people exploring our neighborhoods, and more people looking at the politics and science of food.  WE need food sections writing about the business of food; why the business sections have taken this completely over is insane to me. WE need food sections talking about agriculture....
[. . . . . ]

If you look at the food section for any major city paper, you can see that ad content compared with editorial usually exceeds the average for the rest of the paper. Do food sections subsidize editorial and reportorial content for other parts of the paper? If they do, what do you think is the rationale for that, given your assertion that readers are devoted to the subject of food?

[. . . . . ]
But there are too many food sections which continue to operate on a lower level than the papers they're in.  And too many, yes, that recycle canned material because they don't have the staff to fill the section with their own stories.  And far too many, I think, who consider advertisers before readers.

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It's hard for me to buy, at least on its face, the argument that newspapers in places like Houston, San Francisco or Atlanta "recycle canned material because they don't have the staff to fill the section with their own stories." Are you saying that they can't pay reasonable rates, or that they won't? Or is it that they can't find people to fill the need at any price?

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No, I didn't mean to say that the big papers use canned material. Most don't. And in the case of the SF Chronicle, the food section pretty much IS the paper.
I mean that small ones do. Go to any meeting of the AFJ (American society of food journalists) and you meet dozens of beleaguered food editors at small papers who put out fairly large sections, write the restaurant reviews and have absolutely no help. They do subsidize the rest of the paper, often, are generally looked down on by the "real" journalists, and have to use wire stories because they can't possibly write enough to fill the sections.
As for subsidizing the paper; things are changing with the consolidation of supermarkets and the proliferation of direct mail and inserts, but when I was at the LA Times the food section was the cash cow. It was hugely fat with ads, and generally ignored by the editors of the paper who couldn't have cared less how badly edited and produced it was. That changed, but the attitude persists in many places.

#10 TAPrice

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 07:11 AM

Are food sections still cash cows? In several markets where I've lived recently (New Orleans and now Dallas), the restaurant review and the many ads for restaurants appear in end of the week entertainment supplements. I don't know how widespread this is, but I assume these sections were created to counteract the alt-weeklies. My guess is that moving the food critic to the arts section really cuts into the food editor's budget.
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#11 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 29 November 2005 - 04:07 PM

Are food sections still cash cows? In several markets where I've lived recently (New Orleans and now Dallas), the restaurant review and the many ads for restaurants appear in end of the week entertainment supplements. I don't know how widespread this is, but I assume these sections were created to counteract the alt-weeklies. My guess is that moving the food critic to the arts section really cuts into the food editor's budget.

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The big money's not from restaurant ads. It's from supermarkets. Wine is, at least in the big urban markets, a big source of income. Food products, cookware and appliances are often big advertisers. Increasingly cookbooks are too. These are all products that have built-in ad budgets that go to succesful food sections.

#12 moosnsqrl

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 11:21 AM

I'm joining this late but glad to see the topic raised. Our Food section has won awards in the past few years (for special-topic series, I believe, rather than routine weekly content) and yet it seems so predictable and formulaic. I still feel a little spark when I awake and realize it's Wednesday, hurry to the paper and sit down with it, a cup of coffee and optimism. About five minutes later, I've read everything that is worth reading and fallen into my tired, old "why can't they do more with everything that is going on?" litany.

I know there are dollar and staff constraints but there are 100 people on this forum alone who clearly spend more time on food-related topics than it could possibly require to put together our average weekly section (based on the amount of copy contributed by others, picked up from new services and other papers) and they do it as a labor of love. For that reason alone I still find myself expecting more even if there is only one full-time staffer (in fact, there are two if you count the restaurant reviewer, who chips in additional items, plus regular contributors). I attribute it to the complacence of tenure but maybe I'm being unfair.

I realize this isn't a question for Ruth but am curious if others feel the same about their local offerings, especially in light of the incredible amount of information and content available gratis on this forum and other online sources.
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#13 Malawry

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Posted 30 November 2005 - 04:41 PM

As somebody who writes a regular column for a small daily newspaper (circulation in the mid-50,000s), I can attest to the lack of budget and resources for good local food reporting and writing. The food section here is not ad-thick at all; the supermarkets simply enclose separately printed ads in either the Wednesday or the Sunday paper. I don't really know what it costs to get a wire story from AP, but my local food section is only 2 pages on Wednesday (that's a cover and the inside cover, not 2 "signatures") and it usually carries 2 wire stories. It also usually carries 2 pieces produced in-house.

If you're dissatisfied with your local food section, I have 2 recommendations:
1. Volunteer to write something, even if the pay is laughably low. I had a very easy time landing my column partly because of my timing but also partly because staff resources are stretched at these small papers and they just can't produce in-house the things they'd like to.
2. Read the LA Times, the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the other big-boy food sections online each Wednesday. (SauteWednesday can be essential for finding all the good stuff.)

Frankly, I think my local paper does a pretty good job with the limited resources they have. The staff does a pretty good job of getting out and talking to the local grandpa who makes thousands of candy canes by hand every fall for Christmas, or the Muslim family with their favorite Eid recipes (both of which ran in the last month or so).

#14 MarketStEl

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 12:08 AM

Are food sections still cash cows? In several markets where I've lived recently (New Orleans and now Dallas), the restaurant review and the many ads for restaurants appear in end of the week entertainment supplements. I don't know how widespread this is, but I assume these sections were created to counteract the alt-weeklies. My guess is that moving the food critic to the arts section really cuts into the food editor's budget.

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The big money's not from restaurant ads. It's from supermarkets. Wine is, at least in the big urban markets, a big source of income. Food products, cookware and appliances are often big advertisers. Increasingly cookbooks are too. These are all products that have built-in ad budgets that go to succesful food sections.

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Well, I guess that explains The Philadelphia Inquirer's food section. The Inky lost the supermarket trade several years back and has yet to successfully regain more than a token amount of supermarket advertising (a full-page ad for Acme or Pathmark on the back of one of the Sunday news sections, for instance). And, of course, given that we have a state monopoly on the sale of wine, no matter how wonderful the selection and prices are now, that also removes a source of revenue for the paper.

But one feature that the Inquirer used to run--in the Business section--that I found interesting had to do with the economics of food, something I see no one on this thread has raised yet. It wasn't anything particularly sophisticated; in fact, it originated with the Associated Press, and the Inky took it over a few years before stopping it completely.

That was the weekly "market basket survey."

The survey compared the cost of purchasing a typical week's worth of groceries for a family of four at the area chains. Maybe one of the reasons the paper dropped the survey was because the relative placement of the chains did not vary much: The major chains did not move much more than one place up or down in the rankings over time. Based on those rankings, the dominant supermarket chain in the region remains dominant for a good reason: it was almost always the low price leader.

This is relatively simple reporting on the economics of food, but something I consider useful nonetheless. As one who might be called a "value" shopper, I do not believe that the relationship between price and quality is linear and also believe that--as with other consumer goods--oftentimes people shell out gobs of money for nothing more than prestige or the illusion of same. Must this territory be the sole province of Consumer Reports?
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#15 Vinfidel

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 04:40 AM

here also the food section of the local paper is really the best (only) good thing in the whole week! I am speaking of the MONTREAL GAZETTE the only english daily local in a francophone city

we are lucky in such a small city to have 2 food writer, one for cheap foods one for fine dining. they i believe are both freelancer but are regular contributors and do a good job to expose the city resto scene. also both participate here on EGULLET so international viewer can have a taste of montreal

there are some issues like the paper cannot afford to pay for the resto meals since there is no budget so the reviewer can only go one time realistically per review since they pay themselves.the one visit might seem a problem but here we have a lot of restos to be reviewed and limited resource so it is maybe beter to spend the $ reviewing more restos than having many visits to equal one review

lesley, the fine dining reviewr, also have a column for market fresh delicacies and also local food events, which we have a lot! we also have a wine writer but we will not speak of him...

a great idea from our paper is they put the food section on saturday so that in a touristic city like here, a visitor will see the food scene in the paper on his visit. this is very important for the tourism industry here, you can ask any restauranteur. this should be standard for touristic cities

this is just the english paper! we also have two french papers each with food sections. i will not speak of them since i dont read them.

#16 Ruth Reichl

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 05:39 AM

here also the food section of the local paper is really the best (only) good thing in the whole week! I am speaking of the MONTREAL GAZETTE the only english daily local  in a francophone city

we are lucky in such a small city to have 2 food writer, one for cheap foods one for fine dining. they i believe are both freelancer but are regular contributors and do a good job to expose the city resto scene. also both participate here on EGULLET  so international viewer can have a taste of montreal

there are some issues like the paper cannot afford to pay for the resto meals since there is no budget so the reviewer can only go one time realistically per review since they pay themselves.the one visit might seem a problem but here we have a lot of restos to be reviewed and limited resource so it is maybe beter to spend the $ reviewing more restos than having many visits to equal one review

lesley, the fine dining reviewr, also have a column for market fresh delicacies and also local food events, which we have a lot! we also have a wine writer but we will not speak of him...

a great idea from our paper is they put the food section on saturday so that in a touristic city like here, a visitor will see the food scene in the paper on his visit. this is very important for the tourism industry here, you can ask any restauranteur. this should be standard for touristic cities

this is just the english paper! we also have two french papers each with food sections. i will not speak of them since i dont read them.

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To Sandy Smith - I suspect one reason that the Inky stopped the market basket survey is that the supermarkets are basically in crisis due to Wallmart and Costco taking such a huge share of the market. The business is totally different today than it was 10 years ago, with Wallmart growing on one end, Whole Foods (and local chains like Wegmans) growing on the other. The "regular" supermarkets in the middle are getting squeezed out. And it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to run a market survey when you know that Wallmart is going to be cheaper than everyone else. If you haven't seen it, we ran a piece on the effect of Wallmart in the June issue of Gourmet. I suspect that over the next few years the way we all buy our food will change completely.

To Vinfidel:
I've spoken to the main food person for your French paper, and she was very very impressive. Smart, knowledgable and passionate about the subject. You might want to take a look at what the French papers are doing in Montreal. (If you don't speak French, you'll be the first Montrealer I've met lately who doesn't! I'm completely blown away by the new bilingualism of your city. When I was going to school there in the sixties it was completely different.)

#17 TPO

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 06:48 AM

To Sandy Smith - I suspect one reason that the INky stopped the market basket survey is that the supermarkets are basically in crisis due to Wallmart and Costco taking such a huge share of the market. The business is totally different today than it was 10 years ago, with Wallmart growing on one end, WHole Foods (and local chains like Wegmans) growing on the other. The "regular" supermarkets in the middle are getting squeezed out. And it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to run a market survey when you know that Wallmart is going to be cheaper than everyone else.


Obviously I cannot speak for Sandy's newspaper, but the newspaper I used to work for had a sore spot when it came to big-box stores because they would not distribute their flyers as inserts in the newspaper or run any advertising. Right or wrong, that particular publisher would not have offered free advertising to companies that did not see the value in helping support a community newspaper.
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#18 moosnsqrl

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 07:02 AM

If you're dissatisfied with your local food section, I have 2 recommendations:
1. Volunteer to write something, even if the pay is laughably low. I had a very easy time landing my column partly because of my timing but also partly because staff resources are stretched at these small papers and they just can't produce in-house the things they'd like to.


I have volunteered to do this, gratis, on more than one occasion, and in advance of the event I was planning to cover so they could provide guidelines, length and focus (so I wasn't just foisting my idea of an article on them after the fact). These offers have been variously ignored, received "thanks but no thanks" replies or (in the case of the opening of Copia several years ago, attended at my own expense) tossed aside as something more appropriate for the travel section. Hence my suspicion of complacency.

I do read the NY, LA and Chicago sections online as well as a few select others; I just find it sad that there is a lot going on in our city but one would scarcely know it by reading the same old 'stuff' week after week. Thank god for eGullet, and thanks for the suggestions. I'm happy for you that your proactive approach to improving the situation in your area was welcomed.
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#19 MarketStEl

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Posted 01 December 2005 - 02:30 PM

I do read the NY, LA and Chicago sections online as well as a few select others; I just find it sad that there is a lot going on in our city but one would scarcely know it by reading the same old 'stuff' week after week.  Thank god for eGullet, and thanks for the suggestions.  I'm happy for you that your proactive approach to improving the situation in your area was welcomed.

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Many, many moons ago, I was a summer intern at The Kansas City Star. This was 1976, the year of the Republican National Convention and the year I graduated from high school (I was the only intern the paper ever hired straight out of high school).

Your daily paper and mine now have one thing in common: their corporate owner. It's been saddening to watch The Philadelphia Inquirer slowly decline into mediocrity* over the years since Knight Newspapers (the Inky's owner ever since Walter Annenberg sold it) and Ridder Newspapers merged under the helm of the Ridders, who have historically regarded newspapers mainly as vehicles to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. (They are that, but that's not why the readers buy them.)

My recollection, however, is that The Star didn't run much in the way of food writing at all (unless you count business-section reporting on "agribusiness" as food writing) back in the '70s, when its employees still owned it. Oddly enough, I would go so far as to say that corporate ownership (if not Knight-Ridder, then Cap Cities/Disney-ABC) improved The Star in a number of ways, mainly by giving it money it increasingly lacked to do the sort of enterprising stuff that wins Pulitzers. That it devotes any space at all to writing about food and restaurants now is a sign of its improvement.

Meanwhile, at least The Inquirer still has Craig LaBan, and Rick Nichols' valuable food-gossip column. Neither of these people took the buyout.

*Edited to add: On second thought, make that "relative mediocrity" -- the "relative" being to what it was in its glory days in the 1970s and early '80s under Gene Roberts. It still does much very fine reporting even now (and probably was passed over for a couple of Pulitzers it should have won, including one that was awarded to The Kansas City Star). But the trendlines still seem to be headed downward, along with newsroom morale.

Edited by MarketStEl, 01 December 2005 - 03:02 PM.

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