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Freelance Restaurant Critiquing Inequities


BeefCheeks
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As cash-strapped newspapers are depending more and more on freelance

contributors covering everything from general food-related reportage

to actual restaurant critiquing, the budgets provided to these

freelancers are also dwindling. No one ever seems to talk openly about

the inequities involved in the freelance reviewing process: as a

former freelance critic, I was expected to make repeat visits to

restaurants with multiple guests on a budget of $150 per restaurant

(not per visit). How to accomplish this? Maintain anonymity and pay

any overages out of my own pocket (commonplace practice); or dispense

with anonymity and accept free meals while reviewing (also commonplace

practice, although never done by me).

Working with such miniscule budgets, are freelance critics reviewing

restaurants fairly? Should they be expected to front money for the

sake of the by-line and out of dedication to their papers and editors?

When the restaurants cry foul--that they weren't covered sufficiently

because there wasn't enough money in the budgetary coffers, that not

enough dishes were tasted to make a reasonable if subjective

qualitative judgment--where does the blame go? How to remedy this

situation?

What would Giles Coren do?

BeefCheeks is an author, editor, and food journalist.

"The food was terrible. And such small portions...."

--Alvy Singer

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Despite the fact that rates are abysmal in my market (we're talking $0.10 a word average), I've found publication to be pretty fair with reimbursement.

When I worked at an alt-weekly, they gave me $200 a week for three visits (no reimbursement for alcohol, which has been the case everywhere I've worked). That was more than enough. Typically I'd bring 1 to 2 people, depending on the restaurant. I might spent $500 one week and then $30 the next. The numbers worked out fine if I mixed budget spots with fine dining.

At the city magazine I wrote for, they also picked up everything. I averaged $200-$300 a month for one visit each to three restaurants (this was not a review as much as a....well, I'm not sure...a non-evaluative description? You give the editor what he wants, I guess.).

Now I'm at a scrappy culture magazine with a small budget. Not sure what that budget is, but I typically spent $40-$50 a month for two visits (it's only a 350 word review, so two visits seem sufficient). Sometimes more, sometimes less. No one complains even when I occasionally spend $150, because sometimes I only spend $20.

If the publication are cheap (or legitimately don't have a lot of funds), then I think you either go the budget route or pass.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I was expected to make repeat visits to restaurants with multiple guests on a budget of $150 per restaurant

Was this expectation imposed by the publication, or did it come from you? In other words, did anybody actually say to you: "We require you to make repeat visits with multiple guests. But we're only paying you 1/4 of what that would cost. So you either need to get comped or pay out of your own pocket"? I'm asking this because I've heard variants of this complaint many times and, upon closer examination, it often turns out to be based more on assumptions and self-imposed restrictions than on actual instructions from editors.

Regardless, in my opinion the solution in any situation like this is to have an explicit, public agreement and understanding with the publication. Within a wide range of possibilities, the specific nature of the agreement doesn't seem as important to me as having one. If the agreement is that you're only going to visit each restaurant once, that's fine. You can write about restaurants based on one visit. Frank Bruni does, Gael Greene does -- they just don't label such reports as "reviews." If you're going to visit restaurants once and write about them, your editors should be required to face up to and agree with that procedure, and your readers should be told, either through context or through a formally printed set of guidelines, that your comments are based on one visit -- and it probably makes sense to use a term other than "review" to describe what you're writing. Likewise, plenty of journalists across a variety of subject areas accept comps. But your editors should be involved in the decision to accept comps, and your writing should disclose those comps.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I was expected to make repeat visits to restaurants with multiple guests on a budget of $150 per restaurant

Was this expectation imposed by the publication, or did it come from you? In other words, did anybody actually say to you: "We require you to make repeat visits with multiple guests. But we're only paying you 1/4 of what that would cost. So you either need to get comped or pay out of your own pocket"? I'm asking this because I've heard variants of this complaint many times and, upon closer examination, it often turns out to be based more on assumptions and self-imposed restrictions than on actual instructions from editors.

Regardless, in my opinion the solution in any situation like this is to have an explicit, public agreement and understanding with the publication. Within a wide range of possibilities, the specific nature of the agreement doesn't seem as important to me as having one. If the agreement is that you're only going to visit each restaurant once, that's fine. You can write about restaurants based on one visit. Frank Bruni does, Gael Greene does -- they just don't label such reports as "reviews." If you're going to visit restaurants once and write about them, your editors should be required to face up to and agree with that procedure, and your readers should be told, either through context or through a formally printed set of guidelines, that your comments are based on one visit -- and it probably makes sense to use a term other than "review" to describe what you're writing. Likewise, plenty of journalists across a variety of subject areas accept comps. But your editors should be involved in the decision to accept comps, and your writing should disclose those comps.

I agree that simply calling what you write something other than a 'review' is acceptable, if you're only going to a place once. An 'appreciation', a 'recap', whatever. But how do we know how many visits a reviewer makes? If it is not specified in every review, the reader is at a loss. Maybe the NYTimes has a public policy, but I don't know that is written in stone anywhere.

Accepting comps is a slippery slope. Of course it is done across the board, and typical 'friends and family' posts or 'meal recaps' are meant as shmooze-fests, with the 'reviewer' expected to come through for the restauarant for the free grub/booze.

I get no meal allowance for my writing. Even if I go to a taco truck, I still might have $50 in expenses (multiple tacos, multiple visits). For fine dining (which I rarely do), I arrange my reviews around places I'm already planning on visiting anyway. I'm not interested in paying somebody to publish my writing. The cheap freelancer is a fact of life, though, with every blogger willing to do it practically (or actually) for free, and with no moral issues attached. The newspaper restaurant-reviewing game (along with much of 'journalism') has deteriorated rapidly, for that reason among many others. Incidentally, my editors have never asked for a specific 'waiting period', or number of visits, before a review is published. They trust me to do what's right, and then they, of course, make the ultimate decision on whether or not to publish.

Additionally, there are always the PR columns (What's New?, or, Coming Soon...) in with the reviews, which is where the fluff should go. Of course, as in Sports, you always have to walk the fine line between boosterism and journalism. Of course, in twenty years in Sports, I never paid for anything, and I wasn't even a writer.

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