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The politics of a review...


OMDave
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Hello everyone,

As some of you may already know, I'm working with Open Mouth, a new monthly food-culture magazine in Vancouver. (We were rather destroyed in a previous thread) :rolleyes:

We are very new and admittedly have a lot to learn about this industry. My specific question involves restaurant reviews. As a start-up we wanted to stay positive and chose to give only positive reviews for the first couple of issues. (Say something nice or don't say anything at all mentality) Accordingly, we have received quite a bit of negative response; many people feel that we are too timid or biased in our reviews. (The three we have done) Anyways, we are slowly finding our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, "should we do negative reviews?" Is this a good idea?

My personal thoughts have always been that with the time and effort restaurants put into making their establishment successful, it would be very hard to accept a negative review as anything but a direct personal insult and attack to their livelihood. How do we maintain readership interest without being just another negative blogger/reviewer that is looking for "hits"?

Please let me know your thoughts. I would also appreciate any general recommendations and/or comments you may have. Having thick skin, I will take everything as constructive criticism!

Edited by OMDave (log)

Dave Williams

Open Mouth Magazine

dave@openmouth.ca

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I'd say your first goal should be accuracy, not some kind of prior motivation to say nice things. Of course, as numerous studies have shown, reasoning is often naturally motivated (Kunda, 1990), so this may be easier said than done. So the best you can do is just describe the experience as accurately as possible and with enough detail so that the reader can see your decision process.

If your philosophy indeed to only write positive reviews, which I assume means talking about the positive things and ignoring or downplaying the negative, then they aren't even reviews at that point. Of course, if your writers don't have any basis for comparison, such as if they don't know what good risotto tastes like, then this might be a good idea just so you don't piss someone off without any real reason.

ref:

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Edited by eatvancouver (log)

Jason

Editor

EatVancouver.net

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Anyways, as we are slowly starting to find our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, should we do negative reviews?  Is this a good idea? 

I suppose it depends what type of readership you're looking for.

If you're looking for readership that wants light-hearted pieces, then stay the positive route.

If you want to attract "serious" diners, then you have to be honest, and "tell it like it is" with your reviews.

Either way you'll piss someone off. Don't worry about it. Whomever you piss off is not your target audience.

A.

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I think it important not only for he "customer reader" but also "proprietor reader' to see your review whether positive or negative. Saying for example - "the quail was crispy and tender but ambiance lacked fine touch" gives you impartiality but also ensures that your review is objective. It is an important tool for the owner of the resturant to gauge their performance (appart from check average of course :cool: ) I do not think that any establishment has only good or only bad side, there are both to every restaurant (Lumiere for example has outrageous prices however it has outstanding food and service never mention the wine).

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If you are looking for credibility amongst your readership, then multiple visits are needed. Although lots of arguments are going to be made about the average diner only having one shot at making an impression, you need to rise above that if you want to be taken seriously.

You need a full picture of the establishment in question, and that takes more than one visit.

Saturday night @ 7:30 gives you one view, Wednesday night at 9:00 gives you a completely different take.

If you are serious in wanting to portray an accurate picture of someone's business that they put blood, sweat and tears into, this is the approach. You also need to detail this in your writing.

You owe it to yourself, your readership and the establishment in question to have as much detail as you can get.

If you write about a place in a positive light, and most people find it to be shit, you lose credibility.

If you trash it, and most people love it, same as the above.

If you have multiple visits and detail why you liked it or not, whether everybody agrees or not, you at least did your homework on the place and no one can come back at you for anything.

oh, and do not call ahead and say you will be dining with establishment X and say that you need a comp meal etc. Make sure you have the budget in place for a couple of visits without relying on the establishment giving you free stuff. That just clouds the waters and puts your credibility in question.

If you do not have the budget to visit a place a couple of times, then perhaps you should become a fashion mag or something other than a food magazine. If restaurants and food is going to be your stock in trade, make sure you have the $$$$ to do it properly without selling your soul for food for positive reveiws.

Neil Wyles

Hamilton Street Grill

www.hamiltonstreetgrill.com

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If you only do positive reviews I, as a potential reader, would get rather skeptical rather fast that you weren't just a paid shill for the restaurants. However, if you want to be purely positive you *could* instead of positioning them as restaurant reviews call the column "Recommended Restaurants" and preface it by saying the restaurants in the column are ones that you've been recently impressed by--or something like that. Pretend it's like those book recommendations from bookstore staff that get displayed in stores.

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Even though we cooks can get obsessed about how our work places are rated and by whom. I would avoid using any form of comparable scoring system. For a multitude of reasons. The first being that it can be an exercise in dancing about architecture, and will probably cause more reactionary flack than you are wishing to garner. I`m presuming your prime motive for reviewing restaurants is not to elicit controversy, or you wouldn`t be asking this question with so much civility.

I`ve always wondered how, for example, differing subjective personal experiences can be compared to one another, then tallied up and pigeonholed for editorial convenience.

Edited by transfattyacid (log)
tt
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I just wish Andrew could type faster.

As a professional writer, he sure is a fucking slow typist.

I use the advanced two finger hunt and peck method and I can still kick his ass.

I can't wait all fucking night to see what pearls of wisdom he is going to deliver.

He`s done a runner.

Paging Mr Morrison, Mr Morrison.

Come back and lets argue the toss

tt
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Of course, as numerous studies have shown, reasoning is often naturally motivated (Kunda, 1990), so this may be easier said than done.  ref:

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Thanks for the clarification. For many years I'd (naturally) thought that Kunda was referring to motivated seasoning.

Fleur de hell, etc.,

J.

from the thinly veneered desk of:

Jamie Maw

Food Editor

Vancouver magazine

www.vancouvermagazine.com

Foodblog: In the Belly of the Feast - Eating BC

"Profumo profondo della mia carne"

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Indeed. We could all use a few more footnotes in our writing.

As for Open Mouth, my advice would be to hire an outside reviewer, pay him/her, and then get out of their way.

Edited by Andrew Morrison (log)

Andrew Morrison

Food Columnist | The Westender

Editor & Publisher | Scout Magazine

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Of course, as numerous studies have shown, reasoning is often naturally motivated (Kunda, 1990), so this may be easier said than done.  ref:

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498.

Thanks for the clarification. For many years I'd (naturally) thought that Kunda was referring to motivated seasoning.

Fleur de hell, etc.,

J.

Once burned, twice shy

Edited by eatvancouver (log)

Jason

Editor

EatVancouver.net

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I guess it depends what you mean by positive reviews. A review could contain negative comments (like, food was great, ambience sucked or a negative comment on a particular dish) and still - on-the-whole - be a positive review. I think having a policy of only publishing restaurant reviews for places you liked could be okay. Especially if, as somone mentioned, you call the section "recommended restaurants" or some such. But if by positive review you mean one that only contains positive comments, then I'd be might suspicious of that and wouldn't give much credibility to the source. Even at my best restaurant meals, there's been something that's worthy of negative commentary, however slight.

Tammy's Tastings

Creating unique food and drink experiences

eGullet Foodblogs #1 and #2
Dinner for 40

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Welcome back Dave.

I'd encourage you to define what Open Mouth is about, who your readers are, how you want them to perceive your publication, and then consider what kind of review would best achieve your goals. You've done some of that but I think if you are clear you will know whether your reviews are working or not.

Based on what you've said about Open Mouth so far, that is wanting to be seen as an independent voice, I think at the very least you will want to tell your readers that your policy is to only write about restaurants that you recommend. I'd also encourage you to be transparent about how the reviews are done.

As for the politics, there are politics in every business.

Cheers,

Anne

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Anyways, as we are slowly starting to find our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, should we do negative reviews?  Is this a good idea? 

I suppose it depends what type of readership you're looking for.

If you're looking for readership that wants light-hearted pieces, then stay the positive route.

If you want to attract "serious" diners, then you have to be honest, and "tell it like it is" with your reviews.

Either way you'll piss someone off. Don't worry about it. Whomever you piss off is not your target audience.

A.

I think you should always be honest with your readers. That said, you do not have to publish a bad review to accomplish this. Why not tell people where they should go or what they should enjoy rather what they shouldn't. If you ask me the negative side of this coin is more about ego, power and self importance. Just my humble 2 cents.

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Anyways, as we are slowly starting to find our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, should we do negative reviews?  Is this a good idea? 

I suppose it depends what type of readership you're looking for.

If you're looking for readership that wants light-hearted pieces, then stay the positive route.

If you want to attract "serious" diners, then you have to be honest, and "tell it like it is" with your reviews.

Either way you'll piss someone off. Don't worry about it. Whomever you piss off is not your target audience.

A.

I think you should always be honest with your readers. That said, you do not have to publish a bad review to accomplish this. Why not tell people where they should go or what they should enjoy rather what they shouldn't. If you ask me the negative side of this coin is more about ego, power and self importance. Just my humble 2 cents.

If you never publish the negative aspects, then you are not being honest are you? That in itself is about power and self importance, not to mention the aspect of Why not tell people where they should go or what they should enjoy rather what they shouldn't. :hmmm: I'd much prefer to have reviews published fairly and acurately of good and bad, so I could make decisions accordingly as to what I might like to try, rather than what someone told me I should have.

Edited by ~cayenne~ (log)

"If cookin' with tabasco makes me white trash, I don't wanna be recycled."

courtesy of jsolomon

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Thank you to everyone who has posted so far. I'm very appreciative and am going to try to respond to a few things...

eatvancouver(Jason): I agree that accuracy is the first priority. But as nwyles brought up, accuracy is a difficult thing to achieve, especially if the reviewer is only dining at a restaurant for the one and only time. We will do our best though.

nwyles: You also brought up a good point about how the reviewer actually dines at the restaurant. Luckily we are small enough that our writers are not well know (yet?), and could easily walk into most establishments without fear of being treated differently. Our policy is to pay for the meal first, and only then drop a business card or ask for the name of the chef for future correspondence. I would love to have our writers dine out at restaurants two or three times before writing a review but we simply do not have the budget for that. (yet?)

You said,

"If you do not have the budget to visit a place a couple of times, then perhaps you should become a fashion mag or something other than a food magazine. If restaurants and food is going to be your stock in trade, make sure you have the $$$$ to do it properly without selling your soul for food for positive reveiws."

I understand what you are saying, but being the stubborn group of people that we are, we are still going to try our best with what we have. (Hopefully without selling our soul)

Daddy-A: I think you have the best piece of advice; we really are "damned if we do, damned if we don't". :biggrin:

transfattyacid: I don't think we are going to ever get into a comparable scoring system. We are not going to be doing enough reviews to justify that system and I still feel it unfair in the "who are we to say how many stars a restaurant deserves" mentality. From this discussion I am starting to lean in the direction of writing about what was most memorable, good or bad, and making sure to explain why.

barolo: Hello again! Thanks for responding. When you said, "I'd also encourage you to be transparent about how the reviews are done. " were you recommending we actually write out our policy in the magazine before each review? I think that idea has potential but just wanted to clarify that is what you meant. Does any other publication do that?

One question this all brings to mind: As there are always good restaurants to write honest and positive reviews about, is publishing a generaly negative review, even if the restaurant deserves it, simply a way to attract readership?

Dave Williams

Open Mouth Magazine

dave@openmouth.ca

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Anyways, as we are slowly starting to find our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, should we do negative reviews?  Is this a good idea? 

I suppose it depends what type of readership you're looking for.

If you're looking for readership that wants light-hearted pieces, then stay the positive route.

If you want to attract "serious" diners, then you have to be honest, and "tell it like it is" with your reviews.

Either way you'll piss someone off. Don't worry about it. Whomever you piss off is not your target audience.

A.

I think you should always be honest with your readers. That said, you do not have to publish a bad review to accomplish this. Why not tell people where they should go or what they should enjoy rather what they shouldn't. If you ask me the negative side of this coin is more about ego, power and self importance. Just my humble 2 cents.

If you never publish the negative aspects, then you are not being honest are you? That in itself is about power and self importance, not to mention the aspect of Why not tell people where they should go or what they should enjoy rather what they shouldn't. :hmmm: I'd much prefer to have reviews published fairly and acurately of good and bad, so I could make decisions accordingly as to what I might like to try, rather than what someone told me I should have.

Again…just my very humble opinion. No reason to get all “boldy” on me. I think you might have missed my point. By all means publish a complete head to toe and honest article. My opinion is that you don’t have to publish a car wreck to be honest. First you must ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. If you want to tell people where to eat then a negative review has no value. If you want to tell people where not to eat then, obviously, a negative review means everything. If I were publishing a magazine and I were trying to attract potential advertisers I would avoid biting the hand that feeds me. No emotion or irrational thought here…just a sound and “safe” business decision.

With regards to negative reviews: A car wreck on the highway always slows people down just for the chance to have a peek at the carnage. Negative reviews do bring readers to the publication in the same way but often for self-serving purposes.

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barolo:  Hello again!  Thanks for responding.  When you said, "I'd also encourage you to be transparent about how the reviews are done. " were you recommending we actually write out our policy in the magazine before each review?  I think that idea has potential but just wanted to clarify that is what you meant.  Does any other publication do that?

From the Vancouver Sun, Critic's Picks section:

A list of restaurants recommended and anonymously visited by Sun restaurant critic Mia Stainsby. Prices are per couple for three courses, with a glass of wine each, before tip and taxes.

From the Vancouver Magazine web page:

About Our Reviews

All of the restaurants featured on our website have been evaluated using the same 20-point system that our monthly Vancouver magazine restaurant reviews rely upon. Only those restaurants scoring "12-plus" have been entered here, and they are places we would happily recommend to a friend or visitor. Our restaurant reviews have no connection to advertising.

From enRoute:

An enRoute critic dines anonymously at each of these establishments at least once. Meals are three-course with accompanying wine. enRoute pays in full for all meals. Consideration is not given in the survey to advertising or any other commercial concerns in the selection process.

Results are kept strictly confidential and are under media embargo until enRoute announces them at a press conference shortly before the November 1 release of the November issue.

Not that this stops anyone from criticizing them of course.

Edited by barolo (log)

Cheers,

Anne

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We are very new and admittedly have a lot to learn about this industry. My specific question involves restaurant reviews. As a start-up we wanted to stay positive and chose to give only positive reviews for the first couple of issues. (Say something nice or don't say anything at all mentality) Accordingly, we have received quite a bit of negative response; many people feel that we are too timid or biased in our reviews. (The three we have done) Anyways, we are slowly finding our voice and comfort zone and are starting to ask, "should we do negative reviews?" Is this a good idea?

You'll gain a lot of credibility if your business immediately divorces itself from the reviewing process. Again, hire someone, pay them, and stay out of their way. Print what comes in, both the good and the bad. You might piss a few people off by being on the level, but that is the risk you take when you review anything.

My personal thoughts have always been that with the time and effort restaurants put into making their establishment successful, it would be very hard to accept a negative review as anything but a direct personal insult and attack to their livelihood.

According to your website, you're in charge of Business Development. Ask yourself if your personal thoughts should come into the equation at all, and then weigh your answer against its relevance. If you're concerned about the hurt feelings of restaurateurs, tell your writers not to be.

How do we maintain readership interest without being just another negative blogger/reviewer that is looking for "hits"?

As it stands right now, just about every restaurant "blogger/reviewer" out there is doing a better job than Open Mouth with 1/100th of the budget, zero advertising, and no agenda, so I don't really think you're in a position to discount "just another" anything, David. Also, none of them are what I'd describe as particularly negative.

Please let me know your thoughts. I would also appreciate any general recommendations and/or comments you may have. Having thick skin, I will take everything as constructive criticism!

Right now, it sounds like you are micromanaging editorial content. If you don't allow your writers the kind of independence of thought that translates to the page you'll stick dead and irrelevant to the industry and about as worthwhile a resource to the public as a puddle of pee. Also, look at what is working for other publications, both online and off (presumption is the mother of many things, but seldom success). You've got great potential, but if you want to make an impact on the dining scene in Vancouver within any reading demographic I think the only viable way to do so is through strength of editorial. In other words, I'd tell your editor and publisher to step away from the vehicle a little and let the writers do their own thing without having to toe a policy line of that uses "positive" and "negative" as goal posts.

Don't forget that though the response hasn't been too warm, you're only one issue in. You've got lots of time to re-work and re-define.

Best of luck.

Edited by Andrew Morrison (log)

Andrew Morrison

Food Columnist | The Westender

Editor & Publisher | Scout Magazine

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I believe that editorial and advertising should be like - what we call it - church and state. The publisher has the role of creating a delicate balance between the two. You don't want to publish unfair, unbalanced attack editorial, however, you don't want to whitewash everything for the sake of your advertisers. And the advertisers are incredibly important. Not only does it give me a job :raz: but my work pays the salaries for the editorial staff. It's symbiotic.

We've published scathing reviews - and that certainly didn't help in securing advertising revenue from the targets. But I sell advertising based on readership - unless you have an avid, loyal reader and an audited reader demographic profile to present, why would anyone advertise? I mean, sure, you want a nice review so you advertise - but what good is it to you, the advertiser, if no-one is interested in reading the article, and therefore, seeing your ad?

Put the readers' interest first - the advertising will follow.

Laura Fauman

Vancouver Magazine

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As it stands right now, just about every restaurant "blogger/reviewer" out there is doing a better job than Open Mouth with 1/100th of the budget, zero advertising, and no agenda, so I don't really think you're in a position to discount "just another" anything, David. Also, none of them are what I'd describe as particularly negative.

[

Best of luck.

This is a little harsh, don't you think? And given that you are running another online magazine, perhaps you would be better off refraining from wading into the cesspool of openly attacking your potential competition. You have good advice to give, to be sure. No need to be nasty to somebody who has so far taken criticism with good grace, and who seems to be going after a different demographic then the one you serve.

Edited by annanstee (log)

The sea was angry that day my friends... like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

George Costanza

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Oh, goodness. That is certainly not an "open attack of potential competition". The fellow asked for advice, and I believe what I gave him there was solid counsel. I'm quite sure he would agree. I was being more frank than harsh, and I wish him and Open Mouth all the best.

Andrew Morrison

Food Columnist | The Westender

Editor & Publisher | Scout Magazine

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Lin Yutang - fasten your seat belt!

Memo - get ready to rumble

Edited by Memo (log)

Ríate y el mundo ríe contigo. Ronques y duermes solito.

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Snore, and you sleep alone.

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