One Reader’s Response: Melissa Bedinger on the Future of Food Writing

Published by Thursday, April 19, 2012 Permalink 0
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Here is some more reading to inspire you for tomorrow’s live Twitter chat @RamblingEpicure at 2 p.m. EST, 8 p.m. Paris time, hashtag #futurefoodwriting. We look forward to you joining the conversation. For more details and more reference reading, click the related links below.

by documentary

Where I grew up, we used to have grocers who relied on their suppliers, and knew about their practices in depth. With supermarket chains now dominating our supply, and the Internet at our fingertips, we have become our own grocers. In a state of (sometimes deserved) scepticism of the modern supply chain, we have taken it upon ourselves to source information about the food we choose — and everything else that we participate in or consume. Is it organic? Is it fair trade? Is it local, sustainable, traceable? Readers want to know everything, and product ‘transparency’ has migrated from the occasional call to dodgy corporations, to a granted right of the consumer.

This hunger for knowledge is no longer reserved for the trendy foodies who can afford it; it’s alive and well amongst the general public. At the same time as this rise in “food awareness”, there has been an undeniable eruption of personal food blogs, shaping change not only in the volume of food writers and readers but in what they want out of the content they read. It’s not just food writing, but journalism on the whole that is changing, marked by events like the last hard-copy edition of Gourmet in 2009, and highlighted by the media in pieces like the recent documentary on how The New York Times is learning to co-evolve with its readers.

As in every other industry, multi-faceted staff are the new standard; you can’t swing a virtual cat without hitting a PR-pro-turned-web-designer-turned-backyard-farmer (or some combination thereof). And although modern food journalists hail from equally varied backgrounds, they are now forced to compete with a sea of online food bloggers who have split personalities specializing in editing, photography, web design, networking and promotion. For those hopefuls hunting a career in food writing, the task seems almost insurmountable. Food & Environment Reporting Network last week struck a chord with many published and aspiring writers, by painting a brutally honest picture of the financial state of the industry, citing advertising dollars as a central issue. Hesser did, however, point readers in the direction of building a varied skill set that would provide a springboard for work in a new era in the food industry. With the information overflow diluting advertising funds, a career more directly engaged with food production appears to be the best way to make ends meet. By all means, write, she says — but make any other venture the main priority.

As a blogger, I write for myself. I write to learn new things to a standard I’m satisfied with, and to connect with a community that I can’t get anywhere else. I write for my parents, and my sixth grade language arts teacher; and that’s about it. I know too well that there are just a handful of blogs that provide value to readers on a scale large enough to be profitable, or even self-sustaining. One commenter on Hesser’s article succinctly described her daughter’s blog as “her calling card, her resume, her portfolio” — and this will likely become the norm for anyone committed to his or her trade, and the ceiling for where a blog alone can take you.

Before or after Hesser’s article, I wouldn’t have confidently embarked on a journey to become a food writer, as captivating as it sounds. Even with the demand for writing that cuts through the white noise of online blogging and non-transparent news networks, I would not have dared to think of becoming a food journalist, however much respect I have for the profession. Now, along with all of the traditional obstacles in this career path, decline in salary and reader disinterest in hard copy format are presenting unpredictable problems for job seekers.

But in the wake of the industry-wide confusion about the future, there is an ounce of hope and a heap of enthusiasm to be found. Although we are now sourcing our own information, rather than relying on one ‘legitimate’ news network or publication, readers will continue to have a natural demand for verified, fact-checked articles that sometimes require the collaboration of a team of editors and other staff. People have begun to wise up to misinformation rife in online forums, and cracks in the research and of some — even very popular — personal bloggers. In fact, balanced and well-researched articles about food — how we get it, what is in it, how it impacts others — Matter.

As a result, investigative food journalism is keeping afloat with the help of groups like the Food & Environment Reporting Network.  FERN supports hand-picked projects with trusted writers by obtaining funding through grants. Unlike other sites that survive by featuring writers representing a company, or any other type of sponsored posts, FERN highlights a new generation of readers that have a ‘how-it’s-made’-style food technology and distribution focus. Journalism in general has never been more fixated on (and supported by) communities, proved by crowdfunding journalism ventures like World Economic Forum and Mark Lee Hunter. And as an American expatriate, things on my side of the pond appear to be looking up – or forward – with support from NGOs like the Melissa Bedinger, as well as university faculty like INSEAD’s Mark Lee Hunter.

Paying opportunities for food journalists today are few and far between, but hopefully growing, with a committed readership. The demand is there — the challenge is only in how to fund the supply. Do we readers care enough to find another way to contribute financially to food writing, without riding on the back of sponsored posts and dwindling advertising money? Will we defer to others’ generous but sporadic grants, or will communities support the work they want to read? Time will tell. Until then, I’m following Hesser’s advice to do more, and trying to find writing that balances trusted investigative work with relatability.


You can see Melissa’s work on her site Melissa Bedinger.
Twitter: @melbise



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