Chris Schonberger, editor in chief of First We Feast, is the co-author of "The Problems With Food Media That Nobody Wants to Talk About."
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Why do you think that the mainstream food media -- the big websites, the food magazines, newspapers, TV -- are not writing about the food issues that concern a lot of people?
Chris Schonberger: That's a huge question. Of course, I don't have all the answers. But two main things that I see time and again is that as the publishing landscape has changed, budgets have contracted and a lot of food magazines have been focus-grouped into being something more sales driven as opposed to a magazine that was one of the great food magazines to ever exist, Gourmet. Its mandate extended beyond recipes and beyond cooking to social issues -- the problem with slave labor around tomatoes, people like David Foster Wallace writing about lobsters. Without those budgets, but also without that mandate, that ambition and support system to pursue stories like that, they're never going to happen.
Another huge part of what we're seeing in food media now is driven by the pressures of the Web. That's something that I'm more intimately experienced with, having written a lot for the Web. No matter what people's drive is, at a certain point, if they're publishing on such intense deadlines, so quickly, chasing the dragon of search engine optimization and page views, you're just naturally going to have a race to the bottom at times.
LRK: One of the things that concerns me that I see a lot of is incorrect information. The digging seems to have lessened because often magazines and other entities will have people who do nothing but read through a piece before it's published, check, and call the author and say, "What do you mean by this? Where can I find information on that?" I wonder if they've gone on strike, or if there are just not as many of them. This, to me, is very disturbing because there's so much lack of good information out there.
CS: Absolutely. When budgets atrophy, the first two positions to go are fact checkers and copy editors. That's a huge shame. It causes a lot of problems, a lot of sloppiness, a lot of misinformation. But the reality is that those two steps make things slower. They don't move at the pace of the Web, which is everyone wants to be first, everyone wants to get their story on Facebook before the next outlet. It's a really rapid pace.
It's like a game of telephone but for Web journalism. If a misstated fact starts somewhere, the next story might have two incorrect facts; the next story might have three incorrect facts. It snowballs, and snowballs, and snowballs. You see people coming out all the time -- and now they have a direct line to their audience through Twitter -- celebrities are always correcting the crazy stories that come out about them.
LRK: One of the other things that you make a strong point about is that the food media is soft.
CS: When I said food media is soft, it's that people are holding back their opinions that I know that they have. I guess I was frustrated that I don't see that on the page as much as perhaps I would like to. Readers would love to see it.
It's symptomatic of food media that has an awkward relationship with the subject that it covers. There's not a clear line between whether this is boosterism and trying to continue to convince the public that food is art and chefs are the new rock stars, or show people when the emperor has no clothes and ask the right questions about food and restaurants.
LRK: Is this because people want to make sure they have access?
CS: Access is a big part of it. It's a pretty small world. Food in New York is a bubble. Then you take that to other, smaller markets, and it's even more so. Even if there are not overtly unethical things going on, like pay for play -- where someone's giving you handouts to write a good review, which is more something you see at the bottom end of the blogosphere as opposed to legitimate outlets -- there's still a reality of the fact that all of these writers, editors and chefs are at the same parties, know the same people. People are a little bit hesitant to say anything that would get them kicked out of the club, so to speak.
It can feel good to go to a new restaurant and have the chef throw you some extra dishes and come say hello, but I'd like to think that journalists are more interested in telling stories that are going to help their readers make informed decisions than living a glamorous lifestyle.
LRK: Goodbye to the free martinis. Can people make a living these days as a food writer?
CS: There are a lot of people making a living in food writing now, but it's becoming more and more difficult. Amanda Hesser, who started a great site called Food52, wrote an excellent piece in 2012 where she said, "If I'm really honest, I can't recommend people go into food writing anymore. There's not enough pay at magazines, and the business model doesn't support it."
As I've said, I've seen people walk away from the industry. It's really hard for young writers to come up in food media because the entry-level jobs are as low as $25,000 in New York City. Anyone who's at all familiar with living in New York City knows that is not really enough to get by on.
There's an extra element that a lot of people don't see, which is in order to be able to write about food and be conversant in food, you have to go out and eat food. There are not reserves of money at a lot of these places anymore to send people out to get educated and have the experience that's going to inform their writing. Not only do you have these minuscule salaries, but to write the stories that get you to the next small salary, you've got to spend a bunch of it on food and drink.
LRK: How do you see the future?
CS: I'm glad you asked because while it's important to think about these things, I don't want to paint a negative view of food media. I actually think it's an incredibly exciting time when some of the legacy brands are being forced to rethink what they are. Even more excitingly, there's a ton of energy coming in from younger editors and writers and new outlets. Nontraditional places are going to be spawning the next wave of media. That's exciting.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.