Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the lack of food blogger "credentials"

Are we worth reading? Of course we are. And yet, this is the question that seems to have risen in my mind after reading an article by renowned food critic Corby Kummer. Kummer discusses in his article "The Food Critic In the Internet Age" (I swore it had a different title last night) what direction paid food critics are going in this new age of food bloggers and Yelp.com commenters. He comes right out at the beginning to mention that "Of course, paid critics are more reliable!" He then goes on, inadvertently or not, to dismiss anyone who is not a paid food critic - who does not have "credentials" as his friends Tim & Nina Zagat later pointed out to him.

This got into my craw. It is nonsensical to dismiss an entire segment of the online world because we are not "credentialed." And to paint everyone from bloggers such as Adam Roberts and Julie Powell to public food review site commentators such as "Anonymuss" and "FoodGirl1" with the same brush because none of have those ever-elusive "credentials" belies the complexity and, to some extent, self-policing, of the online foodie world.

I urge you to read Kummer's article. It is interesting, but if you are a non-professional, I-work-for-myself-for-free food blogger you may be annoyed by it. Or you may not - perhaps I misinterpreted something.

I am going to post here the two comments I left in response. I thought them out for a while and the first one is pretty long. These are my words, though maybe they are technically the property of The Atlantic Magazine, so they are in quotes. I don't want to plagiarize myself. I did correct one left-out word from my first comment.

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As a food blogger, I initially took great umbrage to Mr. Kummer's article. As I read the article over once or twice, I could not move far beyond the words (paraphrased here) "Of course paid critics are more reliable than food bloggers!" I don't believe this is the gist of Mr. Kummer's article, or of the food critiquing philosophy of his friends Nina & Tim Zagat. Still, despite his claim that he is being facetious in saying this, I still feel a need as a food blogger to call bullshit.

I have to defend the food blogger against the Zagats' (and likely Mr. Kummer's) assertions that a food blogger can never really, truly capture the essence of the full-on dining experience. Of course, not all blog posts do this, and for those of us who write for free (that would be most of us), we may be looking to discuss different things. Nevertheless, bloggers still can and do often write thoughtful critiques of restaurants visited.

I confess that it's mildly amusing and mildly annoying to see the assumption (if I interpret his words correctly) that we bloggers are perhaps unreliable due to our peccadilloes about what meal we got for free or which staff member of the local restaurant just broke up with us. I urge Mr. Kummer not to paint us with such a broad brush. Whether the author realizes it or not, his attitude is characteristic of the flippant attitude that many in the print media have demonstrated time and again to those in media that are more strictly online.

One part of the author's discussion that puzzles me - and here he is painting with a broad brush - is how he lumps food bloggers into the same category as posters at sites such as, for example, Yelp.com. I intend no offense to the many posters at that site, but their modus operandi is a bit different than that of a food blogger. For a site such as this, a poster can write a detailed review of his or her experience at "Joe's Burger Barn" that intimately informs the reader as to the experience he or she can expect. Or instead, such a reviewer may be logging on just to leave a short, ten word blurb about how the manager at "Joe's" gave him extra French fries, or how the place has roaches (and he misspelled "roaches"), or something quick and effective like that. A poster may have a history of posting about area restaurants, but his or her body of work is going to be limited.

A blog post is, usually, very different. I don't know about the bloggers Mr. Kummer or the Zagats have run into, but I and my compatriots take a bit more care and invest a bit more effort in what we write than the occasional poster on Yelp.com. More than just writing about our sorry experience at "Joe's Burger Barn," we are investing months, maybe years, in writing about the food, the restaurants and - by extension - the food culture and history of an area. Most of us are not paid, save for an ad on our blog that makes pennies a year. We also have the luxury of abandoning our blog when we feel the desire. But we invest a passion for our subject that a paid reviewer is probably going to show as well, and we do it for free.

Or perhaps I am just as guilty as Mr. Kummer of thumbing my nose at what I perceive to be a lesser art form - his holding up paid critiques over blogs, my holding up blogs over comment boards?

My occasional vocation is not perfect, nor are those of us who have chosen it. Yes, there are bloggers who cannot string a sentence together, much less an entire blog post. Additionally, the lack of pay for most food bloggers turns the food blog into a hobby for some, a passion for others - and both for many. For only a handful of us does it turn into an opportunity to be offered free food. I certainly don't get those offers (and if I did I probably would not get around to following through on them). And the few people I know who do get them are creating their own recipes, not reviewing restaurants.

In fairness, I admit that I have not addressed Mr. Kummer's assertion of the alleged reliability of the paid reviewer over the blogger. To be honest, I can't say that I have considered whether or not a paid critic is necessarily more trustworthy than a food blogger. Where do I go for a trustworthy critique of a restaurant? I do search blogs to see if they have said something positive, negative or otherwise. I sometimes explore the restaurant review section of my local paper or magazine, but only as a second resort because many of the paid reviews I have read are of restaurants I am unable to afford. A site such as Yelp.com is a reference of last resort - many posters there have valid opinions, but again you must weed out the fans and haters from those genuinely trying to give advice on where to eat.

One question that I have for Mr. Kummer: how beholden to some editorial bottom line is the typical paid critic? Does someone such as Corby Kummer have the freedom to eat where he pleases and then write about it? Or is there more pressure from above to choose specific spots to critique? I imagine there is more pressure in choice of restaurant than I have heard. One advantage that the food blogger has over the paid reviewer is that he or she can choose whichever location he or she likes, so long as it is accessible and affordable. I do not assert that this is a guarantee of complete and total reliability, or of any proof that the blogger will only choose the places he or she likes. I myself try to remain truthful about my experiences, including ambiance and service as well as the food itself. Most bloggers that I have encountered seem to be doing the same. As to what Frank Bruni recently called "more exacting standards": perhaps a paid reviewer has to meet said standards. I admit food bloggers do not have to hold ourselves up to a higher standard for something we do merely for the joy of it, but many of us try to hold ourselves up to some standard. I hold myself up to a fairly high standard of personal honesty in what I write. Again, I certainly hope that others in my position do as well.

Perhaps we food bloggers are more reliable than a paid reviewer who may or may not have to eat where his bosses tell him (if that happens)? Perhaps not, since we won't get fired for not meeting a higher standard? That is not a question I am equipped to answer. All I can say is that a food blog is not to be easily dismissed as lacking in standards, trustworthiness or impartiality altogether. Those of us who write blogs in our spare time do have something important to say, and our words certainly can be trusted, more often than Mr. Kummer or the Zagats might realize!

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One commenter had a response to me, basically that the difference between persons such as Mr. Kummer and persons such as myself is, in a word, "CREDENTIALS." He or she did assert that our lack of credentials gave no promise that we knew what we were talking about - just as if he or she decided to give out free medical advice on a blog, even though he or she has no medical training.

I'm sorry, it isn't the same thing, as I posted in a second comment. As of right now it is still pending approval. But I saved a copy and will re-post it here. Again, adding a word or two that was left out during proofreading.

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In other words, by your estimation what I and what every other food blogger says is, by its very nature, untrustworthy. You could go to the logical extreme of that argument and assume that food bloggers must never be read, because none of them have any credentials and therefore must be talking nonsense. I don't think you are saying that, though it certainly is implied. You are making a seemingly sound though still illogical assumption.

A similarly illogical assumption could go in the opposite direction, questioning even the value of credentials (which you did not have to scream, I might add). How do I know that a paid food critic is not being forced to give a favorable or unfavorable review for such-and-such a restaurant by his or her employer? A blogger, who does not have to even write the review, does not have the threat of losing his or her job by writing a review that is more critical or more praiseworthy - or even more "average" - than the credentialed food critic. Standing among peers, yes, but not his or her livelihood. Therefore, the food critic must obviously be a corporate shill whose words - and credentials - cannot be trusted, since I can not ever know how much influence his or her employer has over that review.

But I am not foolish enough to make that equally illogical assumption. Certainly, there are food critics whose credentials should be questioned. Before you make another assumption, I am not meaning Mr. Kummer or the Zagats, the latter being among the most respected and trusted credentialed persons in the food critiquing business (and yes, it is a business). And certainly there are bloggers who write nonsense. But to dismiss us all because we have no, ahem, CREDENTIALS, is to somewhat arrogantly dismiss an entire medium on account of the those of us who really shouldn't be typing on a keyboard at all.

My advice for figuring out which bloggers are the most trustworthy is to read through different blogs and comments, and to see which bloggers are most respected among their peers. If they are writing nonsense then you can bet that they are being called to the carpet for it. If they are not, chances are they will be talked up by fellow bloggers and perhaps even some of those same credentialed food critics. This is perhaps the closest thing unpaid bloggers such as myself have to "credentials."

I admit we don't always have the "credentials" that paid food critics have. That doesn't mean we are not worth reading. You may not have meant it that way, but you certainly implied it.

I'm not intending to speak up my own blog, so I won't add a link to it. But to keep from being completely anonymous I will note that I write the "Baltimore Snacker" blog in, of course, Baltimore.
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So what do you think? Are non-paid bloggers as a rule less trustworthy than any paid food critic? Can food critics be trusted not to shill for "the man"? My answers, of course, are "no" and "yes" respectively. But I've talked too much about this. Y'all: it's your turn.

8 comments:

Nakiya @ Taste of Baltimore said...

Thanks for sticking up for us lowly food bloggers :)

I don't really understand the article, mostly because, in the end - taste is so subjective! How can you say someone is more trustworthy than another?

Someone credentialed probably describes food better than me, sure,(especially since I often use the words yum and delicious), but I don't think that makes me any less trustworthy.

Plus, and here's where I completely agree with you - bloggers do this for fun! We are more likely to write our TRUE opinions about something because we don't fear any repercussions.

Anyway, sorry for my stream of consciousness - and thanks for your great post.

diningdish said...

I remember one chef when he heard I was a food blogger creating the sign of the cross with his fingers as someone would to deter Dracula.

I have more concerns with Urbanspoon, Yelp, and Egullet type forums where one reports of bad meals, bad service much more readily than posting positive accounts of an evening. The twice a year diner who goes out for Restaurant Week and complains the place is too crowded or a limited selection is a dining tourist.

Restaurateurs and chefs put everything on the line, their homes, their cars even their child's education fund so you can come and dine. When they fail, they loose it all. I don't know about other bloggers but I take what I write seriously and know there are consequences to a negative post.

It has now become the readers job to sift through a myriad of mixed reviews, post etc and determine if they like the writers point of view and follow them as they follow paid restaurant reviewers.

I spend way too many hours writing my blog, setting up hyperlinks to help inform the reader. People do read what I write, better yet they comment and it is these small crumbs (pun intended) that inspire me to continue.

I pick and choose whose blogs I read and yours in one of the few. A sense of your passion, humor and truth resonates.

To wrap up the longest comment I have ever written, it is up to the reader to determine who is or isn't qualified to blog. And like television, if they don't like you they can turn you off or tune in daily for your next episode.

pizzablogger said...

John, thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading the article very much.

I'm always looking to "sharpen my blade", so to speak, particularly when it comes to writing. I ain't no English major and I definitely need more improvement when it comes to editing my own work.

I have to second Nakiya's opinion that taste is a highly subjective and personal issue. However, I also realize that a "professional", being such a person may potentially visit restaurants more frequently than "non-professionals", may have a better reference point than some bloggers out there.

For me, the article was a helpful reminder that I need to pull my own head out of my arse and realize many people may be looking for information like hours, prices, kid friendly, BYOB or Liquor, parking, etc.

Perhaps one of the handicaps for passionate bloggers is that the topic they blog about hinders us from being able to pull away and remember some people are looking for something as simple as what the space looks like/atmosphere, etc....not just an in-depth opinion on solely the food item in question.

This is certainly a weakness for me and something I need to expound upon more in my blatherings.

The article, while I have some doubts about paid food critics (such as I am highly suspicious that some awards from "professionals" in "Best Of" polls are clearly either an attempt to drum up interest in the publication by picking a new place each year or shows a potential lack of topic relevance for the person giving the award, the article certainly gave some helpful pointers which I agree with and plan to start implementing myself sooner rather than later.

For that, a big thanks to you for bringing our attention to the article. Looking forward to meeting you John. --K

Cathy said...

So according to the article, in essence, don't tell ANYONE about your dining experience unless you have some sort of "credentials". Then I will make certain not to answer the question "So how was dinner/the new place you went to?" because I am not qualified to judge my own experience. How arrogant to assume that a diner is not intelligent enough to rate their own experience honestly and impart this upon other people.

theminx said...

Um...don't the Zagats make all of their money by selling guides comprising the opinions of a bunch of "uncredentialed" non-critics?

Yeah, I thought so. Hypocrites. Never liked the Zagats.

John said...

Minx: Good point.

Y'all: Thanks for your input. There was one other person who left an interesting comment, followed by another, kinda childish one demanding that her/his previous comment be deleted "because I refuse to be moderated." Um, do people even know how to infer from the first two paragraphs in my "Leave your comment" section that the comments are moderated? Otherwise I'd be getting lots of ridiculous spam. I deleted them both, but I almost published the latter comment because it was just so silly.

Kit Pollard said...

Great post, John. I'm so glad that you took the time to comment so thoughtfully on the original article.

Honestly, all I can do now is roll my eyes at the "credentials" argument. The way I see it, the bloggers who reach a lot of readers (and by "a lot," I still mean an audience that's a fraction of the size of a traditional critic's) - they reach those readers for a reason. They've proven themselves with their writing and earned their readers.

Plus, who's to say they don't have credentials? I don't really, but lots of bloggers do have industry experience and decades of tasting behind them.

Dara's a good example. She wouldn't have the readers if she wasn't writing effectively and honestly. If you're writing about restaurants, people only come back to read more if they trust your opinion.

Articles like these just make me want to find new food bloggers to trust, rather than rely on the traditional folks. (Except you, Elizabeth Large and Suzanne Loudermilk and Mary Zajac and Richard Gorelick, if you're reading this! Promise!)

Kit Pollard said...

Oh yeah. I don't want to be moderated.

Ha ha! Moderate away.