Mainstream and new media incompatible? (or: Does The Age Epicure censor bloggers?)

[This article will be updated if further information comes to hand. I can be contacted privately via the contact page, or comments can be left below.]

The relationship between mainstream media publications and the online world is strange in Australia. A new media of blogs, independent commentators, expert forums and the like has burgeoned in cyberspace. Meanwhile, attempts to integrate new media into the online presence of existing old media entities have been late to the stage and range from tokenistic to populist. Online resources are used freely by journalists and the mainstream media, but a willingness to incorporate these resources into old media offerings is lacking, seemingly to the point of wilful neglect.

Bloggers, the major part of the new media spectrum, get a bad run in much mainstream press. Howls of outrage emanate from desks and laps around the world quite regularly. Print editors huff back at the howls, pointing out that bloggers are illiterate, opinionated, unmoderated, attention seeking gits who need another hobby. Neither side has the highground in this argument.

There are many successful bloggers who do exactly what print media opinion writers are paid to churn out. Some blogging domains (subjects) work well for a mainstream audience and are readily incorporated into mainstream publications. Tech-blogging is the obvious example. There are many successful, well paid tech-bloggers with their finger on the pulse of an incredibly fast-moving area. Some media organisations have recognised their value. Political blogging also works well for some people and has created names both locally and overseas (Crikey and it’s contributors are an early crossover media format). I don’t know that political bloggers earn much from their sites, but I expect that other lucrative opportunities arise for the more credible writers.

There are domains other than tech and politics that lend themselves to high-interest blogging, of course, though without the money. The number of bloggers in Australia and almost everywhere else who want to communicate something about what they cook or eat is enormous, though hardly surprising. Cookbooks sell well. Restaurants do a roaring trade. People like to communicate about food. As with anything, it’s not all done well. Passion doesn’t always translate into perfect prose. For many people, the warmth of the experience and (probably) photographic evidence is a higher priority. Each to their own. Most food bloggers aren’t seeking renown. They want to share their enthusiasm. And of those who do find renown, not many successfully move from online enthusiasm to gripping commissioned prose.

I’ve always found the vehemence of the print media response to bloggers a bit perplexing. Yes, bloggers mostly present unedited text, often longwinded or self-indulgent, but take a look at a range of professional writers’ raw text and you’d quickly realise that some of those writers produce copy which is little better than middling blog content. It gets polished by others.

Certainly, far too many foodblogs rely on other people’s recipes or derived content, too often without attribution, to gain a following. However, I’m often surprised at how obviously nicked some recipes in mainstream magazines are. Loosely derived content is often the meat in the lifestyle feature sandwich. Plagiarism isn’t the preserve of poor bloggers.

Thank god for the editors, eh?! Yep, the editors who are meant to act as gatekeepers for quality and, um, quality? No. Not quite. The writers are generally relied on to check their own facts or not to nick others’ material. Ironically, food isn’t treated as enough of a specialist area to always warrant editors (or, sometimes, writers) who actually know about their subject matter. There are exceptions, naturally, but not enough of them. Neither writing nor editing pay enough to retain many people who really know. And neither job is much fun. Editors have an unenviable position between readers, advertisers, writers and management. Writers have to work really hard to make a living. As Ed Charles mentioned on Tomato recently, even big names like Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack aren’t necessarily raking in the moolah.

I’m trying really hard to keep some balance here, as discussion of these topics so often deteriorates into one-sided rants. I’ve been reworking some old ground in talking about the problems between blogs and the media. As recently as March this year, it was made clear, yet again, just how blindly prejudiced mainstream media editors can be about bloggers [1][2][3]. So why do I raise it again?

Yesterday, in the aftermath of my annoyance at an article in The Age Epicure — probably once Australia’s most interesting wide-circulation food publication — I was told some disturbing information. It was suggested to me by a source who I would usually trust that Epicure will not, as a matter of policy, write about or make reference to bloggers. (Let’s ignore John Lethlean’s mention of Stephanie Wood’s blog late last year, cos, you know, she’s not just a blogger. She’s also a stunningly opinionated editor. Who blogs.)

Just in case you missed it the first time: it is suggested that Epicure will not, as a matter of policy, write about or make reference to bloggers. Leanne Tolra at Epicure responded to an enquiry about why an interview with me was omitted from an article yesterday saying, plausibly, that the article needed to be shorter and there had been a number of bloggers interviewed, but in the end they had to be cut. Sounds reasonable. If you are a blogger who was interviewed, please leave a note in the comments section. A follow-up to Tolra asking about the issue of deliberate omission hasn’t yet seen a reply.

Could Epicure (or perhaps Fairfax as a whole?) be so stupid as to have a policy that wilfully deprives any (external) bloggers of media exposure? If it’s true, what could be the reasons?

Let me see…

  1. Financial. Readership numbers are important for advertising revenues. Mentioning bloggers might mean readers would switch to reading hundreds of colourful food sites. But wait, aren’t bloggers crap? Why would readers switch? The primary fear is probably of restaurant reviews. A newspaper’s reviewer profile is the biggest drawcard for the majority of readers. That’s right, Epicure could churn out the same stuff every week, use foreign syndicated material, and ignore informed debate, just as long as John Lethlean and Matt Preston remain popular with the readers. (It’s notable that blogs that review restaurants bear the brunt of the animosity from the mainstream media.)
  2. Company brand strength. Tie readers into an internal blog setup so that they lose sight of the rest of the blog world. I suspect only a small subset of online newspaper readers are drawn into their blogs, not least because of the mess of comments that follows. It also means paying more writers or pissing off existing staff writers by making them produce even more content.
  3. Ideological. We already know that at least one Fairfax editor holds foodbloggers in such low regard that she’s happy to throw uninformed insults at a knowledgeable audience. Could this malady be more widespread? It’s easier to paint a whole cohort of people with one disdainful brush than to spare a moment to read or (heavens!) participate. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any Australian foodwriters or foodmag editors who openly participate in the shadowy, mysterious community of foodbloggers in Australia (I’m completely ignoring Ms Wood here, but I’m sure I’ll have missed someone somewhere!). Has anyone had a comment on their site? A majority of the foodwriters I know admit to rarely if ever reading foodblogs. Not just that, they don’t read dynamic forums like eGullet or Chowhound, which is kinda strange, given that many overseas foodwriters worth their salt are active contributors.

So, let’s think for a moment. I can’t for the life of me recall a mention of a blog in the pages of Epicure, but my reading of it has become less and less enthusiastic in the last two years, so I might have missed something. More broadly, The Age and other print media rarely mention external blogs, except in the technology pages or when a prominent person has one. For the moment, I’m quite willing to believe that Epicure and perhaps its master, Fairfax, are deliberately obscuring the contribution of external new media to Australia’s information landscape.

If we assume that points (1) and (2) are valid, then I guess we have to resign ourselves to an enduring real-blogs-vs-media-companies existence. However, if point (3) forms part of the picture then the online community must proselytise and chastise in equal measure. The diverse character and depth of new media participants’ contributions to the world of food and eating is substantial. To obscure this from old media readerships would be to pretend the world is flat. There’s little excuse for wilful ignorance.

[This article will be updated if further information comes to hand. I can be contacted privately via the contact page, or comments can be left below.]

18 thoughts on “Mainstream and new media incompatible? (or: Does The Age Epicure censor bloggers?)”

  1. Hmm, even if you *usually* trust your source this issue seems like it might need more investigation. After all, why would they interview a bunch of bloggers anyway if they didn’t have any intention of publishing their opinions? To waste everyone’s time? (Hopefully not to plagiarize…)

    I agree with all of the reasons you listed. I actually don’t read restaurant reviews at all, so their publications are less useful to me (I in turn become less useful to my friends as a source of places to eat… but I don’t care). I find it unbelievable that food writers don’t read eGullet. The forums are a public archive, so any researcher can Google whatever they want and leech off food experts from around the world without contributing a lick to the discussion, which I think is a shame.

  2. Hi Manggy. There’s perhaps a difference between editorial policy and what writers do. I haven’t bothered to check whether the writer of that piece is staff or freelance, but (assuming the source was right) it’s possible the writer didn’t know there was ‘policy’. Who knows whether I’ll receive info from other sources to confirm or deny the policy issue.

    It’s entirely possible some writers read sites when researching articles, but not much to indicate they use things like eGullet as a means of engagement or self-improvement, so to speak.

  3. To the contray Duncan, I have been surprised in the past year at the number of times I have heard Age employees refer to bloggers.
    I attended Restaurant 08 just a few weeks ago, where Necia Wilden was a moderator and John Lethlean was in the audience at different times, I could not help but notice how often blogs and bloggers came up.
    It was also a hot topic at the Food and Wine Festival earlier in the year, not just in the blogging discussion but across the board -though this was a more international group of panellists.
    What I think is happening is that our traditional media are a little behind the rest of the world in their understanding (I know they read us, thats why they talk about it)of how to embrace the technology and probably feel like outcasts to our little niche.
    I think this goes for a lot of people; I have many restaurant friends that read my blog yet email me comments as they obviously don’t feel confident to press ‘post a comment’ and become part of it. Often when people don’t understand new things they will stand around criticizing before they jump on board.
    I think it will just take time. I am convinced that there is a tipping-point to be reached, I have decided to put my head down and just write about what I love and not worry if the trad media still think it is the year 2000.
    I am enjoying reading the blogs of world class food people such as Terry Durack and Frank Bruni, and don’t doubt that in time the local food media will jump on this band wagon. JL has written on the Australian Gourmet Traveller ‘blog’ (not that it really counts as you can’t comment), but they are moving closer.

  4. Oh and forgot to mention bloggers were refered to at The Age Good Food Guide launch last year in the preamble to the awards. I bet a lot of the restaurateurs and chefs in the audience had to go home and goggle ‘blogs’ to work out what they were talking about but the seed has definitly been planted.

  5. Jack, mentions of blogs, orally, is different from people actually either reading or engaging with them, or writing about them. The key issue is whether there is a policy for excluding mention *in print* of them.

    I agree that old media is moving to incorporate these formats, but rarely in a serious way in Australia. Other places have been doing much more to normalise the involvement of writers and bloggers in dynamic media formats.

  6. We all know that the trad media read blogs, I’m not sure about forums (I find these a bit dull myself, especially the local boards), the evidence is in the coincidental writing on topics. A beauty of an example, was a piece written by Simon Thomsen recently were he refered to GA&S salumi cabinet as Damien Hirst-like, of which bloggers would know was used by Ed months before… (
    I’m sure their are heaps of examples, many of the trad media food writers spoke about reading blogs, Joanna Savill admitted, so as did Dani Valent, and she was quite supportive.
    I reckon we just scare them off from participating, by going on about it. To be honest I don’t think that matters, for now, I know that things will change in the future, for now they are just voyeurs into this world.
    Its just a bit of snobbery, that blogs aren’t mentioned in print but I’m sure in the future this will change or they will look silly and out of touch.
    NB If I remember correctly, didn’t Ed say he was invited to review for GFG after they read his piece on Gingerboy, and that was a while ago now…

  7. Duncan,

    Clearly you’re frustrated, as most of us are when someone massacres a topic we care about. I do think however, that your comments are overly focused on one publisher – Fairfax and you reference mostly Lethlean and Wood.

    Fairfax are notoriously snobby about what they will and won’t mention. I have first hand experience of this with my business were some businesses get a one page review, the editor says “we want to hear about more businesses like this” and then makes an illogical excuse not to feature a particular business (mine).

    Lethlean does write on the AGT blog; he is a commissioned writer there, even if his regular gig is at the age.

    Ms. Wood I find intriguing as she has a foot in either camp AND still manages to kick up a fuss with her comments on “non professional bloggers”. Either way, I fail to see what all the fuss about her actually is.

    On the other hand, I think AGT has embraced the blog remarkably well (within the corporate confines of what they have been permitted to do, although what is called their blog is not, and not intended to be, a blog such as these). I know the food editor there reads my blog (as that’s how he contacted me to get involved with this year’s guide) along with other professional and global blogs.

    Haven’t we seen Ed mention the blogger’s banquet in his (mainstream) column?

  8. Alright folks, if there’s something which I can word better tell me and i’ll fix it above to make it clear.

    a) the focus on Fairfax is because the suggestion of deliberate censorship relates to Fairfax/Epicure AND the most discussed local negativity about blogs has been from one or more persons within Fairfax. It’s therefore logical that the discussion points at them. If other local writers or editors have said silly things, I would have included them without hesitation (and am happy to add them if there are examples). Ed works for a different organisation where he has clearly been at liberty to mention blogs, etc, so I had nothing to address there. I should also state clearly that I have no beef with Lethlean. Lethlean and Preston are rightly valuable brands for and contributors to Epicure.

    b) I don’t say that media organisations aren’t engaging in blog-like activities. I have written that there is little or no reference to *external* online media (including blogs) in the pages of Epicure.

    c) I’m sure that the mainstream media are aware of blogs, etc, but there is little evidence that many representatives *read* them (in the sense of here’s-something-to-read, rather than I-just-googled-a-topic-i’m-writing-about) and very little participation. I have to make generalisations or you’d give up reading much earlier, but I think the point is valid: there’s little evidence of engagement. And it’s worth repeating that the absence of Australian media people from a forum like eGullet is unusual compared to other English-speaking countries.

  9. Hi Duncan,

    I was email-interviewed by the author for this article. Her exact question on the email was:

    “I’ve been asked to write a story on macaroons and whether they are causing a buzz in the blogosphere. Have you detected this and do you think they could become the new cupcake?”

    I replied and actually pointed her to your blog and to Tartlette. She asked if she could phone me as well, but I was too busy that day.

    I’ve just spent some time reading through the links in your post – about Out of the Frying Pan, Stephanie Wood, Bloggers vs Professional Writers etc. Very interesting stuff.

    I thought it was odd that the author of that article asked me about macarons, when I’d only done 3 short posts on them, and other bloggers (yourself especially) had written much many more posts including recipes, different varieties and detailed technical information.

    If that policy is true (i.e. that we bloggers are those who must not be named), then it is very hypocritical and lazy of an Epicure writer to be interviewing us for information, rather than doing their own independent research. Duh – it’s called Google. Interviews with Boillon and Vassenaut aside, I don’t think that macaron article had any information in it that couldn’t have been gleaned from a simple search.

    xox Sarah

  10. Yeah. Lots of interesting stuff to absorb here.

    Speaking as someone with a toe in both camps I find it strange that CAJ (computer-assisted journalism) is the new norm yet the blog is still a dirty word. Budgets and deadlines are tight and hacks are often forced to do their research via phone and modem instead of legging it.

    I was at a dinner last night with some media and I mentioned I had a food blog. By the looks on their faces you would have thought I’d said I’d just shat myself.

    I’m sorry your piece was cut, Duncan. It bites when that happens. And I think it’s a load of bollocks that bloggers were used for their wisdom and then viewed as too unreliable a source to quote, if that was truly the case.


    [To clarify: no piece of mine was cut. That’s not what this article is about.]

  11. Thanks for the info and comments Sarah. Interesting to know you were approached too:) And yes, the opening was the same with me … is the macaron the new cupcake (to which I said no, cos they have different audiences and reasons for enthusiasm).

    Good to have your feedback, JSL. It’s a very strange relationship isn’t it, regardless of whether my source was reliable re censorship. In the end, I care far less about being excised from a story than about the much more serious issue of information control.

  12. Man, the comments are bit crazy. You need to read the post! Lots of the replies miss the point. Censorship as policy! Duncan you hit the nail on the head. Perhaps you could have written that part higher up in the post.

  13. As an earlier comment said, I was also surprised that the macarons article in The Age didn’t mention your absorbing & detailed postings? Perhaps you are right about the censorship theory?

    It annoys me that many paid journos trawl through the blogs for info then use it un-credited.

    In tasting Australia next year, I have been told that food blogging will feature more prominantly which is encouraging.

  14. Well at this point I can say that (1) the source was clear in their statement about policy, (2) Epicure has specifically not replied to my correspondence asking about policy, (3) two other possible contacts have failed to respond to the same question.

    It’s certainly annoying when blog content is used to flesh out journos’ work. Worse still when editorial teams deliberately erase the existence of blogs from work which is open about its inputs.

  15. Sorry I’m late to this but i forgot I had to go away. I’m very surprised that they say they have a policy of excluding bloggers. Perhaps it’s because of this sort of situation. Jackie is absolutely right that I was asked to review for The Good Food Guide after John Lethlean read my post on Gingerboy. And a couple of months before that I was approached to write my column for the Herald Sun.

    Many journalists some very senior do read blogs as they are good sources for stories and ideas.

    As a matter of Copyright and Fair Use – all set down in law – sources of information should be acknowledged.

    Sadly interviews are sometimes far more wide ranging than can be included. I spoke to a few extra people for my recent story on kitchen gadgets and left Ellie out as the editor though her kimchi fridge was a bit specialist. But I did email her and explain it. I probably speak to ten people a week who i don’t mention at that time in print but will when I can.

    Personally I always try and acknowledge a blog when it is a source and this journalist should have.

    Obviously these newspaper sections are influential but I think we should just get on with it. we are proving to be a legitimate new medium who can cater to niche audiences and draw on far more diverse experiences than a newspaper can.

    Perhaps we should look to putting together an online magazine?
    More importantly, when did I become so reasonable?

  16. Checkout Roy Greenslade at The Guardian (He’s a former newspaper editor)

    “What is also clear, most obviously in peer to peer blogging, is that people are engaged with each other as never before. Without any institutional or corporate coaxing, people are forming cyber communities in which they converse endlessly about their interests.

    I say this as a preliminary to explaining why journalists, especially print veterans like me, are so suspicious of bloggers. We have spent our lives dominating conversations.”

  17. Ed, that quote is fantastic. It sums up both the advantages and problems of the blogosphere, and the disconnect that is inevitable (for the moment) between old media and new.

  18. Greetings!
    Robert-Gilles from Shizuoka, Japan!
    I’m afraid I have to concur all the way with you!
    Although here in Japan there is no aggro yet, it is open war back home in France!
    Reasons are multiple, but the main one is that bloggers mostly try to be honest with no compromises whereas professional magazine food critiques have developed dubious relations with the establishments they visit or chefs/epicureans they interview.
    You wouldn’t believe to what extremes these “critiques” go when they comment on bloggers’ sites. To their unending chagrin, most of the time!
    Bloggers have become and will stay the long-awaied reasonable voices in the food landscape.
    At least, we are having fun!
    Cheers and all that!

Comments are closed.