Category Archives: media

Finger numb, eyes rolling, mouth salivating

I’ve spent much of the last week limply scrolling the trackball of my nifty mouse, trying to conquer the number of posts in my feed reader. These are the thrilling things you do when you are, seemingly, the last person in town to have come down with the flu/bronchitis/laryngitis which has been ravishing Melbourne for the last four months.

For the entire week, Google Reader displayed the ominous message “All items (1000+)”. It never changed. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled, scanning titles frantically until my eyeballs were rotating faster than the trackball. It’s probably a good thing that the Reader doesn’t bother counting higher than one thousand. I would venture a guess that I had over 4000 items waiting to be read. Had I realised that, I might just have blitzed everyone’s words and started afresh. Goddamnit! You people write too much!

Alongside all the foodbloggers from near, far and further are my trusty brainfoods… places like BoingBoing, Freakonomics, ReadWriteWeb, Science-Based Medicine, to name a few.

But you know what? Today, at 23:26, my cramping scroll-finger shivered with joy as the Google Reader showed I had scaled the pile of feedliness. “All items (926)” Sadly, this cannot last without further cramping and maddened eyeball rolling, for those 926 items encompass a mere six days of posts from the various feeds. Six days. People, stop writing so much! 😛

It was lucky I could calm my nerves tonight on a special delivery, courtesy of the J-man of Malvern and, more precisely, the favours of J-man’s jetsetting Mother-V. Late last night I received an SMS: “Make time for me tomorrow. Just ten mins.”

The merchandise was handed over in Bourke Street. A small, nondescript package. Furtive glances. I concealed the tupperware under my jacket and hastened back to the office. I clung my bag tightly to my bosom all the way home. (It was rush-hour, so pretty much the entire train felt like it was clamped tightly to me.)

Air-freighted from Ladurée, Paris. What a way to lift the mood after a week of trackball scrolling and watching bad telly.

Alas, after just 35 mins, Google Reader now shows

Supermarkets shrinking in the USA

Here’s an article from the New York Times which writes about the growth of down-sized supermarkets, based on a perhaps British model of small ‘express’ or ‘local’ supermarkets. (Mile of Aisles for Milk? Not here. May require free registration.) These can be pretty similar to, say, a very well-stocked 7-Eleven, though sometimes a good deal larger (the article quotes 10,000 sq.ft.) offering a range of essentials and not much more, but with the cachet of being within a supermarket concept, rather than overpriced convenience store (though your reality may differ 😉 ).

I don’t think we’ve seen people clamouring for this yet in Australia — probably because our supermarkets are still rarely as large as some of the larger US or UK stores. We’ll presumably see some more growth before consumers start complaining about too much choice! (Although the big players here have developed the city-centre smaller store concept a bit, I suspect this has more to do with burgeoning apartment-dwelling populations than a desire for simplified choices.)

Are restaurateurs bad at maths?

Last week saw the announcement of a significant increase in the minimum wage in Australia. The lowest paid workers will, from October 2008, receive a 4.15% pay rise, equivalent to 57 cents per normal working hour. Bang! Restaurateurs have been complaining about how this sort of increase would hit really hard and the flow-on would be large increases in costs to diners.

… on average their next main course will increase by $1.50 …

– Con Castrisos (Restaurant and Catering Australia)

Restaurant and Catering Australia (site) whipped up a press release and the papers lapped it up without analysis [1, 2, 3].

… the increase in minimum wages is felt more harshly in the restaurant industry as many employees are working less than full time and subject to penalty rates that magnify the increase …

– John Hart (Restaurant and Catering Australia)

… yesterday’s decision by the Australian Fair Pay Commission will cost his business up to an extra $50,000 a year, leaving him considering introducing weekend surcharges.

“Soon people are going to be paying $4.50 for a cup of coffee and wondering why,” he said.

The Australian newspaper, quoting Perth restaurant manager Warwick Lavis (see link 2, above)

This sounds almost as stupid as the incessant griping about the GST in the restaurant industry (now in place for eight years).

Why introduce weekend surcharges? The rise in costs affects every day of business. He doesn’t understand his own business model? And what’s with the cup of coffee? Mr Lavis thinks the result of a 4.15% pay rise for some people will cause a 29% increase in the price of a cappuccino? (I’m assuming a current $3.50 price.)

All employment factors (penalty rates, multiple employees, admin) are already built into a restaurant’s menu pricing. Restaurant and Catering Australia’s argument is solely about employment costs, so there would be no reason to assume that this pay increase could result in more than a 4.15% increase in menu prices (that’s $0.83 on a $20 main, say). And even then, they’re pretending that the menu price is entirely based on wage costs.

Amusingly, their complaints actually overlook the possible higher flow-on effects from their suppliers. Assuming produce is bought from low-wage suppliers, with one low-wage intermediary, the increase could hypothetically be as high as 8.3% (two layers of 4.15%) on food costs. But wait…

Reality is that not every supplier in the restaurant chain is subject to uniform application of the adjustment of the minimum wage. Only the lowest income employees are benefiting from the full increase, while those on an Australian Pay and Classification Scale benefit to a lesser extent. This means that for each layer of costs, the maximum cost increase is considerably less than 4.15%.

So let me see… (1) wages are only part of total costs, (2) the full increase applies to only a tiny part of the workforce, and (3) food costs won’t increase by as much as I hypothesised above because not all suppliers will be affected. I can only see a final menu price rise of 2-6% (that’s A$0.40-1.20 on a $20 main, up to A$0.21 on a $3.50 coffee).

Have I missed anything?

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.]

The obesity epidemic and the victimisation of children

Melbourne newspaper, The Age, today had a good piece by paediatrician Zoe McCallum, talking about the problems of dealing with children’s weight in a constructive way. The rhetoric of the believers in the obesity epidemic is strident and frequently demeaning, and initiatives to improve child health run the risk of damaging children.

I’ve written elsewhere (at I eat I drink I work — Article: A lightweight epidemic?) about obesity and the poor evidence for a global epidemic, dubious causes and suitable treatments. Zoe McCallum of course follows the standard ‘wisdom’ that treats the obesity ‘crisis’ as fact, but that notwithstanding, I liked her main point.

Pointless alcoholic drinks now taxed more highly

Now, I’d love to think that my little voice had some influence, but I have no delusions of grandeur: The Australian Commonwealth Government raised taxes on RTDs this week by 70%. I’m having trouble finding a press release about it, so here are links to two media reports [1], [2].

No social initiatives to change broader social behaviour, just channelling of the extra income to preventative health measures.