Cooking up collaboration between old and new food media

I love Food & Drink magazine. Every time I see an issue, I want to lick its colourful, glossy pages. If it wasn’t so gauche, I’m certain it would prove that you can actually taste whatever dish or drink is printed on them.

I don’t often get a copy in my clutches because my fellow drinkers who frequent the same neighbourhood libation station known as the LCBO seem as ravenous as me when they see the magazine hot off the press and temptingly on display at the store’s entrance.

The copies I do have, I squirrel away in a special place — my cookbook cupboard. They are dog-eared, buckled and stained from ingredients I drop on them while concocting the recipes on their pages.

Given that history, I couldn’t wait to sit in on Lucy Waverman’s session at the recent Food Bloggers of Canada conference in Hockley Valley. Lucy is the magazine’s food editor. She’s also food writer royalty in my world, writing a regular column for the Globe and Mail. I unabashedly covet her job and I planned to hang on to her every word as she talked about the new face of food writing.

I gathered, though, from what she had to say, that it’s a face she doesn’t love.

Certain messages from her talk still echo more than a week later: food bloggers are said to have taken the joy out of cooking because we don’t test our recipes; don’t expect to make a mint from a cookbook or even think that publishing one will be easy; and the one that really haunts me — most people in the industry feel that food bloggers are pushovers. We’ll write about anything for a freebie.

I blog about food but I’m not a pushover. I will not shill for a free bag of pasta, nor have I despite the offers being plentiful.

It’s obvious to me that in some cases I’m not being chosen to receive free product because a company loves my blog or my ability to craft a sentence. They love me because I’m good for their marketing bottom line (read: cheap labour).

Still, I wasn’t angry at Lucy’s bluntness. In fact, I appreciated when she asked if anyone in the room had worked with an editor or been through the rigorous fact-checking process. I was one of three people who raised my hand.

I liked how forthright she was when she told us to ask permission to use someone’s recipes on our site and to test vigourously when creating our own.

When she reinforced the need for bloggers to be authentic and ethical, I cried out hallelujah in my head. I was unfazed by her honesty and her lack of warmth and fuzziness when doling out the truth. We’ve all read bad blogs, be it about food or anything else, and as someone who strives to bring the same values I learned as a journalist to my hobby, I was grateful for her candor.

Others weren’t, however.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a decade in newsrooms, the same environment Lucy has spent her career, and know they are places where punches aren’t pulled. Thick skins are required or grown in a hurry, and being mindful of the feelings of others isn’t always top of mind when filling pages and meeting deadlines.

But many who joined me in the session were offended by Lucy’s assessment of food blogging. They thought she was a downright downer while the rest of the conference had such a positive tone.

It was obvious she was leery — and weary — of food bloggers, particularly after relaying a bad experience she had working with one on a story for Food & Drink.

How unfortunate, really. Those of us who were at the conference were there because we want to see food bloggers upholding the same standards Lucy uses in her own work.

We all know there are pushovers, those who will sellout for a jar of salsa or free tickets to the food event du jour, just like Lucy says. But I’m confident that I wasn’t sitting in a room of those people.

One conference goer even suggested traditional media and bloggers could work together. He has seen it happen in his hometown of Calgary. But Lucy made it seem as though it were impossible in Toronto. Too many pushovers and hacks, perhaps, using new media as their outlet, and people had caught on to the problems with food bloggers.

To that I say, Lucy, give us a chance. It’s not you versus us. We can only be better if we collaborate, a message reinforced recently when I sat in on a talk by legendary television producer Ralph Mellanby, who spoke to a group of up-and-comers lusting after his job.

Mellanby, who won five Emmys for his television production of several Olympics, didn’t tell his proteges he doubted they had what it takes to make it in the industry. He urged everyone to work together because the person they were sitting next to could one day be their boss or can teach us a thing or two.

“That person sitting next to you is as big as any producer walking in. You need to work together, not stab each other in the back,” Mellanby said. “When you see great shows… that’s not a big producer. That’s the cameraman… the whole crew.”

To my fellow bloggers, I say find someone in the world of traditional media and reach out to them. Ask them for feedback about your work, interview them about how they do their job, deal with unexpected hurdles or come up with story ideas. Find a willing mentor because the Lucy Wavermans of the world have so much to offer us. And don’t dismiss them because you don’t like what they have to say.

We need to work together, We all have much to learn from each other. To do so will only make the industry of food writing better, more authentic and ethical, just like Lucy Waverman — and us food bloggers — want it.

 

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