Tuesday, 7 July 2009

With Compliments...? Thoughts on Freebies

The Twittering classes are working themselves into a frothy hubbub. Journos are striking low blows. Battles lines are being drawn and codes of ethics are being drafted quicker than an emergency UN resolution.

It’s all about the freebies.

It seems that the issue is coming to a head and is rapidly gaining some serious press attention: Is it right for bloggers to accept freebies (anything from sample packets to slap-up meals) in return for write ups? If so, what provisos should be laid down? And if it’s not, why not?

For all the attention the issue has been getting, one could be forgiven for thinking that the food blogosphere is awash with cleverly disguised puff pieces masquerading as restaurant reviews and greedy amateur food writers hounding PRs for anything, so long as it’s free.

Not that I can see. The suggestion that your average food blogger would pen a sycophantic review in return for some gratis nom and half a bottle of wine is deeply denigrating. Full disclosure seems to be the consensus with very little, if any, dissent.

Honesty and transparency are crucial for a writer to maintain their integrity. The second your word becomes suspect or is revealed to have been bought, that integrity disappears and, in the words of Bill Hicks ‘every word you say is like a turd falling…into my drink’.

Perhaps a little harsh, but it would be foolish not to quote the man on this issue seen as he spoke so vociferously about it.

Sometimes the lure of pound or dollar signs becomes too great, or is a necessity (Exhibit A: Marco Pierre White with one divorce too many). Others have no such scruples about whoring out their name (call to the stand Gordon Ramsay and the arch worshipper of Mamon, Anthony Worral Thompson).

But from what I can see food bloggers are an honest bunch. We resemble the beloved Saint Delia in this respect – a woman of strict moral standing who has refused to endorse any product for monetary re-imbursement.

Our word is important. It is all we have. When it becomes suspect we lose any respect and with it any power it carries.

So where is the clamour coming from?

It’s coming from the one place that is set to lose out: print media.

The insinuation is that accepting a tidy little freebie in return for a positive report is something new, something that brings with it a new set of moral codes.

It isn’t.

The press and PR have been strolling hand in hand for decades, scratching backs and trading favours since Gutenberg first lifted the cloth on his invention. So why the furore?

It’s about access.

Before the Internet, before email, before Twitter, before blogs there was journalism. It was a closed shop on a pedestal high, high above the world in which we mere mortals lived. A notoriously hard industry to break into and one that had a monopoly on the written word. Food writing, but a miniscule part of the trade, was even more of a hidden avenue.

But things have changed. The Internet and, more specifically, Web 2.0 with its user generated and led content has brought with it a democratisation of the written word. Print journalism has finally woken up to this.

It’s not so much about their place on the pedestal being taken over, it’s about the pedestal rapidly crashing to the ground.

This isn’t necessarily new. Both Harden’s and Zagat guides have been utilising user-generated content for years to compile more democratic, balanced and realistic restaurant reviews (whether or not they can fell Michelin remains to be seen, but I suspect we are witnessing the final throes of that revered institution).

What the Internet has done, though, is give a voice to all those who want it. Naturally, there are good and bad blogs. Good and bad food writers. And the web is awash with dull lists of what people cooked for their friends, Hank and Maureen, last weekend.

But this is a product of the fledgling nature of the phenomenon. Some will fall by the wayside, others will flourish – it’s not unusual for the top food blogs to get over a million visits a month, the sort of hit rate some magazine editors would eat their own children for.

This wheat/chaff sorting is happening already and as the word on the screen becomes as respected and as powerful as the word on the page, it will happen more rapidly.

Last year I did an internship (perhaps stage is the more appropriate word as we talking in culinary terms) at a well-known food magazine. Two weeks, unpaid. Even my expenses went unpaid, the ‘economic downturn’ given as an excuse only weeks after I submitted my claim.

I’d held this form of magazine journalism in high regard, put it on a pedestal. Magazine offices were places where exciting things happen everyday, where people who love food get giddy about all the things I get giddy about. As a result I was struck, rabbit-headlight like, for much of my time there. Slightly shy and in awe of those around me. Those who were doing exactly what I wanted to do.

Except they weren’t. The daily grind was dull. The reality was that I was already doing what I wanted to do by writing off my own back, finding my own stories, working freelance and publishing online. I just didn’t realise it at the time.

On my final day the editor took time to talk to me about what I wanted to do and how to achieve it. ‘Something’s not really been published unless it’s in print,’ they said.

At the time, I agreed. Having had a couple of pieces published, there really was a thrill in seeing one’s name in a by-line. It was a buzz. But the reality is very different, and I’m only just coming to realise this.

There is a freedom on the Internet and successful writers here can be seen by hundreds, thousands, more people than those in print. Many journalists – the good ones at least – know this and are embracing the medium.

What the debate about freebies really comes down to is part of a larger discussion about the future, nature and value of print journalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I love print. Newspapers are an integral, and deeply enjoyable, part of my life. Likewise magazines. The very nature of print journalism is a near guarantor of its quality – providing you look in the right places, of course. There is something wonderful, tangible about print. Sunday papers are one of my favourite things in the world.

But to assume that just because someone only publishes online they can’t be as good as a print counterpart is just wrong. And to assume that just because someone has been offered a free meal they will happily shelve their own opinions and scruples is not just wrong, it’s also deeply patronising.

Freebies and the media go together, and always have done, like children and chocolate. Only now, food bloggers are getting a share of the chocolate and the old guard don’t like it.


Chris Pople said...

Excellent article - although perhaps I would say that :)

Nice to see all my opinions in one place, expressed better than I ever could.

Hollow Legs said...

Excellent post, and so eloquently written. I agree wholeheartedly.

Fiona Beckett said...

Very good, passionate, cogently argued piece. You're absolutely right. May a thousand flowers bloom . . .

Lou | Crumbs and Corkscrews said...

Great article!!

On freebies, I'm always reluctant to except freebies. I'm of the opinion that if you would like me to review something, then I'll review it to the best of my ability, openly and honestly. I've had several people saying we'll send you something to try but you've got to post what we want you to post, and we'll check it first before it goes live. Sorry but that's not how I blog.

taste traveller said...

Excellently formulated entry. Thanks for posting it.

Niamh said...

Yup, yup and yup! Hear, hear.

I worked in publishing for years, and the industry is in a panic about moving online and diminishing sales. This is only symptomatic of this.

I adore the democracy of the web, blogs, flickr, twitter, everyone's got a voice now should they choose to express it.

I also think, that bloggers as individuals, care intensely about maintaining their intregrity. If you lose that, you lose everything that you've worked for. Why would you?

rich (them apples) said...

I really struggle with this issue, but recently I've come to the conclusion that I'm too hard on myself and have started to accept some of the offers that come my way.

I've generally had two types of approach. The first is of the 'we can get a professional writer to write some content for you' approach, which receive a firm 'no, thanks, but no'.

Why would I want to prostitute my blog, hand it over to somebody else so that they can peddle some tat? It's just not right.

The second approach is more acceptable to me. Sometimes I'm offered a product to try, or offered entry to an event, etc. If it's something I'm interested in and if I think I can write a balanced, independent post, I'll take the offer up, and disclose exactly who paid for what in the post.

More offers are rejected than accepted, and the ones that are accepted have to fit in with the style, approach and philosophy of my blog. Most importantly, I'll be open and I'll tell the truth.

For me, blogging is a hobby. I love to write and my blog gives me a focus and keeps me looking for inspiration. I do it for fun, not for money.

Alicia Foodycat said...

I haven't been offered any freebies (except that Miele day, but I didn't get the email in time), but I am open to offers!

And frankly, the press have a nerve. We all KNOW that a recognised reviewer from one of the papers will get different treatment and twice the number of prawns.

In addition, I spent 2 years writing restaurant reviews for a local magazine - which is frankly the closest to writing for The Times most of us will get. I didn't get a choice of where to eat, I only got sent to places that took out quarter page or larger adverts and I wasn't allowed to say anything negative. On my blog I can be (and am) much more honest!

Helen said...

Excellent post. You really summed it all up for me. I was shocked at the underhand blow from the TO article. I actually felt a bit embarrassed for them.

Kavey said...

Hear Hear!
Absolutely spot on!

Helen (Grab Your Fork) said...

Agreed. So many of the points you've raised struck a chord with my own thoughts on the matter. And brilliantly written too :)

Just Cook It said...

Thanks Chris - nice to know that there is a vocal brigade behind this.

Lizzie - Thank you so much.

Fiona - Thanks indeed. It's somehow wonderfully satisfying to be a part of this

Lou - Totally agree.

Taste Traveller - Pleasure, thanks for reading it and taking the time to comment

Niamh - You've hit the nail on the head there. We've worked hard for this, why compromise the position?

Rich - It's quite simple really, isn't it? Full disclosure and open and honest reviews. Easy!

Foodycat - Yes, yes and yes. You're right. There is some blatant hypocrisy on this issue.

Helen - They know they boobed. A rather public humiliation there and a backing down.

Thanks, Kavey

Thanks very much, Helen.

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

What a heartfelt post. Thanks for expressing it for me so clearly. As one of the 'named bloggers' in the recent Time Out post, I really appreciate reading such a well written piece as I was too shocked to respond coherently.

theundergroundrestaurant said...

And frankly, the press have a nerve. We all KNOW that a recognised reviewer from one of the papers will get different treatment and twice the number of prawns.
Just seen this and it's a good riposte!
On my blog I'm honest but compassionate.

The Good Shill said...

Sorry. I know I'm coming to this late, but I also wanted to say how much I enjoyed this post. I'm a food & wine publicist and we have this discussion at my work all of the time.

From my perspective, most pr folks don't send samples to writers with the expectation of a good review. I send along unsolicited samples very rarely. My job is to send out a pitch with all of the most relevant information possible on my client and their products. Often times, I know a particular journalist's interests because I read them regularly or I've worked with them in the past. If someone wants to taste a product in order to review it with authority or because they're interested, I'll send it. Neither I nor any publicist I know has every tried to tell a writer what to write. We want writers to know our clients and come to us when they need a quote from a wine professional or samples for a round up story, so good publicists definitely don't want to burn bridges by being boorish.

My approach is the same with bloggers. I will offer samples, but that doesn't mean there is an expectation of a positive review or any review at all. It's about connecting--I've got products and writers need subjects. It's a symbiotic relationship without good or bad guys. Most bloggers I've worked with make it very clear that they've received products from a brand, which is best. That transparency and respect--for the writer, publicist, and most of all the reader--are paramount.

I do this because I love the world of food and wine. If I didn't, I'd do something else. There's a commonality between food publicist and food writers that I think we should keep in mind. Top of mind.