Is a food writing career a thing of the past?
This week, on the website she helped found, Food52, Amanda Hesser asked the question, and answered, "Pretty much."
Opinions have been flying ever since, from the jillion and one food blogs and websites and online magazines whose existence pretty much prompted the question, all of them linking to Amanda's blog and giving her a higher hit count than even usual. Smart woman.
Look here. And here. And here?
I have a different question: Is Amanda Hesser qualified to ask that question?
As a New York Times restaurant critic and writer, she enjoyed one of the only full-time, underwritten, benefitted positions of that kind in the country. Just as the New York Times can't really be compared to other U.S. newspapers, you can't compare Hesser's career to the so-called career of any other food writer. Hesser had good timing, too. She hit the sweet spot when the journalism business was still healthy and people had developed an near-unhealthy interest in food.
Except for that one brief shining moment, food writing has never been a good “career choice.” Whatever that is. That is why I always tell aspiring food writers they have to earn a degree in Latin first, like I did. It's never been a high-paying job, except for a select few. Like travel writing, it's often a by-product of another job that actually pays the expenses.
Most food writers started out local and stayed local. Every local newspaper and magazine used to have its own food writer, keeping readers in touch with their local food scene, reviewing local restaurants and generally putting the local food culture in perspective. Often this writer had a genuine interest in food; seldom had even the best of them started out their careers writing about it. And seldom did these writers earn a full-time salary only by writing. They've always had to follow the excellent advice Hesser gives at the end of her story.
Print food journalism is going the way of all print journalism. It's in a battle for its life. Newspapers especially, but most printed publications are now of the opinion that the cheapest writer is the best writer, no matter the subject, an attitude that's based on the assumed stupidity of the reader. The dearth–death–of informed media is only one reason Americans are getting stupider and stupider about almost everything. From soup to nuts. We need readers to demand more of their publications, to expect writers to know what they're talking about.
I love the rise of blogs, because it encourages reading and writing. What I don't love is the absence of any standards except the writer's own. When it comes to restaurant reviewing, the discernment level is even lower, thanks to Yelp and Urban Spoon and other websites that rely on user content. What we have now is an endless supply of food writing, but not very much good food writing, insightful food writing, knowledgeable food writing. We have very little food journalism. We need both.
How dead you think food writing is as a career depends on how alive you think it ever was and what you expect from a "career." A food writing career is not a constant upward trajectory. Most of us reach a plateau in terms of pay and influence and stop there. That's why most food writers I know, here in Utah and other places I've worked, do it from love. They keep at it out of passion, not a paycheck.
That's why I've been writing about food for the last 25 years. Is it a good career choice? It's a life.