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When Food is War: Media Battles Over the Dinner Table

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The food writing world is a strange amalgam of civility and arrogance, conviviality and snark, anger, pomposity, delusion, and fear; I've always said that no other line of work involving the act of providing sustenance is also so peculiarly mired in attitude. This first became clear to me almost ten years ago, when at a conference, I watched a mid-level-but-slightly-famous cookbook author tell a stunned group of neophytes to go into another line of work because there was just so much room for talent, and she, for one, "wasn't sharing her space at the top." Someone actually cried; I raised my hand to ask who had died and left her in charge. Then I handed out Kleenex.

That battle for elbow room still exists, as it does in virtually every profession, and while the number of food writers--really good, really talented food writers--continues to rise (along with the number of so-so ones whose visibility is in direct proportion to the amount of chutzpah they have), the war is now being waged on a very different front.

Last week, I spent two days at the remarkable first Roger Smith Food Writer's Conference in New York City, in the company of some very powerful writers and speakers. Among them were Jane Daniels Lear, formerly of Gourmet; David Leite, of Leite's Culinaria; Dana Bowen, of Saveur; Kathleen Flinn, author of The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry; Bret Thorn, of Nation's Restaurant News; Mimi Sheraton; Betty Fussell; Molly O'Neill; Melissa Clark; Amanda Hesser; Raymond Sokolov; and a host of others from every end of the food writing spectrum. On the one hand, it was one of those wondrous moments when, as a panelist, you look out and see the faces of those whose works have packed your bookshelves and night stands for years sitting side-by-side with wild young digital geniuses who are fearless, intrepid, and spend a lot of time honoring the past while looking to the future.

But what made this conference different from many others that I've attended and/or taken part in over the last few years is the downright antagonism that often bubbled to the surface like a giant amoeba; it was there, engulfing much of the conversation, and it left people grumbling, arguing, in tears, enraged, and depressed. It was the divide that supposedly separates Gutenberg from Adobe, and paper from digital. On one side of the aisle, I heard comments ranging from the ever-popular (1) "go digital, or die" to (2) "print is dead" to (3) "Gourmet folded because it was stuck in the past" to (4) "don't be a dinosaur."

My response, in order of the comments above: (1) Pay attention to monetizing whatever it is you do, or die. Make papier mache handbags for a living? Fine. Monetize your business, or you will die. Have the most fabulous digital food site ever created, but haven't monetized it? Fine. Monetize it, or you will die. Platform has nothing to do with the death of print media or the success of digital. Monetization, on the other hand, does. (2) Print is being offset (no pun intended) by digital, and everyone is clamoring for their 15 minutes of digital fame. But when a conference panelist announced loudly and emphatically that print is dead and in virtually the same breath recounted the fabulous and ongoing sales of her recently published book, her credibility went straight out the window. Until books cease being the brass ring for everyone and their brother in the digital world, no one should utter the phrase Print is Dead. Because if it was, getting their book published just wouldn't matter. (3) Gourmet folded because it had a direct competitor under the same roof in the same genre geared to more practical and commercial endeavors, it made more money, and one of them had to go. And, as I said in this column some months back, you cannot quantify iconic value. That is why Gourmet shut down. End of discussion. (4) The phrase "Don't be a dinosaur," spoken by a brash, young blogger to a room filled with seasoned professionals from whom that blogger has always begged respect, and who will, ultimately, keep print alive and enable, with their on-going revenue, traditional publishers to build their complementary digital arms, is not only wildly arrogant and rude; it's biting the hand that feeds.

Traditional publishers have been involved in multi-platform, complementary businesses for years; Harper & Row, when, in 1952, they began to distribute Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales, which invariably complemented the print edition, understood that fact. Every publisher from that point forward who has ever published books in multi-format--up to and including digital downloads and eBooks--understands that. But print has not, and will not go away. The demographics regarding who is buying what and in what format may change, but print--like it or not--is here to stay.

The success of new media platforms for everything from food publishing to fiction must be inclusive; it must be complementary for it to succeed. Books and magazines can no longer reap the visibility required for their success by print alone; they know that. And conversely, digital media almost always gets a sizable boost in traffic from mentions in print platforms, which is why every digital guru clamors for that all-important book contract, and pick-ups in newspapers and magazines. Together, print and digital platforms can help each other get through an economic slump whenever and wherever it comes; when it comes to food writers, they can ratchet up the visibility of both new and seasoned professionals by acting as two legs of the dining table.

The other two? Vision for the future, and respect for the past.
And, of course, each other.