Ensconced now in this sweet cottage on the grounds of the Greenbrier Resort with the first moments to digest and think. I always regret accepting these things–how can I take a week off of work?–and then when I'm here I'm invariably grateful to meet the people and to have had the discussions I do—an extended conversation about salt with an artisan salt purveyor in portland, a woman in california who has sold 12,000 copies of a book she published herself. Damn that takes some doing. And to be reunited with people i really admire and like to be around, such as Russ Parsons, who even deigns to blog every now and then at his paper's DailyDish, in addition to running his food section. But it's the whole spirit (orchestrated by earth mother Toni Allegra) of people who care about food—their coming together has a powerful affect. While there's plenty of gloominess regarding a stalled economy, what gives a gathering such as this its force is, at least in part, the shared conviction that understanding food, its power to connect us to one another, to new cultures, its capacity to feed our bodies and fatten our souls (I may desire trim hips but I want a soul as fat as the spirit of Christmas present and food is one way I feed it), its power to comfort, to enlighten or simply to make us glad. We are all here, everyone of us on attempting, in the the words of the smart and eloquent Andrea Nyugen, actively seeking to understand the connection between food and the human experience.
Little has been discussed regarding what newspapers are doing, only some hand wringing about reduced budgets and the knowledge that Seth Godin has claimed their print versions will be gone by 2012. There will regardless always be food writing and there will always be books. Perhaps the most powerful buzzing has been a curiosity of how the new media might affect food writing, what are the new opportunities and the new dangers. Answer: we don't know!
I was part of a panel this morning that talked about, more or less, how we stay alive as freelancers. David Joachim, Andrew Schloss and I talked about the multifaceted ways we make money. Me: book advances (the majority), royalties, writing for mags and papers, this blog, and speaking engagements. David, a writer, and Andrew, who began as a chef and restaurateur, also promote some products and teach in addition to this. Andrew, does product development for big food companies, in addition to the other stuff which can be quite lucrative. How David manages it all speaks for most of us: "I don't sleep."
With the input of Elise Bauer and Ed Levine, I talked facts and dollar figures that people want and need to know about blogging. The truth is, while Elise has no other income other than her blog, all the other bigger bloggers people know (folks like Heidi, Deb, the way steamy Jaden) have additional sources of income and/or a partner who works. What does this mean? It means that it's very hard to make money solely from a blog, that if income is what you need, a blog should be written in conjunction with other acts, whether selling a product or writing for traditional media or working as a cook.
The most important words on the internet came from Elise in an email last night, which I read at the symposium:
"The amount of good quality web content is going up. Gourmet is online, BonApp, Microsoft did a deal with Hearst to create delish.com. Lots of big money going after this market with good content. Thousands of food blogs, lots are bad for all kinds of reasons, but more and more are great — excellent photos, good writing, original recipes. I see a ton of great blogs because most of them end up asking me to put them on Food Blog Search.
"So, lots of great food content. Lots of food content period. The rate at which both quality and quantity of online food content is increasing.
"But it is increasing much faster than the number of people searching for food content online.
"This makes it a much more competitive environment for a publisher.
"5 years ago I could have a bad photo and a bare bones recipe with a 2 sentence headnote and have the number one spot on Google for that recipe. The main food site online was cooks.com, with weak content, not so hard to top them. Now that would be highly unlikely. Food Network, Allrecipes, everyone is getting a lot more savvy.
"It is becoming harder to stand out because there is so much more content, both good and bad out there."
Tomorrow, I'm on a panel with Bill LeBlond of Chroncle Books and Sydny Miner of Simon & Schuster discussing "Writing for Contemporary Cookbooks." Yes, the internet has changed the cookbook, and yes the language of the cookbook is evolving. More on that soon.
UPDATE: Russ Parsons replies re: newspapers supposed demise, 5/14:
I want to thank everyone for their questions and concern and thank Michael for inviting me onto his blog (he's SUCH a nice young man). The issues around newspapers today are complicated and nasty and I don't want to bore you with a long discussion of them. But there are a few points I think its important to keep in mind.
The internet and newspapers area not antagonistic. In fact, at the LA Times they are a major part of our efforts. Rather than what is often portrayed as an Old Media/New Media cage match, I think they're complementary. I scan the blogs pretty much every day, catching up on what's new with my old friends (both real and virtual). And I know from reading them that they are looking at my Food section as well.
As are a lot of other people: we average in the mid-six figures for page views every week (that's for our food section alone). My e-mail address runs at the end of all my stories and I would bet that between 1/3 and 1/2 of all my e-mails come from internet readers outside our circulation area … people who wouldn't be able to read my stories without the internet.
In fact, the only problem we have with the internet is with internet advertisers, who still only pay a fraction of a percentage per reader what they would for print.
I've gone on for too long (nothing like taking over the conversation at someone else's party!). But I do want to leave you with a couple of curious tidbits and a final thought.
The tidbits: Despite everything you might have heard, most newspapers are still profitable. it's newspaper corporations that are in trouble because of irrationally exuberant borrowing, most of it over just the last 10 years. Also, newspapers are still popular: our print edition circulation is still over 750,000 on weekdays and when you combine it with our online readership, we're probably reaching more folks than we were back in the glory days of print-only.
And finally, since I'm here at Greenbrier and it's all about the craft: I remain convinced that when all the business and technology shakes out–in whatever way it will shake out–people are always going to want to read good stories and there will always be a market for them.