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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.

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26 Wonderful responses to “Notes from the Greenbrier (w/Russ Parson’s update 5/14)”

  • Natalie Sztern

    I agree wholeheartedly with Seth Grodin that hard copy newspapers will be extinct perhaps by 2012; and I maintain that u should be starting an ‘online televsion show’ and charge a subscription fee.
    It would take u international…

    the internet is creating a whole other readership that has now bypassed blogging and it would be interesting to have had a ‘google’ person (or other) to discuss where they think the internet roads will be leading and what route free-lance writers should be taking (not just in the food world)

  • Natalie Sztern

    Elaborate: ‘google person’ meaning a big computer internet guy with knowledge of the future life of the internet and where its capabilites are going vis a vis increasing a free-lance writers income and visibility now world-wide

  • Rhonda

    Thank you for the update, Michael.

    I find the topics being discussed at this conference fascinating and I can’t wait to hear more.

    Nice diggs too. That cottage is so cute I just want to pinch it on its cheeks and give it a piece of candy.

  • Lynda

    Thank you so much for the notes on this conference – truly informative and helpful.

  • Tags

    Andrew Schloss was a teacher at The Restaurant School in Philadelphia in 1983. Great teacher, especially knife skills.

    Does alexa.com (Amazon’s traffic rating site) come up in the blog discussions much?

  • Cameron S.

    Thank you for the updates. Sounds interesting, tempted to go next year. That cottage does look very sweet.

  • Hippie Killer

    Welcome, and I mean it, to my home state of West Virginia. Be warned though, that the rest of the state isn’t always quite as charming.

  • Non Dire Gol

    I remain a member of the Russ Parsons admiration society as well.

  • lisaiscooking

    Thanks for the update from Russ Parsons. Interesting and more positive sounding than I had thought before. The sticky issue is payment (from advertisers or subscribers) for info acquired online and how to differentiate levels of quality of that info.

  • sbp

    I went to high school with Seth — very bright person with ideas just spilling out of his now shaved head. And it’s hard to argue that newspaper as a content delivery technology IS being replaced by electronic formats. That does not by necessity mean the content providers have to disappear — they have to adapt.

    The internet makes this difficult because news entities that were big fish in a small pond will find themselves small fish in a big ocean. Much more fierce competition for less advertising revenues.

    The scariest thing about newspapers folding or consolidating as they move to internet only is the potential demise of local reporting. Particularly lcoal investigative reporting. I have recourse to CNN.com for national news, but what internet news content provider is going to fund an investigation into fraud at my local sewage treatment plant?

  • Garrett

    So applying for the scholarship next year. (Or will try, my graduate thesis on Slow Food rhetoric will be due the exact same time the conference will go most likely.) *pout*

  • Kate in the NW

    I would add that one of the big bonuses of blogs and their comments sections (over newspapers) is their immediately interactive nature; the fact that they can serve as a remarkably egalitarian round-table discussion forum on any topic. I say this as someone who is still mourning the loss of her newspaper (The Seattle P-I) and will always subscribe to her local paper, as long as there’s a paper being published.

    As a reader, my problem with online content is, as you hint at, choosing quality over quantity. if I’m looking for the perfect recipe, the ability to find multiple options online and compare them is wonderful, but I don’t have so much free time that I can do the same thing with content as plentiful as yours, MR. To add to the confusion, in blogs as well as books, what’s popular isn’t always what’s good, so running down the Google list isn’t necessarily the best path to greatness (any more than shopping the endcaps of the grocery store leads to a great meal).

    What’s the answer? I dunno either – but I’ll keep reading here to find out. Not just the blog posts, but the ensuing discussions too.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I think the young, people around thirty and younger, are much more attached to the internet than we ‘oldies’ want to believe.

    Have u tried to get a seventeen year old to read a newspaper?

    I don’t believe that it will be financial straits that will be their demise (altho the two will go hand in hand) – it is rather those that are so computer and internet addicted that actually holding a newspaper becomes tedious: remember the way our parents taught us to fold a newspaper….

    The internet and newspapers DO go together as far as current events go; but first the internet is cheaper and second to the young: it is much more glamourous to sit in a coffee shop with a computer rather than a newspaper which is woesome indeed.

    If a site like Twitter would not have caught on the way it did, then perhaps I would be singing a different tune: Who would have thought in this world that people would become addicted to such a web-site except that it provides in-the-instant news which, unfortunately our young need: in-the-minute NOW instantaneous fulfillment without the concept of patience.

    That, and who the hell cares who saw Ashton Kutcher in the can at Le Bernadin? I guarantee that wasn’t a headline in any newspaper I read.

    When universities begin offering online courses for schooling: the future is being written on the wall. When did we predict that instead of attending a class, we could listen to the lecture online?

    I remember when reading a newspaper was considered cool and a sign of intellgence way back in the days I needed to impress. To me, it is still a sign.

    (absolutely no puns were intended in this comment)

  • Russ Parsons

    thanks for all the thoughtful comments. i guess the point that i want to emphasize is that it’s not either/or. and it’s pointless today to define “newspaper” as that thing that lands on your driveway (or in your bushes). Blogs can certainly do things newspapers can’t do (we’ve practically begged for people to interact on our website, but they still seem reluctant); but just as certainly there are things newspapers do better (as I pointed out, we average probably 500,000 page views a week for the food section). radio didn’t wipe out books; movies didn’t wipe out radio; television didn’t wipe out movies … only the media that insisted on doing business the way it had always been done suffered. The ones that proved themselves willing to adapt thrived. Some people like to use the analogy of the buggy whip maker in the automotive age for newspapers today, but i think it’s more accurate to compare us to map makers. those who still insisted on only providing maps that were limited only to how far you could drive in a horse and buggy, lost out. but for those who adapted, suddenly there was a lot more territory, a lot more opportunity and a much bigger audience.

  • Tags

    If they can call Nintendo cartridges “Nintendo Tapes,” I see no reason why you can’t call a website a “newspaper.”

  • Siren

    papers are not the only ones in trouble. Radio is also in peril these days. Media is changing and the public will have to wake up and fight for the media they want. Thank goodness for chef blogs! even without the decline of the paper we would all love and crave chef blogs

  • luis

    I think the emerging technology which bears a pay per view content internet like and book like is Kindle. I am beginning to understand that and I don’t know quite were that is going as it emerges. The young people are more computer/cell phone savvy but they are not that much into cooking. Cooking is hot because as the booomers retire it is the one thing they can have some fun with at home. The interest in food blogs will peak with the boomers and then wane quickly as less folks are able to retire and have the time on their hands.

  • carri

    I believe in the market system, still, when it comes to writing (not so sure about the rest of the world) Quality Work, whether it’s articles, cookbboks, or blogs will thrive, and the crap will fade away. Demand better content and you will get better content! The more readers who read, test and then comment on recipes, the better we will ALL get. Thank You, Michael for this excellent insiders view…so valuable and you are able to inspire so many!

  • Natalie Sztern

    Russ Parson,

    I am not sure what you are asking us to deduce when in your second paragraph you are differentiating the newspaper such as the L.A. Times vs the internet with regards to readership nos and the comment you make :
    “it’s pointless to define “newspaper” as that thing that lands on your driveway (or in your bushes)…”

    Isn’t that the whole point of your discussion? Comparing all media?

    News is not necessarily the newspaper as we know it, but certainly the newspaper is as we know it.

    Or this would not even be an issue!

  • Natalie Sztern

    Further, without being argumentative, the argument I am reading by MR is how does a free-lancer make money in this market as it goes further.

    As a reader I will read anything that comes my way (I don’t enjoy radio talk)
    whether it be books newspapers or magazines and even a blog: the real dilemma you people as writers face is where you go from here into the future and have it be financially still viable to make a living doing that.

  • Non Dire Gol

    I still love the tactile feel of my morning newspapers (I take two). I’ll read one on the sofa with my morning cup of tea and the other over lunch someplace.

    I’m not ready for my Kindle DX just yet. I don’t mind a little newsprint on my fingers.

    I do dwell in the electronic world too (obviously). But real newspapers and my New Yorker are remants of civilization that is leaving us.

  • Rachelino

    Overall, it’s all about quality writing and content. Newspapers have some of the best quality reporting anywhere and it has been widely documented that non-newspaper internet media rely heavily on traditional newsroom output. I agree with Russ that the forms (of media) are not antagonistic, and that the internet has actually expanded the reach of papers like the NY & LA Times. Radio, too: think about NPR’s Splendid Table, KCRW’s Good Food, all of which I happily consume via podcast. I am glad these traditional outlets are adapting to the internet because they are good, I want to read and listen to them, and I want them to survive.
    Ther may be a (literal) million food blogs, but the original content is rare than the review or adaptation of a recipe/technique the blogger found somewhere else (usually a book/newspaper/magazine). I think this is beneficial to traditional media – and I don’t see it as stealing. What’s beautiful is that someone’s photos and review of one recipe can spur us youngsters (okay I am 30…)to go out and buy the book. The brilliant (and free!) epicurious.com made me subscribe to Gourmet and Bon Appetit. And more cookbooks are selling in this country all the time. (Ask SF’s Omnivore Books on Food owner Celia Sack.)

    Having said all this, I do dislike newsprint on my fingers, and I want traditional newspapers (especially their test kitchens – SF Chron I am a looking at you!) to not just survive, but thrive. The sterling content should be fairly compensated, and unfortunately, I don’t think advertising is going to cut it. I want writers (in any outlet)in the field to be fairly compensated.

    I don’t have the answers.
    But I am glad everyone is in the same (electronic)room, talking it out.

    P.S. I am very excited to meet Mark Bitterman at a Salt, Caramel and Chocolate class at Recchuiti confections in SF at the end of the month!

  • r4

    Think about NPR’s Splendid Table, KCRW’s Good Food, all of which I happily consume via podcast. I am glad these traditional outlets are adapting to the internet because they are good, I want to read and listen.