I’m a Blogger—Deal with It

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Theme Essay by Bianca Garcia

Why the New Generation of Food Writers Is Making Money

 

"Chihuly at Mohegan Sun" © Bianca Garcia

At Mohegan Sun, the second largest casino resort in the United States, I checked in at the VIP lounge. Before I headed to my all-expenses-paid suite, a receptionist with perfect curls and a dazzling smile served me champagne. Later that evening, I enjoyed a complimentary meal with wine pairings at celebrity chef Todd English’s Tuscany, feasting on antipasti, pasta, steak, seafood, and a decadent molten chocolate cake.

My name is Bianca Garcia, and I’m a food blogger.

In November 2012, the casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, invited me and eight other bloggers to a “Girls’ Weekend” in exchange for blogging, tweeting, and posting on Instagram, Facebook, or Pinterest. Mohegan Sun treated us like royalty, even providing stretch limos. While such PR events don’t require bloggers to post anything on a brand’s behalf, there’s a tacit agreement that we will. And when we do enter into a contract and a paid relationship —as at Mohegan Sun—we’re required by law to disclose it. In this case, Mohegan Sun’s public relations manager and I discussed beforehand exactly the kind of coverage I’d provide.

Such sponsored content is not journalism by any stretch. Yet, for chefs and everyone else in the hospitality industry, food bloggers now have more clout than traditional restaurant critics and food editors. Even a quick search on a news aggregator like Feedly brings up thousands of results for “food blog." I started Confessions of a Chocoholic in 2008, and my blog now has 360,000 visitors a year. Two years ago, the nine bloggers at Mohegan Sun collectively racked up two million followers a month.

Fashion and travel writers have long wrestled with how much to disclose about PR junkets paid for by chambers of commerce and other corporate interests. In the past decade, bloggers have also invaded the turf of traditional lifestyle magazines. But blogging isn’t just about writers like me selling our souls for corporate communications. It’s an excellent way to make money writing about a subject that I’m passionate about. And in general, food blogging has helped grow the audience for food writing, cookbooks, and fine dining.

Take Dan Whalen, who also started his blog, The Food in My Beard, in 2008. By January 2014, he had his own glossy cookbook—Stuffed: The Ultimate Comfort Food Cookbook (Page Street/Macmillan). This April, Whalen told me that he receives dozens of emails and press releases each day. “All these brands want me to write something about them,” he says. “But I’m very choosy about what I write, knowing that I have almost half a million people reading my blog every month.”

From Cooking a Wolf to Food in Beards

"Limo" © Bianca GarciaWhen a new restaurant opens, the chef, owners, and PR team wait anxiously for the verdict from local critics. Now, they also actively pursue reviews by food bloggers. Alyssa LaManna, a publicist for Expose Yourself PR, told me in an email interview that she likes working with bloggers on behalf of her clients because “[e]veryone has a story, and bloggers can really help us spread the word.”

Food writers didn’t always have such power and influence, but in the mid-twentieth century, Mary Frances Kennedy (M.F.K.) Fisher transformed old-style restaurant criticism. Fisher wrote 27 books, including food writing classics like How to Cook a Wolf (1942). In The Gastronomical Me (1943), she explained her focus on food, noting that people often asked her, “Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security and about love, the way others do?”

They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.

Fisher’s prose gave food writing emotional weight—as did the passionate prose of A. J. Liebling of the New Yorker. Then, in 1961, the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle helped launch Child’s mainstream popularity and her PBS television show The French Chef. By the ‘70s and ‘80s, cookbooks and cooking shows had become a media juggernaut. Bravo's Top Chef heads into its twelfth season this fall, bolstered through the years by offshoots such as Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Desserts.

Of the blog he started in 2004, professional pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz notes that he "had little idea that blogging would take off like it did, and now my blog is one of the most fulfilling, exciting things that I do.”

As of July 2014, Lebovitz’s website gets roughly 150,000 monthly visitors (150,325 unique visitors in August 2014, according to media measurement tool Compete). But he has fewer visitors than amateur cook Whalen of The Food in My Beard, whose followers religiously send him pictures and videos of their own creations, thank-you notes, and tweets about his recommendations.

Are Bloggers More Honest than Magazine Writers? 

Google searches for the term “food blog” have increased 500 percent since 2004, with the term peaking in mid-2012. Yet, most industry observers measure a popular blog’s growth not just in readership, but also by its expansion to other forms of publishing, such as video, podcasts, and social media. 

"Candied Bacon" © Bianca GarciaJoy Wilson, who’s been blogging at Joy the Baker since 2008, has benefited more from the availability of different kinds of media than early leaders like Lebovitz and Julie Powell of Julie & Julia fame. A self-taught baker, Wilson went on to become a cookbook author and professional photographer. She stars in her own Web series, creates her own videos and podcasts, and has a partnership with an advertising network.

Wilson has half a million visitors a month, which means she can influence a huge audience. But she’s not a professional chef or food journalist; she’s the “everyday girl” who writes about her troubles with her small kitchen, ex-boyfriends, and the cat licking the crumbs from her kitchen table. If she says a particular baking pan is the best pan for baking brownies—and pictures of her brownies look rustic rather than perfect—I believe her more than the big shots at Saveur. (In fact, Saveur gave Joy the Baker a Best Food Blog Award in 2013.)

Recently, I interviewed my friend and blog reader Valerie Mayo, a foodie who subscribes to dozens of food blogs and magazines. For her, a magazine recommendation feels like a paid placement, while a blogger recommendation feels like word of mouth. “I think bloggers are more honest,” she says.   

Not everyone agrees. In a Bloomberg TV interview last year, Martha Stewart said:

Who are these bloggers? They’re not editors at Vogue magazine. I mean, there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create kind of a popularity, but they are not the experts.

Stewart later issued a retraction after she and her own blogger network, Martha’s Circle, received a backlash of criticism. Her PR team tweeted that “Martha Stewart loves most bloggers who are great friends and trusted allies.”

But she had already missed the point. Some bloggers really are experts in their fields, and high-quality blogs covering diverse cuisines abound. There’s White on Rice, by pro food stylists and photographers Todd Porter and Diane Cu, a blog that spotlights food and travel. There’s the funny and irreverent The Amateur Gourmet by New Yorker Adam Roberts. (In Roberts’s “About” section, he says of his failed time in law school that “[w]hile most of the students around me aspired to lucrative careers as toxic tort attorneys or Supreme Court justices, I spent my days thinking about soufflé.”)

There’s Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef by Shauna James Ahern, who pioneered niche food blogging in 2005. There’s How Sweet It Is, a playfully written blog by “totally self-taught/mom-taught” Jessica Merchant. (On her “About” page, she says “[v]egetables and I are the best of frenemies. My perfect world would include none of them.”) There’s The Pioneer Woman by Ree Drummond, who is currently a star in her own cooking show on the Food Network.

And then there’s me.

Food Blogs and Freebies

While I don’t have millions of followers yet, I am considered “valuable” to corporate publicists, which gives me access to exclusive events, beta products, and loads of freebies. I work with big brands like Lindt Chocolate, Kraft Cheese, Mars, Smart Balance, and even Toyota Corolla. I’ve accepted thousands of dollars worth of perks and have been paid to write sponsored content—all of which I clearly disclose on Confessions of a Chocoholic.

"Banana Bread with Candied Bacon" © Bianca GarciaOn my blog, sponsored content always has a glamour shot of the brand and links to its website. In contrast, my personal pieces are accompanied by photos of friends and family. If I create original recipes using free products, I say so. But most of the time, I mention my favorite brands and link to their sites without getting paid because I want to share my preferences with readers. Writing about all the delicious things I like is why I started my blog in the first place.

Freebies and VIP treatment certainly tempt bloggers to write gushy copy about whoever is paying them. But remember, longtime restaurant critics have been receiving complimentary meals and other perks for decades. Most bloggers don’t have the option of charging everything to a company credit card. The main difference between a restaurant review on my blog and the latest review of the same place in the Boston Globe is that I paid for my own food. And if the restaurant actually invites me to dine for free? I just order more and take more pictures. Either way, the piece I write is based on my honest opinion. 

Earlier this year, I got an all-expenses-paid weekend trip to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. The trip was sponsored by Jones Dairy Farm, a company that produces all-natural bacon, ham, and other meat products. I stayed at a beautiful hotel, ate multi-course meals, took a class, and participated in a Chopped-style cooking challenge. I blogged about that experience.

A few months later, I also blogged about recipes I developed for my sponsor: “Chocolate Chip Banana Bread with Candied Bacon” and “Mini Bacon Chocolate Shortbread Ice Cream Sandwiches.” Right before my disclosure statement for the ice cream sandwiches—“I received compensation and product samples to develop this recipe for Jones Dairy Farm”—I noted:

I had to run a quick errand as soon as I finished cooking the bacon for this, and the guy next to me in line at the store leaned a little closer to me than normal as he took a big whiff of my bacon-scented hair. Bacon, making me more attractive [in] 2014.

I was paid for the recipes, but not for the personal quirks that attract my readers. And there’s nothing false about my love of chocolate and bacon. My followers read these posts because they know I mean it—and I know I make them hungry.

Mini Bacon Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich" © Bianca Garcia


Publishing Information

Art Information

  • All photographs © Bianca Garcia; used with permission.

Bianca GarciaBianca Garcia is the author of the food blog Confessions of a Chocoholic. Part memoir, part recipe collection, and part restaurant-review database, her blog is a chronicle of her culinary adventures—and the laughs, tears, and chocolate that come with it. She was recently sponsored by Lindt Chocolate to host a wine-and-chocolate tasting party for her friends.

Bianca is also an advertising professional, the clerk of the TW Advisory Board, and has completed her master's degree in journalism at Harvard University. She spends her free time writing, running, practicing yoga, and catching up with her family, friends, and DVR. She thinks about dessert constantly. 

Editor's Note: Bianca Garcia was not paid to mention any of the products, blogs, organizations, or companies referred to in this TW feature.

Comments

Bianca: Your essay has got me

Bianca: Your essay has got me thinking about how and why we write for a living.
Do you ever get confused about what part of your writing life is sponsored by someone or something else? It doesn't seem to me to be a very attractive way to present yourself and your favorite foods to the world Despite the obvious perks. I suspect -- actually, I hope -- that you encounter many fine lines along your way.
I suspect this because, though I'm a wizened, old-school newspaper reporter, I got into the business partly because of my desire to write about music. That urge, back in the '70s, meant that I was entirely dependent on corporate giveaways of what used to be called LPs in order to fulfill that dream. Then as now, working at a newspaper was a good way to make a poor living. I Ioved getting albums in the mail..
The record companies would also shower me with promotional swag, whether I asked for it or not. This presented me with plenty of dicey moments. I accepted the stuff, I liked to tell myself I had my limits. When, for example, the flack at Columbia asked me for my shoe size, I never got back to her. That was my idea of virtuous behavior back then. I showed her I couldn't be influenced by the company's tawdry efforts to win my affection and few kind words.
All the unsolicited stuff they sent me? I never sent it back. Some of it, I still have. Anyone want a Ramones letter opener/ switchblade?
I also did a long stint as a movie critic. No one offered me swag bags at the premieres. There were no premieres. I bought my own tickets, gave my best opinions and felt as virtuous as it's possible for a critic to feel.
So you & I have different approaches to writing about what we love. I wonder how I'd have resisted, had I your opportunities, what i continue to think of as writing from a compromised or, to put it bluntly, a bought-and-paid for position. Would I feel that having hundreds of thousands of readers who understood the ways and means of social media justified my accepting limo rides and chocolate-covered whatnot? Is this diatribe the result of foodie envy? Am I just a plain-vanilla fuddy-duddy (sounds like a good name for a dessert, doesn't it?)?
I do know this: I'm considered a bit of an outlier by some of my colleagues because I've been known to eat rubbery scrambled eggs and gulp the free coffee at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting because if I don't, I'll fall asleep while the featured speaker, the president of the local state college, rambles on about what a great job he's doing.,
I don't get to issue disclaimers about whether or not someone or something was sponsoring my reporting because I like to think I'm sponsor-free, and that I should be, though Lord knows I'm accused often enough of being a corporate flunky by dint of being on the payroll of corporate media barons whose newspaper-owning ancestors A. J. Liebling loved to skewer.
So, I'm dealing with it. I don't have many answers, but since we both appreciate Liebling, thos final thought occurs: he was a supreme wit and stylist. He wrote about food and newspapers. But in so doing, he wrote about something else, something larger: the human condition. He did so memorably. Though I'm hardy well-read in the annals of foodie writing, I can't say I've noticed any great writing to have emerged from this explosion of blogging you've presented here. I'll take food blogging seriously when out that great explosion someone's blogging "expands," as you call it, into a book or even a podcast or video that sheds the kind of light that Liebling did as a writer, not merely an eater, or -- perish the thought -- a consumer of mass media..

Hi, Jeremiah. Thank you for

Hi, Jeremiah. Thank you for your insightful comment. You are right, there are many fine lines along the way, and I try my best to disclose any and all perks I receive. My blog contains less than 20% sponsored posts - majority of the time, I buy all the ingredients on my own, pay for my own meal, drinks, tickets, etc. I fell in love with food writing and food blogging because of writers like Ruth Reichl and Frank Bruni - both of whom also enjoyed countless free meals because of their jobs! As you know, it's very hard to get paid as a writer these days, and I take as many opportunities as I can that come my way. I am happy that my article made you pause and think, and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts!

I'm not a foodie - I

I'm not a foodie - I sometimes eat cereal out of the box for dinner - so I wouldn't read your blog even though you are a good writer. I do dine at restaurants, though, and I would never, ever trust (or even read) a restaurant review by someone who admittedly takes money from "sponsors." As a reviewer, you have no credibility whatsoever if you accept anything of value from your subject. You spend a surprising amount of print, or should I say pixels, boasting about all the cool treatment and "stuff" you get. That's fine, and it's nice that you can help support yourself this way. But most reliable food reviewers keep their identities secret as much as possible, and even if restaurant staff recognizes them and tries to cook for, or serve them, "better" than usual, those reviewers aren't being compensated for good reviews. Honestly, I suspect - from the title of your essay and from the outrageousness (or unbelievable naivete) of what you wrote - that this was intended to provoke comments. But if you're serious, well, I'd rather read Yelp reviews - not because I'd trust any individual review, but because you can usually get a sense of what a place is really like from the overall critical mass of the reviews. You are only valuable to Mohegan Sun, or any vendor, because you provide advertising in exchange for goods or services, not because your reviews are honest (they can't possibly be, or the amount of swag would rapidly diminish). I'm not really sure that "real" restaurant or product reviewers or even readers would accord your reviews much respect. I think any reader would take your reviews with a 28-oz salt container, notwithstanding how well they may be written.

Hi, Linda, Thank you for your

Hi, Linda, Thank you for your honest thoughts. The sponsored posts I mentioned here are for brands that pay me to develop recipes for them. When I write restaurant reviews - and I write about places ranging from a food truck in Boston, to a new restaurant in Seattle, to a sushi joint in Tokyo - most of the time I pay for my own food (from my last 10 restaurant reviews, only one was a free meal). I respect your choice to favor Yelp - I read it, too, and I suspect so do my readers. I understand the free-vs-paid issues, and what I continue to do is to disclose any freebies I receive. I also do not deny that my relationship with sponsors is a business exchange. As for spending a lot time writing about the "stuff" I get, I specifically focused on the financial side of blogging because this is a Money issue. If we had a different theme - passion, family, travel - I would have written it from a completely different angle.
PS - I also eat cereal out of the box for dinner, sometimes with chocolate milk.

I have experience as a

I have experience as a blogger, staff city news reporter (print only), arts & culture writer for daily national digitals and a content writer for global brands. My base is traditional journalism and I attended school for it.

I think this was a well thought out piece and I appreciated your honesty. You were candid about your role as a blogger, the perks that accompany that and how you understand the difference between that and traditional journalism. This is a rare attribute among bloggers, or even writers in general. I also enjoyed the bits of history that you contributed.

The comments posted were also interesting to me, as I love to hear from journalists with various perspectives, however they were a bit misinformed and outdated. While you make clear the difference between a blogger and, say, a newspaper reporter, I still find people (not just the commenter) comparing the two. They are two very different animals and neither should be judged, as long as both are open about their reporting methods.

Working under a news outlet (as I have) is nothing like working as a blogger. None of the same rules apply: You are representative of that brand. Unbiased, stringent fact-checking is a priority and even as a reviewer your audience expects unbiased opinions. With that said, we unfortunately no longer live in that utopia (if we ever did) as many news outlets today are owned and funded by big corporations many of which have a vested interest in, let’s say, specific political parties….and the material starts to lean from there. But I digress.

Working as a blogger is an independent gig. Even more so than a freelancer (which I am now) since, as a freelancer, you are still under the guidelines, demographic, voice etc. of various publications. Bloggers are a one-man (woman)-band, free to write about what they want, how they want….there is no promise of refusing perks. In fact, it’s often necessary to accept them since no pub is backing you and you may not even receive a press pass.

The very nature of the job is often openly biased from the start because many bloggers (like you) choose a niche that they love and seek the most interesting eats and venues to inform others who also have similar passions. And there is nothing questionable about this as long as the reader knows what they’re reading. You are not the old school undercover restaurant critic promising utter bluntness. (They still have those?) You are traveling to places that we don’t have time to, and showing us the experience and food upfront. We are entertained and can decide from there which ones we would like to try ourselves.

Blogging was born with the boom of social media and has changed the way we consume info by offering a fresh, modern “every-day voice” to once elitist topics which were mostly covered by, for example, French-trained chefs or life-time restaurateurs.

If I want that I’ll check out Bourdain. But he’s most likely in Morocco somewhere for one of his many shows and not at that new bakery in the LES that I don’t have time to check out, but want the scoop on!

With the last decade’s financial hit to journalism (and the hospitality industry) and the accessibility of the internet, social media and eager, fresh voices with specific passions who are also talented at writing, companies have jumped on this opportunity. And for bloggers with more clout, the perks got bigger and bigger. Can you blame them? Today, blogs are one of the top influences of purchases. So ya you can be angry, but not at the blogger, especially the honest ones.

In terms of questioning a blogger’s passion or expertise, I think it’s pretty clear that you have much of a passion for your genre, as I do mine. I don’t think you would spend all this time and energy writing about it, just for a few dumb limo rides if you didn’t. Bloggers (like you) usually have full-time jobs often in another industry.

And addressing if you’re an expert or not, I’ll just say this: I recently wrote a dating piece that got a very warm reception. I don’t have a degree in dating, or even psychology. But I have enough experience in dating and relationships to be considered an expert. The same applies to you. With all of your traveling, researching, workshops, taste and recipe testing and interviewing….you definitely know more than the average chocolate/dessert consumer.

The fact that you accept perks and aren’t going to write a scathing review of a casino’s chocolate flambé…well, I’m sure you have enough integrity to write about another dessert, if something was that awful. And if you don’t think that many of these famed foodie experts started their career by receiving perks, writing mostly positive reviews and gaining a following until they had enough money to fund themselves …then I think you’re a bit naïve.

Also, blog readers are not looking for a piece on the human condition when they want to know about a great recipe or new café for their next party. For that, we still go old-school and pick up a novel, as we should.

Mitch, thanks so much for

Mich, thanks so much for your insightful look at blogging vs. journalism, which I think you've captured magnificently. Indeed, I'm impressed with how much you've encompassed in your comment. You're absolutely right that food blogs address audiences in very different ways (and for different reasons) than traditional restaurant criticism. In addition, a writer like Bianca, even just on her blog, produces various kinds of features, some of which are sponsored content and some of which are more personal explorations of her life. Freelance magazine writers, if they're going to make any money at all, need to be able to pitch and write a variety of pieces in a variety of tones and for different venues. I also applaud Bianca for her straightforward approach to the topic of sponsored content and her honesty. It's the kind of thing I hope to encourage in all first-person features at TW.

As one of those dinosaurs in

As one of those dinosaurs in the tar pit that are professional restaurant critics, I have to say the closeness of many food bloggers to the industry and their willingness to accept freebies makes me very queasy about their work. So, sometimes you are working essentially as an outsourced PR flack for the restaurant in exchange for comped meals, drinks and transportation, and sometimes you're just expressing your own unbiased opinion, and sometimes it falls somewhere in between?

I've resigned myself to the notion that food bloggers with a tenuous relationship to journalistic standards and amateurs like Yelpers are growing in influence. But I find serious flaws in the trustworthiness and research methodology, so a lot of what they write is useless to me as a consumer. I dig into the issue a bit more here: http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/2013/04/11-reasons-your-yelp-reviews-suck-a...

My own stance is that if you want to deserve and earn readers' trust as a critical voice, you have to keep the industry at arms' length. I realize that would make it impossible for many food bloggers to justify the time they put it into it. I wonder how many of them are getting anything out of it beyond some small imagined influence, a tiny outlet for their creative impulses, and an endless stream of free hors d'ouevres and pink cocktails. If you're not making a handsome living out of selling your opinions for cash (like the Andelman Brothers of Boston's Phantom Gourmet empire), it seems like a poor tradeoff to cross that professional boundary. Sell out, by all means, but not if you have to do it on the cheap.

MC Slim JB, thanks for your

MC Slim JB, thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I know exactly what you mean with "My own stance is that if you want to deserve and earn readers' trust as a critical voice, you have to keep the industry at arms' length"—but online reviewing makes it so hard to keep that critical distance. In practical terms, the biggest question you pose is whether a blogger doing sponsored content is making enough money to justify the loss of journalistic standards. I think Bianca would say she is, but plenty of writers out there have tossed away those standards without even considering what's been lost. I also see that tossing in the current magazine world, online and off, and it disturbs me in the extreme. I can accept sponsored content when it's clearly labeled, but as a writer, I do think that crossing that line makes it hard to go back in the other direction.

Thanks, Martha. I'm reminded

Thanks, Martha. I'm reminded of the old joke with the punchline: "I think we've established what you are. Now we're just negotiating."

I'd also observe that even those food bloggers who are maintaining some shred of integrity in their work may suffer some guilt by association with the large community of food bloggers who are prostituting their opinions in unethical if not downright illegal ways. (Clearly some of them are tempting fate with the IRS, a very bad idea.)

I've seen many photos of Ms. Garcia hobnobbing with PR people and other food bloggers at functions like the casino boondoggle she writes about in this article; among them are local bloggers who famously don't bother to offer the slightest bit of disclosure about the benefits they have received from the venues they rave about. If you're going to overcome the shadiness associated with the genre, or not be written off simply as a barely-disguised PR apparatchik, I think you have to be much more explicit about when you're getting compensated and when you're not, in bold and caps up front, without any of this "Well, it's a gray area" business.

Hi MC Slim, thank you for

Hi MC Slim, thank you for reading and for the comments. I am a fan of yours and I appreciate your thoughts. You are right that it seems almost impossible for food bloggers like me to "keep the industry at arm's length" - in fact, I work in the advertising/PR/social media industry at my full time job. But while my rates may seem "cheap" I get so much more out of my blog than the money I earn (from advertising, from companies paying me to develop recipes, etc) or the freebies and the perks. I put a lot of of work into my blog, and I happily accept opportunities that come my way, which I do disclose every time. I also want to point out that my blog is not just a restaurant review blog. Majority of my posts are recipes - and if I use a free product in the recipe, I say so as well. I don't aim to be a professional restaurant critic, I just want to cook and bake and eat some really good food. I chronicle most of that on my blog, and I do not hide the fact that I enjoy the perks that come with it, especially the pink cocktails.

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