After the main food section at the Chicago Sun-Times was terminated some weeks back and replaced by an advertising supplement with largely non-local syndicated and sponsored content, the only remaining original food content in the paper was the three-times-a-month review column of critic Michael Nagrant. He survived the end of the food section because, by a quirk of departmental organization, his reviews came from the Weekend section, not Food. But with a planned reorganization of the Weekend content rumored, one had reason to wonder whether his gig had an expiration date, too. Now, as Nagrant first announced on Twitter yesterday, he is finished as a Sun-Times reviewer and appears to have abandoned reviewing entirely (though he was also a regular reviewer for CS [Chicago Social]). He declined further comment when contacted by Grub Street, saying that it was up to the publications involved to discuss what new plans had led to the end of his reviewing gig(s), but he made a gesture that was unmistakably final about his reviewing career from his own point of view: he ended his anonymity by posting his picture on Twitter.
So what does this mean, in a world of rapidly changing old guard media? Nagrant had the misfortune to be deeply (and, we would say, mainly admirably) committed to an old school model of the reviewer— anonymous, impartial, authoritative with the voice and imprimatur of a great urban daily paper— right at the moment when that model was fading. While the Tribune is able to maintain that marble-clad self-image with longtime reviewer Phil Vettel, even they will almost certainly never have another critic with an audience who looks at the critic the same way; Vettel will see a generation of devoted paper-paper readers into retirement. The Sun-Times did not have that reputation when Nagrant took over, the later years of the late Pat Bruno having diminished its reputation as a force in the area, and even as tenacious and principled a critic as Nagrant couldn’t change that in 18 months— or ever, today.
That’s because it’s a bad time for newspapers, but it’s an especially bad time for newspapers doing what anyone can, at least in theory, do, which is publish their personal opinions. Actual reporting is somewhat more impregnable, as fewer amateurs are willing to devote time to legwork, but writing up your meal at a blog or at an online reviewing site is easy and gratifying. True, few are as knowledgable as the professional critics— but some are, and new platforms have vastly expanded the ways in which we interact with reviews (Yelp content may be mostly crap, but it’s highly searchable and comprehensive crap). That makes it harder for newspapers to justify everything that goes with the position of a critic, which has been held to impose certain monastic rigors on the critic (anonymity, paying for very expensive meals, etc.) which kept him apart from other food writers, whose access to the industry is built on accepting its freebies and invitations to socialize. (Nagrant joked about this somewhat bitterly yesterday, tweeting, “Where do I sign up for the free meals?”)
So, the Sun-Times seems to have decided that a voice-of-authority restaurant reviewer is simply one more old school newspaper luxury that they have to do without to survive in leaner form. Some immediately assumed that this was a sign that the profession of critic is dead in the new newspaper era. But there’s an important point that was overlooked: the Sun-Times may not have a reviewer any more, but that doesn’t mean its parent company Wrapports no longer employs reviewers.
The company also owns the Chicago Reader, for whom the Food & Drink section is a primary focus, with a lead reviewer and feature writer in Mike Sula, regular reviews by other writers on its blog, a large database of capsule reviews and other popular and widely promoted food-related features (disclosure: we work on the Reader’s Key Ingredient feature). As a company Wrapports undoubtedly looks at all its properties as part of an overall strategy to reach different sections of the same public, and clearly regards the Reader as the property with the best ability to attract bar-restaurant advertisers and a younger, food-and-drink-focused audience.
So reviewing isn’t dead. But the idea that every daily newspaper needs to serve that need may well be. As for Michael Nagrant, he has been involved, knowledgable and thoughtfully opinionated the entire time he’s been working here, and with the model he’s been aimed toward for a career now apparently cut off, we will be very interested to see what he does next.