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Debate Rages: Is the Blogosphere Killing Thoughtful Food Journalism?

Photo: Courtesy of Cook’s Illustrated and istockphoto

It was rather brilliant of Cook’s Illustrated publisher Christopher Kimball to knock the food blogosphere yesterday — after all, a sure way to get attention for your print magazine is to call out bloggers so they can give it attention on the web. In response to Kimball’s point that a Google search was no way to find dependable recipes, Gurgling Cod wrote that “the notion that users of the Internet, in 2009, are incapable of evaluating content is like suggesting that magazine readers will pluck Cook’s or Outlaw Biker off the newsstand indiscriminately.” On Serious Eats, Ed Levine, a former Gourmet contributor, pointed out that there is junk and non-junk in print, just like there is on the Internet, and in both spheres the good rises to the top: “Maybe, just maybe, journalists and their bosses who work at the old guard who are justifiably terrified about the ground shifting beneath them, shouldn’t be so quick to judge internet-based journalism with a single brush stroke.”

Today, Kimball clarifies his earlier comments:

1) Yes, I do believe that most of the food chatter on the internet is less than thoughtful, rarely inspired, and lacking the depth and expertise that, given a very busy day, I would like from a good food writer or blogger. But, yes, I have made many friends on Twitter and found many of the voices there better informed on coffee-making and similar topics that I am. Plus, some of you are actually quite funny.

Kimball also acknowledges a respect for those who “punch through the white noise of the web” and challenge traditional media to evolve, but he worries that “in a world without editors — just the unfiltered voices of millions — it can be harder to find insightful commentary and get at the truth.” And he’s not one for wiki-based recipe sites, either: “Making a recipe 75 times in a test kitchen under controlled circumstances (yes, this is deeply self-serving) is vastly better than the voices of millions under less the ideal circumstances, with kitchens with a host of different problems/equipment/etc.”

It’s interesting that the point of Kimball’s print article was so unclear (perhaps because of the need of a Times editor to “squish” it for space — a fun term we recently learned from a print editor) that he then had to go elaborate his thoughts on the Internet, where a thoughtful dialogue about the matter could occur. Clearly, Kimball knows that print and web can coexist (and it’s not surprising that we’d agree, given that Grub Street works hand in glove with New York Magazine). Kimball is right that we need sources whose standards have been proven, but then again, it’s been pointed out that cookbooks authored by big-name chefs and published by prestigious houses are sometimes riddled with inaccuracies. So, who to trust?

Sure, there are crap recipes on Google, but there’s also something to be said for variety. If you’re making something in a hurry or with a limited amount of ingredients or cooking tools at your disposal, the Internet allows you to search for a recipe that offers a few shortcuts. If, as so often happens, the phrasing of a complicated recipe is unclear, you can jump from the recipe you know and trust (say, one you found on Cook’s Illustrated) to a different one for clarification.

As for editorial control over narrative features, yes, that’s good to have, but on the other hand, look at a well-regarded magazine like Edible Manhattan, which we ourselves enjoy picking up. Plenty of its articles inspire and inform (we might not have otherwise known about Bill Telepan’s work with public schools, for instance), but on the other hand, there are a fair share of articles that tell us what we already know.

To take a recent cover story, Robert Sietsema’s history of the hot dog can’t help but read like a more colorful Wikipedia entry. While an in-depth history of the hot dog would’ve been more revelatory (and yes, they’ve been written), the magazine clearly didn’t have space for that.

Sietsema ends the article by pointing to contemporary hot dogs that have been mentioned over and over again on the web for years now, in any number of “haute dog” roundups. And it’s not the only time we’ve seen web content rehashed for print. Which is fine — maybe the people who pick up Edible Manhattan at their local food shop don’t read the blogs that offer hot-dog updates every other day, and maybe they don’t care enough about hot dogs to have ever Googled “hot dog + history,” but the point is, who’s to say the print medium, or even editorial oversight, necessarily leads to more useful or even better-written features? We’d trust Sietsema’s history of hot dogs whether it was printed on thick-stock paper or posted on his personal blog.

Then again, Julia Langbein made the point that Gourmet spared no expense flying her to Paris and treating her to $50 martinis, which benefited her subsequent article immensely. Clearly she wouldn’t have been able to do that on her own dime, but to what degree is that a sustainable model for a magazine that also has printing expenses, etc.? In any case, Edible Brooklyn is adjusting, just like Gourmet tried to adjust by, for instance, copping our New York Diet column online. A look at Edible’s homepage indicates that it is now adding daily content, meaning Sietsema’s list of contemporary hot dogs might not be frozen in amber, and the history of hot dogs can evolve right before our very eyes.

Earlier: Gourmet’s Competitors Examine the Corpse, Blame Bloggers

Debate Rages: Is the Blogosphere Killing Thoughtful Food Journalism?