Are Food Writers and Bloggers Scripting Their Own Obituary? Plus: The Ten Food & Drink Websites/Blogs That Will Survive in Style.
INCREASINGLY, I LISTEN to PRs complaining bitterly about journalists in general and bloggers in particular, and I find this quite disquieting. The complaints are no longer about young journos / bloggers / Zomato Nazis rattling sabres, throwing attitude and/or quoting unreal numbers to lay claim to a following just to be able to get a free meal or an invite to a sought-after party. These are now more and more about the lack of knowledge and understanding and/or a commitment to the craft of journalism. This is a serious charge I have not heard before.
I have heard PRs complaining about teetotallers attending whisky and wine tastings (what do they come for — just to feel self-important in a five-star setting?) and vegetarians showing up at food reviews (which means at least 60 per cent of the food and many of the desserts remain untouched). Complaints about bloggers demanding money, or compensatory assignments, to do reviews, or about print journalists sending their photographers over and taking down details over the phone, or about PR agencies pushing their favourites, or inflating the following of the ‘social media influencers’ they end up inviting, just to be able to produce impressive ‘coverage reports’, are becoming as common as table salt.
Just the other day, a young PR whom I respect for her professional track record (she’s with a reputed chain of five-star hotels) was complaining about the surfeit of bloggers and Instagrammers who continually seek her attention without having even a nodding acquaintance with either the hospitality business, or the nuances of food. Fortunately for her, her boss (the chairperson of the company) wants to be alerted about a story only if it is written by the handful of journalists she follows. Her boss follows a basic thumb rule: If my friends in the industry have not heard about this blogger or journalist, there’s clearly no reason for me to follow him or her. And in the words of this PR, there has been no addition to the list of journalists her boss follows in the last five year, perhaps more.
There’s a lesson for all of us in this experience shared by the PR. If we wish to be taken seriously, we must first gain credibility within the industry we write about. The stamp of credibility cannot come from the PRs (their job demands them to be sweet — or shall we say kind — to everyone with a smartphone and a website!), but from the leaders of the industry. And that respect can only come if industry leaders see you as a source of information — and not as some pompous storehouse of half-baked knowledge.
As I complete 31 years in active journalism, I can, like the repetitive grandfather in the family, recount a number of instances of skirmishes with people and institutions I have rubbished in print, but in not one case, the harried PR at the other end has accused me of not knowing my job, or being ill-informed. It’s a good feeling, although I must admit I am not the only one to enjoy this status. I only wish our club got bigger.
I fear the industry is veering around to the view that it is better to be written about less often by better informed specialists. If a restaurant or a chef is too often in the public domain, my eyes tend to glaze over whenever I see it (or him/her) pop up on my Facebook/Instagram feed. We journalists love to rubbish our fellow scribes who are seen more on television channels than in bylines in the newspapers/magazines they work for. The same fate, I am afraid, awaits chefs who are seen more on Facebook than in their kitchens. They are going to be targets of public ridicule if there’s a disconnect between the reputation of the restaurants they represent, or the footfalls they attract, and the number of times they carpet-bomb Facebook.
We must also watch out for the brighter PRs just cutting us out and becoming social media influencers themselves. Already, most hotels and some restaurants have become hugely active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and they are acquiring followers by the minute. With the resources at their command, it won’t be hard for them to edge out lightweight journalists and bloggers and influence people’s opinions.
My last boss, Aroon Purie, Founder-Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the India Today Group, keeps saying nothing sells better than news. Nothing can be closer to the truth than this old newsroom axiom. To be able to become a purveyor of ‘breaking news’ — and I am not using this expression in the wanton way the television channels use it today — you must delve deep into the food business and read up as much as you can from as many sources as you can lay your hands upon. You must know more than your interlocutors in the industry.
Writers who have knowledge on their side — and knowledge can only come out of curiosity and a sense of inquiry — will have no difficulty in gaining a following. Now, let me list my favourite food and drink writers / bloggers who are not ‘full-time’ journalists (some may have been in the past) but still have acquired a considerable following. They are:
Kaveri Ponnappa: Hers is the mother of all food blogs/websites. A social anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, she brings her academic training and lucid style to The Coorg Table, a one-stop shop for anything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Kodavas and their cuisine.
Kalyan Karmakar: This market research consultant based out Mumbai is the Big Daddy of the blogging business. Finely Chopped, his busy blog, is a must-read for all aspiring bloggers.
Pritha Sen: A journalist-turned-microfinance specialist living in Gurgaon, she’s a leading authority today on the evolution of Bangla cuisine.
Sangeeta Khanna: A microbiologist who’s better known as the chronicler of the heritage and cuisine of Banaras, she knows more than anyone else about what’s cooking in the mysterious lanes of the holy city. Check out Banaras Ka Khana to find out for yourself.
Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal: A cookbook writer and consultant, Rushina is at her best when she delves into food history, regional cuisines and the diversity of ingredients.
Subhash Arora: Last but not the least, this IIT graduate (first batch) and IT specialist (among the pioneering ones) has turned his passion (anything to do with wine) into an inspiration to run the most authoritative news and features website on the wine business from India.
Mohit Balachandran: Chef-turned-restaurateur AD Singh’s Mr Fix-It, he’s, in his Mr Chowder Singh avatar, the walking encyclopedia on street food across the country.
Sonal Holland MW: India’s first Master of Wine and hospitality industry consultant, she has taken the snobbery out of wine appreciation via Sonal Holland Wine TV (must see on YouTube).
Dr Manisha Talim: She’s a well-regarded diabetologist in Mumbai, but her first love is food. And you can feel it in The Sassy Fork, where Dr Talim introduces us to the food traditions of the many communities that given Mumbai its special character.
Karina Aggarwal: A journalist-turned-blogger and consultant, Karina’s enigmatically named website, GiggleWater411 (‘giggle water’ was code name for alcohol in America of the Prohibition era), is loaded with information, opinions and how-to videos on all things boozy.