In my first Life as a Food Critic post, I briefly mentioned how difficult it can be to stay in the shadows while trying to remain relevant by breaking news—jostling for position as a go-to source for all the up-to-date restaurant info.
There is a bigger story surrounding that struggle; it's the strange dance that happens between food reporters, PR people, gossipy restaurant sources, and rival food bloggers. Over the years I began to think of it as "The Game," and it was the single most frustrating aspect of the gig, by far. It's also a part of the job that you, as a reader, may not be aware of. At the risk of getting too "inside baseball" about it, I drop all the sordid details, after the jump.
Any beat reporter will tell you that one of the most important parts of the job is being able to effectively tap into the flow of information. If you're really good, you can ensure that the flow of information comes directly to you. That's the goal really, to control and protect the flow of information regarding your area of reportage.
But you're not the only one in town with said goal. There are tons of people out there who've staked their careers, sometimes even their identities, on being the top of the journalistic heap.
It's no different in food, and when I came on the scene, I was entering into a world that already had some dominant players: Brooks, Food Dude, Zukin. They'd spent years cultivating impressive inside sources, and I quickly found myself picking up news left in their wake.
I very rarely had the chance to break news. I was far too timid. In the off chance I did get to break something (it happened) my excitement would sometimes lead to mistakes. And once my story hit the blog, the struggle would be to make sure everyone knew that the Mercury was on it first. Because the only thing as important as breaking news is making sure people link back to your story.
It's very easy to get your ego caught up in all of this. Several times I'd be scooped minutes before pressing the "publish" button for my post, and my colleagues can attest that my feelings of rage and frustration were enough to lead to prolonged fits of profanity—especially at the beginning.
It was an emotional state that led to one of my more shameful moments as a food editor. I was blogging about the making of Porchetta at Viande, when it was still located at City market in Northwest Portland. While hanging out with one of the butchers, he let slip that Ben Dyer was going to team up with a local restaurateur to create the place we know today as Laurelhurst Market. "But keep it under you hat," he said. "We can't give out the details yet."
"Okay," I thought. "I can sit on this for a little while." And I did, anxiously waiting for the e-mail that would give me the go-ahead to break the news. It never came. When the news did break via a widely distributed press release, I had not been included on the list. It was too much for my fragile ego to bear. Without thought, I sent a bitchy e-mail to Dyer protesting the fact I'd protected the info and wasn't given dibs. It was a wretched little missive, and one I still feel pangs of shame about. Of course, I haven't received a press release from Dyer or his partners at Simpatica ever since. Do I know it's specifically because of that shitty e-mail? No. Is it likely? Sure. Do I blame them? Not one bit.
So the game goes. You don't want to be too cozy with the PR folks lest it appear you're in bed with them and lose your credibility. You don't want to be too cozy with restaurateurs for the same reason, and yet you need them as sources to get breaking news so it doesn't look as if you're always the last to know. Of course, they need you too, in order to create early buzz on their restaurants. But there's no end to the amount of people who are willing and able to help create that buzz. And while we'd all like to respect each other as food journalists, it can sometimes get nasty behind the scenes. Same as it ever was. We're all dealing with the same issues.
I got sick of it—partly because I became content with my column, and partly because my rabid concern for anonymity hindered my ability to collect sources. But in those times I got the story first? Damn, it was thrilling. Any reporter in any beat will tell you that. It's like a fucking drug. A drug I'll continue to crave.