Food bloggers are becoming serious industry players and are crashing the party previously dominated by professional journalists. Without the editorial strictures and ethical guidelines imposed by news organisations, food bloggers’ integrity is being called into question — but is it just sour grapes?

A key plank of criticism revolves around the freebies they get. Claire Davie, who runs popular blog Melbourne Gastronome, says when she started in 2007 there was no PR outreach to bloggers. “Now it’s a daily occurrence.” Bloggers get invited to restaurant preview nights, they get free meals and drinks, they’re part of the marketing plan, and some bloggers, Crikey was told, get paid for positive coverage.

The world’s most famous food critic, A. A. Gill, doesn’t think much of the trend. “I don’t read them; I would never read them,” he told The Australian in 2011. Bloggers aren’t just doing it for their love of food, he added:

“Of course they’re getting paid … They go to all these events — that’s a form of payment. They get put up in nice places — that’s a form of payment. What they are effectively doing is funding their hobby and not doing it particularly well.”

Similar attitudes were aired last month. The Oz’s John Lethlean wrote a piece about the lack of disclosure on many food blogs, which was shortly followed by Age critic Larissa Dubecki’s piece on the regrettable rise of the food blogger. She wrote:

“There’s this party-killing journalists’ code of ethics I have to abide by … that means it’s really not kosher to partake of freebies. It’s pretty toothless… so it arguably gives me wriggle room to attend one of those whizz-bang opening-night parties that all the restaurants and bars seem to have these days — you know, the ones with the free champagne and the ice sculptures and that so-hot-right-now DJ.

“You see them on blogs the next day with really enthusiastic write-ups about how fabulous the venue, the food, the drinks and the owners are (always, mind you, with a little disclaimer at the bottom about how the writer attended as a non-paying guest — their integrity is scrupulous).”

Needless to say, Dubecki’s piece didn’t go down well in the food blogging community.

One of those most outraged was Ed Charles, a former journalist-turned-digital marketer for restaurants. In his spare time he runs Tomato, a food blog that’s been going since 2005.

“It’s become very fashionable to say that food bloggers aren’t professionals,” he told Crikey. “And they aren’t.” Their writing is less polished, their photos are worse, and their approach to disclosure may be spotty. “But they’re the hardcore fans of the newspaper food supplements, they’re the ones following the journalists and the chefs. All these people who bag food bloggers — they’re bagging their biggest fans.”

To Davie, the blogger versus critic argument is “a dead horse that can’t be flogged enough by some journalists”. She says all bloggers are tarred with the same brush due to the lousy conduct of the few, all while journalists overlook the PR schmoozing journalists themselves engage in.

It’s undeniable that, even with full disclosure, many journalists get plenty of freebies, and it’s worse in some sectors of the media like fashion and travel writing. Industry largesse poses a problem for bloggers, who often don’t have the institutional knowledge of how to deal with such gifts.

Carli Ratcliff, a food features writer who also teaches food writing to bloggers, used to work in PR, where she organised “famils” for journalists to attend cultural events. She said the expectations around coverage were far clearer 10 years ago: “It was always understood that journalists could write what they want — that’s the risk you take as a PR in inviting them. But PR companies seem much more aggressive in the digital age. In every class I’ve taught, my students have asked me how to deal with it.”

“If you write nothing but fawning ‘reviews’ of generic PR events, you’ll quickly lose credibility with your audience.”

But critical restaurant reviewing has traditionally had more safeguards against favouritism or gifts. Newspaper reviewers book under a false name, they often visit on more than one occasion, they wait for a restaurant to be established before dropping by, and their employer picks up the tab.

Dubecki told Crikey that’s why she wrote her piece. Objectivity, she says, must be protected at all costs. And that’s why simply disclosing free food isn’t good enough. “If a blogger wants to pay out of their own pocket, all power to them,” she said. “But the point is that even with a little disclaimer, the meal they received was provided by the restaurant. And that creates an obligation.”

But what about other sections of the paper that do accept freebies?

“I think we all know that in the current newspaper economy, there is a symbiosis with the freebie,” Dubecki said. “But pointing the finger at a free flight to Tasmania to review MONA is not a direct comparison to the direct swap for publicity. I don’t think the analogy is really sound. There is a grey area — I accept that — but I really come down on the side of not going to the special new menu launch parties and the like. It taints everything for me. Objectivity is something that really needs to be maintained quite vigorously.”

Old-school food journalists, Charles says, often look at the upbeat tone of many food blogs and roll their eyes. Much of what passes for restaurant reviews these days isn’t restaurant criticism, but could more accurately be described as writing about restaurant visits.

Ratcliff says she would never call herself a food reviewer, even though she writes professionally about food for newspapers and magazines, because she hasn’t had the formation professional food reviewers need. “Critical food writers usually have either many years in the kitchen, or in the industry, or of researching food,” she said. “They bring a scholarly application to food and the experience of dining. And just like theatre or film reviewers, they’re immersed in that world 24/7. It’s completely different to going to a local restaurant and writing a memoir piece on your experience.”

Food memoir isn’t useless, she adds. Food bloggers cover a whole segment 0f the industry ignored by newspapers for simple space and time constraints. They open up a world of dining for vegans, gin enthusiasts, burger fans or those who don’t want to stray far from home.

Reviewers or not, bloggers certainly have enough clout to get the star treatment. Charles says bloggers are just another audience to target. “The media’s fragmenting, and that fragmentation has sped up since the birth of the internet. In the old days, you could count on the people you wanted to reach reading Epicure. Now, you can bet they’ll follow these blogs too,” he said.

It’s also unavoidable that bloggers can provide restaurants with a far more immediate return, a greater “buzz”, than traditional journalists, who would never write about a launch party. “You invite people to a launch, they’re taking pictures, they’re tweeting and Instagraming. It’s great publicity,” said Charles.

Readers can be drawn to this community atmosphere. Charles points to food blog Not Quite Nigella. “It doesn’t hinge on its writing — it hinges on the connection with the audience. And that’s a major difference, and a positive addition,” he said.

Davie says there will always be people interested in polished, informed writing about food from professional critics. But she says they’re not the only voices worth listening to. “My personal view is that as long as you don’t mislead your audience, you can engage with PR schmoozing if you want to — when done properly, it can be educative and valuable. If you write nothing but fawning ‘reviews’ of generic PR events, you’ll quickly lose credibility with your audience,” she said.

“And as for bloggers asking for freebies — that’s just tacky.”

Peter Fray

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