[Edit: Thanks to all the smart, savvy people who have read and commented. The feedback has been fantastic, and instructive. I perhaps should perhaps have been clearer that there were two separate issues with Cook's call for recipes: that of payment, which this post addresses, and that of entry into a competition , unknowingly and unwittingly. That's a different problem and one I don't go into here, for reasons of space.]
Last weekend, the Guardian launched a new food supplement – Cook, which accompanies their Saturday edition. They also launched a bit of a controversy.
Before the launch of Cook, it seems that lots of bloggers received an invitation to contribute to a recipe feature.
The bloggers that contributed weren’t paid for their recipes – and this is where the debate began. The Twitter discussion on the subject between @MsMarmiteLover, AKA Kerstin Rodgers (a particularly brilliant food writer, blogger and supper-club pioneer) and @TimHayward (food journalist and restaurateur) was so interesting that I knew the subject deserved more space than 140 characters.
So should the contributing bloggers have been paid, as Rodgers argued? Yes… traditionally. According to the new rules of what we used to call journalism? Maybe not.
Things have changed – in food writing, and in all other kinds of ‘lifestyle’ and entertainment writing. Readers are less and less willing to pay for content; advertisers don’t want to pay as much to access a dwinding print readership (and online ad revenue is way below what print traditionally brought in, despite the vastly larger readership) - and, in the case of the Guardian, the publication apparently isn’t willing to ask people to pay to consume any of its content. It wants to make all its content available for free, online. Editor Alan Rusbridger is playing the long game with digital revenue, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll win.
It doesn’t take a genius, then, to see that the Guardian might well be desperate to find cheap ways to generate content (it is, after all, losing £44m a year). But that shouldn’t necessarily override the moral issue at stake here. If someone provides work, then they should be paid for that work. Anything else is exploitation – especially if it’s something that other people benefit from in some way, which they did. Some people working on Cook will have been paid, and the Guardian is clearly hoping to profit indirectly from the gravitas and relevance it acquires by using well-known foodie names.
BUT… it’s not that simple, sadly.
The value placed upon food writing (and many other kinds of writing) has dwindled, and I’d argue that the success of food blogs has actually contributed to this.
After all, it’s the market that sets the price and the value of a product – in this case, food writing. If people are increasingly unwilling to pay to read food writing – be it via an online paywall, or through buying a paper or a book – then the market has collectively determined the value of that writing at ‘nothing’. (Interestingly, cookbook sales are actually pretty darn healthy at the moment. I have a theory about this, which will be the subject of my next post.) No matter how good you think your product, or how much work has gone into it, if you can’t find a buyer, it’s worthless. And it’s difficult for anyone to get paid for food writing at the moment, something which only becomes truer the more that some people undercut those who want payment by providing their own labour for nothing.
It’s ironic, then, that bloggers (and this is a tricky noun, because it encompasses a huge range of people – some write a blog as a hobby without ever having considered it a possible source of revenue) are complaining about not being paid for what they write. Because bloggers have very rarely, as far as I know, been paid directly for what they write. In fact, the entire premise of blogging is that you can publish your writing online pretty much for free, for anyone to read - for free. Just like I am now. And it could surely be argued that the proliferation of excellent, free-to-consume food writing on blogs has actually contributed to the decline in the number of people willing to buy food magazines. (It’s not just blogs, of course – it’s all kinds of free online content. But I know that, at least for me, it’s partly blogs. I can find awesome recipes and entertaining food writing at places like http://www.davidlebovitz.com and http://www.cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com, so why pay for it somewhere else?)
Previously, some (and not all) food bloggers saw blogging as a way in to what I’ll call ‘proper food journalism’, for want of a better phrase. Become well-known enough as a blogger, so the theory goes, and you might eventually get a paid column, or a book deal. This idea that eventually you can monetise your blogging is often used as a carrot to try to tempt bloggers into contributing their work – it’s worth it, they’re told, because if you raise your profile enough, then you’ve got more chance of making it as a ‘real’ food writer!
But as blogging grows, so ‘proper food journalism’ dies, in an inverse relationship that isn’t entirely unconnected. And so that argument increasingly dies with it. There are fewer and fewer paid jobs going, paying less and less money. Blogging can no longer be a stepping-stone to a profession if that profession ceases to exist.
Kerstin Rodgers argued on Twitter that journalists should consider the precarity of their own situation and be more supportive of bloggers – after all, she points out, perhaps blogging will become most writers’ only outlet, if traditional publications continue to wither. Rodgers may well be right about the lie of the land in future, but that won’t in itself make food writing on blogs any more profitable. Just because traditional publications might die off, it doesn’t mean that blogging will automatically be something that can magically generate a replacement revenue stream, not as long as people continue to expect to consume online content for nothing.
Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom, however.
This morning, Robert Peston made an interesting analysis of the (possible) death of high-street music/entertainment retailer HMV. (This is relevant, I promise). He argued that while the demise of large, long-standing companies like HMV is devastating in the short term – especially, of course, for their employees – in the long term, the old generation of companies and business models need to die off before new models (which are more suited to the current climate, habits and customers’ needs) can grow up. The process is actually healthy and necessary for economic growth. If it doesn’t happen, the old businesses become ‘zombie businesses’, hangin’ on in there, absorbing and hogging resources that are thrown at them to try to keep them alive. What’s more, I’d argue, they continue to perpetuate old models of thinking, old frames on which to hang our ideas – and that makes truly innovative, new, from-the-ground-up business models harder to conceptualise and develop.
The Guardian is a bit like this – stuck with much of the infrastructure (vast staff, expensive offices) and thinking of a media business of yore, despite the very many brilliant and forward-thinking individuals that it employs. To put it bluntly, if you were going to set up a media empire today, starting from scratch, you probably wouldn’t design it to look like the Guardian Media Group. And yet it and other old-media behemoths continue to have a lingering effect on the way other kinds of writing are thought of and are done.
Imagine, for example, that there was no ‘traditional journalism’ end goal – or that it was so limited as to be of little import. You wouldn’t be able to see your blog as a stepping stone to that. You’d have to innovate even more, think of new kinds of revenue, and new ways to make online content pay – from the outset. (Or, just accept that it would never be more than a hobby…) People like Rodgers are, in fact already doing this, leveraging their online presence to run successful events, for example. But as long as the illusion lingers on that the old-fashioned print media paid-to-write model kinda works in the same old way, in the same volume – and linger it will, until publications like the Guardian finally decide that they can no longer absorb their massive losses – the imperative to create new ways to make writing pay isn’t quite there. (Or perhaps Rusbridger will be proven right. Let’s hope so.)
Once that illusion is taken away, the world will be much scarier – but out of it, perhaps something quite brilliant will grow – something that will once again properly reward talent, hard work, and expertise on the part of those who write.