I’m a food writer who got into my profession in the mid-90s, right at the dawn of the internet. Before this amazing beast of a resource turned our attention away from paper and glued it to the computer screen, it used to be that Wednesday was unofficially known as Food Section Day!
It was the olden days when exclamation points, not emoticons, were used to express enthusiasm.
On those Wednesday mornings, I’d rush to pick up the San Francisco Chronicle from out on my steps and sit at the kitchen table, unfolding the unwieldy, newsprint-staining pages full of Father’s Day barbecue recipes and middle American-esque tomato sauce taste tests. Seated there with my second-wave cup of coffee, I’d scan the stories on things such as the rise of the canelé, and more serious features on trans fats and sustainable fish. The Chronicle food section landed somewhere between a Home Ec class and true journalism written by smart folks such as Janet Fletcher, Tara Duggan, Kim Severson, and more. It long had its stalwarts like Flo Braker, the baker extraordinaire, whom I’d still like to elect to be my surrogate grandmother.
So, along with the rest of the local—even national—food community, I watched my social media blow up yesterday with people lamenting the fact that the Chronicle’s food section (which hasn’t run on Wednesdays since 2009, btw) is giving up the ghost. Well, that’s not entirely the case. The section itself is being folded into a lifestyle section that may or may not be called Artisan. (If they do name it that, I hope for their sake that they’re planning on harvesting their own trees to mill and doing their own letterpress.) According to the Times, “Staff members said they had been told that there would not be layoffs when the sections merge but that they would be moved out of the building and no more recipe testing would take place.”
I’m pretty sure that this news is supposed to make me feel saddened and stunned—or, at the very least, defensive of my territory. After all, since 1996, I’ve managed to steak out a career in print food publishing, which at this point is like standing your ground on an incredibly shrinking island with waves lapping at your feet. Soon I’ll be clinging to the palm tree.
Despite this, the truth is that, while I do feel a bit wistful, I can’t get myself riled up. Who am I to cry foul, when I get almost all of my information online at this point? When I google recipes just as much as a crack a cookbook? Like most people, I regularly visit a smattering of sites, from inspirational personal blogs like Golden and Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn for recipes to newsy sites like Tasting Table and Eater to one-offs like Beyond the Plate. For bigger stuff, I probably read the New York Times food section the most. It’s a paper that I think has done a great job fusing the ethics of print while pushing the envelope of multimedia, all the while keeping it snappy. But it’s also a paper that I imagine has deeper pockets than the Chronicle. One thing that I’ve learned by working at leanly staffed and funded magazines is that a publication has to be run as a sustainable business, not an art project.
Audrey Cooper, the managing editor of the Chronicle, released a statement yesterday, trying to explain what’s going on over there. It was an awkwardly put, non-statement kind of statement. “I'd love to tell everyone right now what we're going to do. The truth is that we haven't decided it yet,” she wrote. “But I can tell everyone unequivocally that our top priority is to continue doing the nation's best coverage of Northern California food and wine coverage.”
I’d say that the best food and wine coverage of Northern California is already being done. It’s just not to be found on the pages of a singular paper or in one neat package. And because the internet affords an off-the-cuff vitality that’s not necessarily inherent in the deeply rooted, rather dry, culture of newspapers, institutions clinging to their old ways are going to have a hard time competing—unless they spice it up, unless they evolve.
Today, everything from an inspired Pinterest board to a thoughtful blog gets me as excited as I used to be on those Wednesday mornings. I hope that Cooper is right when she says that “instead of cutting, as [the New York Times] asserts, we are increasing our investment in terms of digital and print offerings.” I don’t feel quite as callous as a food industry friend of mine who quipped, “Let’s get this carcass off the road.” But I know where he’s coming from. Instead, I’d like see the Chronicle, which—barring Inside Scoop—needs a good dusting, visually and topically. The Bay Area has an amazing, intelligent food community with interests far beyond restaurant reviews and deep-fried turkey investigations. If the Chronicle can reflect that back to its readers, it has the ability to become people’s go-to online. Along with San Francisco magazine, of course. (Insert smiley emoticon.) Because in this expansive world of the web, there’s plenty of room at the table.