Where's the Food Section?

Why newspaper dining coverage is spread so thin.

Andrew Zimmern
Photo by Steve Henke

Last fall, word leaked out that the San Francisco Chronicle was shuttering its standalone food section, placing its content within other sections in the paper and slashing budgets for one of the most-awarded and highly regarded newspaper food sections in the nation. The move followed news that award-winning dining critics Hanna Raskin, Robert Sietsema, Brett Anderson, and many others with less familiar bylines lost their jobs in 2013 (although Anderson was subsequently rehired) as many food sections around the country suffered budget cuts and reorganization woes. How does this happen when we lionize food gods, when Food with a capital F seems to be the filthy lucre of our time? Isn’t food where the money is, so to speak?

Yes and no. I feel pretty strongly that this modern food life is being loved and lived by relatively few Americans. A few generations ago, plenty of people hunted and fished for food; agrarianism was the way of life for most Americans, and even those in our biggest cities were still close to it. Today, the world of swanky restaurants, sustainable fish, and 20-dollar hamburgers is the world of those with disposable income. And as we know from reading the papers, the haves and the have-nots are growing further apart. Reality is not what you’re seeing in Martha’s magazine. Reality for most Americans is how to stretch what few dollars they have for food.

Lee Svitak Dean, who has been writing about food for three decades and editing the Star Tribune’s Taste section for 20 years, thinks that much of what we call our food life is not just about food; it’s about pop culture and the lure of celebrities. “There is a parallel track of interest in food that revolves around sustainable, organic, healthy, or simply more safe fare, which many dedicated people have worked on for decades,” Dean told me. “But there’s a lot less glamour with that. Outside of the bubble that some of us food writers live in, not everyone thinks about food in that way—just look at the popularity of chain restaurants.”

So is that why food sections are being labeled as “not profitable” and downsized or shuttered at record rates? Dean thinks it’s been largely a cost-saving response for newspapers. “Many food sections started up in the late ’60s/early ’70s as a way to pull in grocery store advertising and to appeal to a large demographic,” Dean said, “but grocery advertising has shifted and restaurants have never advertised much in daily newspapers.” And food sections are hardly the only sections struggling. According to the Pew Research Center, there are about 30 percent fewer journalists today than in 2000.

While there is always a line drawn between ad sales departments and editorial, Dean says newspapers are looking for ways to lure advertisers by altering the combination of stories within a section. Transformation is happening on larger levels, and it is the type of change that might push most food writing, recipes, and reviews into new media.

A recent New York Times article names a plan by The Tribune Company to untangle eight papers, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, from the digital and TV businesses the company also owns. On its own, with massive rents and costs that used to be spread across other platforms (like digital), survival of the papers themselves is in doubt. I hope I’m not Chicken Little, but these moves definitely hobble a paper’s resources and flexibility. Big companies that own costly print assets and new media businesses face hard choices, and I don’t think many smaller papers will make it without looking for even newer ways to create income.

All of that tells me the problem isn’t our changing relationship with food and how it’s written about as much as it is about the changing economics of the media world at large. Dean agrees. “Considering that so many journalists have lost their jobs, especially in the past six years, it shouldn’t be surprising that the numbers include some restaurant critics. More than 17,000 journalists have lost their jobs since 2007, according to the American Society of News Editors. In 2012 alone, 2,600 were laid off, and more than 200 have lost their jobs since January, including the entire photo department at the Chicago Sun-Times.”

So are all food sections doomed? What about my favorite newspaper food section? “We’re actually taking a close look at EXPANDING our Taste content soon,” Dean told me, but how she’s doing it is a secret. Good to know things are looking up closer to home. Dean has been managing and growing a world-class newspaper section for decades. If she’s figured out how to grow Taste, the Strib should start building her statue now.