Food Bloggers: Annoying or Helpful?

A recent article on the website of Marketplace, the National Public Radio juggernaut, has the internet buzzing about whether food bloggers are annoying or helpful. As a food blogger, I'd like to weigh in on the debate. 

Let me preface this by saying that although I've been writing about food for 17 years, I did so mainly for a large, glossy magazine with a huge budget. Back in the Old Media days, a writer would go into a restaurant anonymously, evaluate the food, come to some conclusions, and write the review. Then the photo editor would assign a photographer to shoot a picture of various dishes, for about $250 a session. A month or so later the story would be published. 

In this New Media world, however, the process is all about lightning speed and saving money. We are tasked with getting to new restaurants as soon as they open (maybe even before), taking pictures ourselves, and posting our critiques the next day. 

So, to get back to the article creating all of the controversy, the reasons given why food bloggers can be irritating is that their picture taking is disruptive; if they take poor photos of a dish it can hurt the perceived quality of a restaurant; and amateur authors don't know enough about food to critique authoritatively. Furthermore, food blogging is anyone's game these days with sites like Yelp. All you need is an internet connection and digital camera. 

Certainly, bloggers with an agenda can harm a restaurant's reputation, especially if they are trying to settle a score. However, when the review is so biased and scathing, readers can see through the vitriol. More often than not, however, professional journalists (like us at Short Order) will dole out an even critique of an eatery, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses and providing pictures to back up these assertions. 

The point that seems to upset restaurateurs the most concerns photos. They don't like flashbulbs disturbing their dining room nor do they appreciate poor photography. I take my own pictures and have seen steady improvement in my work over the past six months that I have been blogging for Short Order. (Many thanks to the gifted Jacob Katel, who has passed on some superb snapping techniques.) Do I use a flash, you might wonder? Only when necessary. I acknowledge that it can be annoying to have a flash go off in a dark restaurant. But I can generally shoot a plate in two shots, and everyone else seems to have their cameras out, too. 

Out of courtesy I try to dine at spots that serve the same entrees at lunch as they do at dinner so I can shoot in natural light and not bother patrons. That's not always possible, though. Nevertheless, we are a visual society and no one is going to read a review without accompanying images. And, yes, these pictures may steer you to certain restaurants over others. I know they do for me. 

Ultimately, this food blogging debate is symptomatic of the digital age we live in. It's not going to get any better with the proliferation of camera-enhanced smart phones. Taking a picture of that osso bucco is as easy as whipping out your Blackberry these days. Hopefully, food bloggers will be responsible in their reporting. 

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