ConAgra’s Failed Con Begs the Question: Are Food Bloggers ‘Professionals’?

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As many people who regularly read food blogs know, ConAgra pulled a tragically ill-conceived public relations stunt recently. As The New York Times reported, the company lured food bloggers into an exclusive underground dining event and then fed them frozen three meat and cheese lasagna as they filmed their reactions. In fairness, I think they were going for that old “We’ve replaced the usual coffee they serve here with Folgers” approach, thoroughly mocked by the “Saturday Night Live” skit above.

What’s curious to me was ConAgra’s audience. I’m certain that Ketchum, the normally hip-to-it agency involved, would not have tried such a stunt with established journalists from other media. Imagine a narrator saying, “Let’s watch Barry Estabrook inhale the heady tomato flavor. Oh, wait, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold is taking a bite! Let’s watch!” Or, “So Michael Ruhlman, you’ve been duped into eating commercial pepperoni. Pretty good, huh?” You think so? No, me neither. So frankly, I don’t blame the bloggers for their reaction. They called the company on it. Loudly, and with conviction.

Mom Confessionals referred to the whole thing as a “SHAM!” Chubby Chinese Girl wrote “What I don’t understand is who’s genius idea was to bring in bloggers into this…Feeding me free food doesn’t automatically equate to great review. I’ll always keep it honest for myself and my readers, otherwise there’s no point to all this. I do advertising by day, thank you very much, at night, blogging is a passion and hobby. I won’t promote products I won’t eat myself. Either, they were too confident about their products or just didn’t believe in our palates and tastebuds.”
Over at FoodMayhem.com, Lon Binder wrote an open letter to the chef involved in the stunt, George Duran, essentially calling him a feckless hack who should surrender his chef’s toque. (Binder also had the above video embedded on his site which is how I found it.) Prior to being served the dinner, the hosts had “guided” conversation around the importance of fresh ingredients, which then shifted into how intensely some members of the group disdained processed food. After that conversation, ConAgra fed them this:
semolina [enriched with niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid], egg white), seasoned cooked beef and pork (beef and pork, seasoning [flavorings, salt, spices, dextrose], tomato paste, salt, soybean oil), ricotta cheese (pasteurized whey, milk, cream), mozzarella cheese (part-skim mozzarella cheese [pasteurized milk, whey protein concentrate, cultures, salt, enzymes]), contains 2% or less of: parmesan and Romano (made from cow’s milk) cheeses (part-skim milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, cellulose powder [prevents caking]), garlic (in citric acid), carrots, celery, seasoning (salt, dextrose, sugar, spice, spice extractives [including paprika, soy lecithin], disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate [flavor enhancer], tricalcium phosphate and soybean oil), onion, sugar, heavy whipping cream, salt, bread crumb (wheat flour, sugar, yeast, soybean oil, salt), spices (includes oregano and basil), modified food starch, dried egg whites.
Compare that to ingredients in a fairly standard lasagna recipe:
ground beef, Italian sausage, tomatoes, lasagna noodles, onion, carrots, celery, olive oil, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, eggs, garlic, oregano, basil, kosher salt, pepper
Wrote Binder on FoodMayhem: “Let’s consider a more personal hypothetical: George, how would you feel if invited to my home, fed chicken cordon bleu, and then afterwards informed that we had secretly stuffed the cavity with entrails of rats found in the street, cleansed using various chemicals from the utility closet, such as bleach (also food safe in small quantities).”
This isn’t the first frozen food faux pas involving bloggers. At the BlogherFood conference a couple of years ago in San Francisco, Rocco Dispirito tried to sell the crowd of online food writers on frozen pasta dinners with the zeal of the ShamWow guy to what the L.A. Times referred to as a “tough room.”  As Jen wrote in Use Real Butter: “People, I just made puff pastry from scratch and they were serving me frozen, mushy pasta. That doesn’t jive. We had our angry/semi-humored tweets, but I think the feeling I came away with was that of being insulted…”
As Sarah Fidelibus notes on Poynter.org, “Whether it’s for a blog or an established print magazine, food writing is a genre whose participants frequently find themselves treated as public relations’ conduits for events and products, rather than as journalists who inform the public.” So, companies, here’s what you need to do. Treat food bloggers and writers like you would any other journalists or opinion columnists in the media. In other words, like culinary professionals.Yes, it’s a different game and many bloggers exist who will readily shill for your canned beef ravioli or your prepackaged mixes for any bit of extra traffic to their ad network. But a wide enough swath of bloggers take their work seriously that it isn’t worth pissing them all off by treating them as lesser professionals. As Chubby Chinese Girl noted above, her blog might be viewed as a hobby, but to suggest that because she’s not drawing a paycheck from a media company for her work means that her passion, energy and time can therefore be bought off by a free dinner is insulting. In fact, when you’re doing it for free, the one thing you’ve got is your reputation.
In an excellent article on The Huffington Post, writer Jamie Schler of Life’s a Feast detailed about her experiences at the International Food Bloggers Conference in New Orleans. (In a disclosure moment, she and I shared some grits at breakfast one morning, and I’ll be speaking at the next IFBC conference in Santa Monica.) After initial trepidation after watching the food blogging phenomenon unfold from her perch in France, she left the weekend with a new-found respect for the community. “The line between amateur and professional began to thin and grow hazy, creating a formidable dilemma: what role do food bloggers play? Are they the new journalists?” she asked.
It’s a intriguing question. “What’s funny is that most bloggers argue with me when I suggest that they are journalists,” food writing expert Dianne Jacob told Fidelibus of Poynter.org; she has previously made the pitch on her own blog Will Write for Food.

It strikes me as an issue of semantics. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines a journalist: “a writer who aims at a mass audience.” Here’s how it defines journalism: “the collection and editing of news and information for presentation through the media.” But with blogs, your mileage will vary in how well the term “journalist” applies. Personal voice defines most blogs, and traditional journalism seeks to strip that out. (I was nearly 30 before using the word “I” in a story.)

But the label “blogger” is problematic in that it’s too generalized. I have a very talented friend in San Francisco who debates whether to call himself a “writer” because he’s not sure if he warrants the title since he writes “only on a blog.” I say bullshit. If Ernest Hemingway were around, he’d be all over Twitter. Charles Dickens would most certainly blog. I challenge anyone to suggest neither of them are writers. I’ve long been an advocate of the policy that if you do the verb, you can call yourself the noun. If you write, you’re a writer. If you take photos, you’re a photographer.

Why shouldn’t some bloggers self-assign their own titles if they feel undefined by the more general term? If you’re diligent about research, reporting and ethics, I see no reason why you can’t call yourself an independent journalist. If you primarily write about food, perhaps publish original recipes that you prudently test, you do your research, live up to ethical guidelines, treat other writers with respect and take your work seriously, I’ve got no qualms about saying you’re a culinary professional. By definition, “professional” means “relating to, or connected with a profession.” While everyone would prefer a paycheck for what they do, that you’re not getting one shouldn’t automatically put you in some lower caste.

Neither the James Beard Awards nor the IACP Bert Greene journalism awards make any distinction about the medium stories appear in anymore; whether a story appeared in a newspaper or in a magazine or on a blog, they’re judged the same.
It’s about time the rest of the media world — and companies like Ketchum and ConAgra — to do the same.

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.

Comments

  1. Kathleen-
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking on this brave topic. So important to the future of all talented food writers.

  2. I think this is an issue that frustrates a lot of food bloggers. It’s hard because there are a lot of “mommy blogger” types who will promote anything as a way to keep up their traffic. But then there are so many of us who take it seriously, and truly work on bettering our writing and photography. I am proud to be a blogger but for people outside our little universe, I feel like people don’t get it.

  3. thanks for this post. It really made me think. I think of myself as committed to my blog, even though I don’t earn any money from it and likely never will be able to devote myself to it full-time or as a business venture.

  4. If the bloggers who were invited to this dinner were journalists, they might have searched for the chef’s name and seen that he is working for Con Agra. I would have, and did. Second click told me all I would have needed to know.

    So, no, apparently not all food bloggers are either professional (URL) or journalists (hed).

  5. Kathleen Flinn says:

    An absolutely valid point.

  6. Blogging in any form does indicate that the person behind the in front of the key board has a passion about a specific topic, event or condition. It shows, that for that moment at least, that the person was able to relate his or her emotions in a way that they felt best enabled their position. Does that make them a journalists? I my opinion, no. It does, however, make them a writer. And yes Kat, your position is well taken when you add “ethical guidelines”. But writers don’t have to follow any guidelines…and that is the very reason for the evolution of the “blog”. A blog is a form of expression, not constrained by “ethical guidelines” or “journalistic Guidelines” or even “The AP Style Guide”. Now on the flip side, if a blogger takes to heart and follows the above mentioned guidelines in an attempt to present himself as from more a journalistic approach, who or what great power bestows upon him or her the “journalist” title? Peers? Here is where it gets not hazy, but very myopic.
    In some cases “we” as bloggers tend to self separate those that are, and those that are not, of perceived journalistic quality or even in the same “class”. Food bloggers tend to drift to other food bloggers. Romance bloggers with other romance bloggers. Even bloggers that “have written a book” tend to alienate those that have not published. And all to often we equate the number of followers with a higher quality of blog. How many time have we looked at the # of followers and thought..”gosh, they have over 50,000 followers, they MUST be credible and have, by proxy, the authority to write!”.
    Well, maybe the folks at ConAgra, thought the same…. let’s invite ># follower bloggers to get our word out. It’s obvious they did not think their idea out to the fullest. And if they had, then they received the result that they should have known what was going to happen. In the end, their attempt failed. Maybe the same conditions apply in the “blogosphere”. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the “what’s” and “how’s” of the content to be presented. Instead we are always looking for “numbers” as the qualifier of our status…

    • See everyone makes mistakes!!! On my response above, please take out the words…”behind the”… on the first line… wow.. what a journalistic approach!

      • Kathleen Flinn says:

        See how complicated this gets? I think that’s at the heart of my point. It’s semantics and then some. The world of publishing is shifting and changing, and I just want to start a dialogue on how do we rethink the parameters, you know? I don’t know as much about the blogging community outside of food bloggers, but I know plenty of people in this one who work hard, take what they’re doing seriously and they deserve respect.

        Maybe I’m totally wrong about the whole giving yourself a title, but then, I don’t know, why not? It’s not to take anything away from the term blogger, because frankly, I think it’s a fine description. Don’t get me wrong on that at all. I’m talking about a subset of people who blog who feel like they want something that defines them more appropriately.

  7. Saying a dedicated blogger isn’t a journalist because they don’t work for a real paycheck is like saying a guy that plays the piano isn’t a pianist because he’s not in a band. It’s elitist and patronizing.

    • But then using the piano logic, if I carry a gun does that make me a police officer? I would assert that training is much involved. I think if one is serious about the craft, payment is secondary. Case in point, most stand-up comedians start as a love for laughter. Low pay (if any) and not so great conditions. But you pursue your craft and hope that others notice.

      • Kathleen Flinn says:

        Those are all great points, and interesting that you use the comedian example. I know a few people who have made a “career” out of open mic nights. They work hard but they don’t get paid.

        I had a discussion about this post with someone last night, and it’s important to remember I’m not talking about everyone who writes a blog. I’m talking about a subset of the food blogging community who have found it difficult to break into traditional media (or have decided not to try for whatever reason) yet take their work seriously. I have six book proposals in my email right now from food bloggers who take their work seriously and frankly, are all proud card-carrying members of the food blogging community. It takes a long time to develop a proposal and you don’t get paid for it. The odds are that maybe one of those proposals will find a publisher. But I don’t consider any of those writers any less “professional” even if they’re not earning their living from their blog.

      • Of course a carrying a gun doesn’t make one a police officer. That’s like saying the only difference between me and my brother-in-law is the gun. Using your own example, what makes a ‘comedian’? Making someone laugh? Once they’ve stood on stage? Once they’ve gotten a TV deal? Carrying my original analogy forward, it is more about the intent and how one self identifies. It is very specific and clearly defined about what ‘makes’ a doctor or a cop. ‘Journalist’ isn’t so clear. Being labelled a “journalist” is as tenuous as being labelled a ‘chef’. There are no hard and fast bulletpointed rules about what makes one a ‘Chef’. Being present and boss of the kitchen is what earned me that title, because people started calling me that. But I absolutely don’t begrudge someone who’s never run a kitchen using that term. Do they cook? Yes. Are they talented at it? Yes. Do people respect their skills and use them as a resource? Yes. Fine, go ahead and use it.

        And, it shouldn’t have to be pointed out, there are good cops and bad cops, good chefs and bad chefs, and there are good journalists and bad journalists. I seem to remember a lot of BS a couple years ago with the Shirley Sherrod quote being taken out of context and many many many ‘journalists’ flogged that pony only to have to backtrack when they realized that they had NOT done their due diligence.

    • Lisa,
      Sorry, I don’t know your brother-in-law, so I can’t comment on what the gun has to do with your comment. And yes, I would say that making someone laugh does make one a comedian. I would find it difficult to see them as a comedian if they made people cry. And, yes there are good and bad in every profession. And maybe that should be the standard? Is it a profession for that person? Does one make his or her living in the field that they profess to be a representative of? Again, no easy answers.

      On your point about Shirley Sherrod? That event happened in July of 2010, and it was “reported by” a blogger, Andrew Breitbart, who posted video excerpts of Sherrod’s address to a March 2010 NAACP event onto his website. I think that most of the solid media reported on the excerpt that was available. But it was the NAACP as well as the U.S. government officials who condemned her remarks and called on her to resign. However, upon review of the complete unedited video in full context, the NAACP, White House officials, and Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, apologized for the firing and Sherrod was offered a new position.

      So yes there are even good and bad bloggers…even by those that profess to being a “journalist”.

  8. Ugh. I only came here to angrily tweet at you for misusing BTQ ( http://begthequestion.info ) but @KaraNewman has successfully baited me into “sharing my thoughts.” Sigh. She’s a good troll, that Kara.

    First, I don’t know the people involved in this mess, nor care to, and this comment isn’t directed at anyone in particular, so if my generalizations about food bloggers don’t apply to you and your besties, rather than get defensive, just rest assured they apply to plenty of your peers.

    I am not, and have never been particularly impressed with the food blog community. (And as a former cocktail blogger, it saddens me to say that increasingly I feel the same disdain for the cocktail blogging world.) It seems to be largely populated by a bunch of petty, whiney, self-entitled brats that think if they get enough followers on Twitter they’ll eventually get cushy jobs writing for the Travel Channel, and so in the meantime brands and restaurant owners owe them the deference of Hindu cows. This may well be an equally apt description of mainstream journalism, but frankly, no one gives a fuck.

    And nothing about this turn of events changes my impression of food bloggers.

    Bloggers need brands to give them stuff because shit gets expensive in a hurry when you’ve got no expense account. In return, brands want coverage. You use them, they use you, and if you don’t like the game, you can take your ball and go home. Here we have a case of corporate douchebags being corporate douchebags and whiney, self-entitled brats whining because they’re not receiving the love and adoration they’re entitled to. The only people who find any of this scenario surprising are the ones actually involved in it. For the rest of us, its like watching a Monty Python sketch with no punchlines.

    Trying to frame this absurdity in a discussion of journalistic merit only serves to highlight that journalism is heaving its last, dying breath.

    • Journalism may be slimming down, but it is far from dying. And I am sure the the AP would agree. The form and delivery of journalism may me changing…but not the institution.

    • Kathleen Flinn says:

      Yeah, I had a hard time with this headline. My first editor at the Sun-Times would have beaten me soundly around the head for using “beg the question” so frankly, you’re right to call me on it. Sorry for the delay in your response getting online for some reason it went into spam.

      Blogs and web sites needs sponsors, so does every conference, there’s no question. At the International Association of Culinary Professionals, we get served lentils for lunch by the lentil people and they leave bags of free lentils on the table and no one balks. I’ve worked in magazines and they’ve long gotten stuff for review to review. I think everyone understands and knows that and frankly I have no qualms with that.

      I don’t know any of the people who were involved in this particular incident. I was at the Blogher Food lunch that I mentioned, and it struck me that I’d never see that blatant of a pitch at IACP or a Society for Professional Journalists conference. I know that the Blogher organizers were mortified, but Rocco and the company seemed to think taking up an hour of these conference attendees time and feeding them a frozen processed dinner was OK, and it struck me that the difference was because it was an audience of bloggers.

      I don’t know that journalism is dying, but it’s definitely shifting. As I wrote in another response, I’m not talking about all food bloggers, but a small subset.(and perhaps none of the people involved in this fits that mold, as I said, I don’t know them) but I guess this scenario just made me think “where is all this going?” If people are going to rely on blogs for information, is there a way to raise the standards or at least identify reliable sources?

  9. Kat, you are a wonderful writer! I re-read “Sharper” over the last month to refresh. I wanted to call you up and share my thoughts. Your written words often create emotions that can be descriptive as well as powerful.
    You are an accomplished writer. You have a publisher, on the board of IACP, and now representation through William Morris. All marks of success.
    And yes, in blogging, it does get complicated. And yes, anyone can claim a title, but I do assert that a title, self proclaimed or not, does come with expectations. Unlike your success, most bloggers do not have the gatekeepers to review, edit and advise. It must all be done from ones own self determination to present a blog that reflects their position.

  10. I think you’ve identified two issues. One, corporations are getting to expect that anyone who needs money for anything will kiss their butts for revenue. Here in Tampa, we’ve got the 1-800-Call-Gary Stadium.

    I think the point here is that it’s about semantics. Some bloggers are just happy for some handouts and to run untested recipes for cake pops, while some really want to communicate something else more meaningful whether it’s observational or focused on recipe development or even something closer to reporting. But they’re all lumped in together and perhaps it’s time for some additional identifiers. Blogs themselves are so diverse both in how the people approach them and the quality and quantity of their content.

  11. There are sucky journalists and good journalists. There are sucky bloggers and good bloggers. But any company that would do that to someone in the public (aka a potential customer) sucks, but that they invited people who could broadcast how much they suck was just stupid.

    That video is hilarious.

  12. I think it is horrible, however, if a company like Con Agra invited me to taste food, I would be highly suspect. I would naturally think it is packaged food, as that is their shtick. Surely these bloggers thought of this before going in…

  13. Great post Kathleen but I am not sure if I agree with …’Treat food bloggers and writers like you would any other journalists or opinion columnists in the media. In other words, like culinary professionals’…

    In order to be treated as a culinary professional shouldn’t you have done some time ‘working’ in the industry? And I do not mean that job you had at McDonalds when you were in 16. So many food bloggers (and I am one) try to ‘be’ everything. A writer, a chef, a bookkeeper, an advertising executive…the list is endless

    There is a small list of excellent Chefs in the world that are (or were) also excellent writers and possibly a list of excellent writers that happened to be excellent chefs. If you write, then yes, you are a writer, but in order to be a professional in any field, you have to do your time. Oh, and getting paid helps too.

    Did you read the recent article in The Economist? There is a link to it on my blog. http://www.wisewords.ie/index.php/2011/08/aniar-restaurant/

  14. This is a tough and complicated question and one I did not completely answer in my article. And it also seems you have two topics and discussions going on here as well. To touch on both: I have actually been turned off by many bloggers who do more and more product “reviews” – in quotation marks because they are invariably and uniquely positive – in exchange for free products. And many restaurant reviews I read on blogs are, again, invariably positive. Whether these uniquely positive reviews are because these people truly enjoy everything, because they feel they owe something to whoever is giving them a free product or meal or whether they are simply only writing about and posting about things and places they like and not writing about the ones they do not simply to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings is simply, to me, uninteresting and makes me distrust their judgment and reviews. This, in my opinion, undermines any journalistic (objective) aspirations they may have and brings into doubt the reputation of bloggers as a group. Although I do admit that I thoroughly enjoy reading the restaurant reviews by a selected group of bloggers who are great writers! And I would probably trust their opinions (and photos). That said, I do believe that there are talented writers and mediocre writers, talented bloggers and mediocre bloggers. But each has the right to do what they like, write and offer their opinions, write and be published if they have the luck. It is the reading public who must and will decide. Just being a blogger does not a great writer make; those who are talented work at their writing as any craftsman or artist works at their craft or art, working at it as any professional in any profession. And that, in the end, shows. You say the same when you talk about diligence, research, ethics and quality. This is what separates the good/great from the mediocre. (yet sadly, sometimes the mediocre get the most attention…) And loved the cheesy grits! Glad you pushed me into tasting them… first time since my bad grit experience at Girl Scout Camp. Um, True Grits?

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