From Gourmet to the Daily Gazette

I was reminded for the first time in years of the existence of Gourmet magazine a few weeks ago when a foodie colleague of mine started talking about some recipes she’d made from it recently.

I used to subscribe to Gourmet some years ago. I stopped reading it because at some point, I just didn’t enjoy a monthly reminder of travel I’d never be able to afford, dining I was unlikely to indulge in very often, and recipes that mostly didn’t excite me. When Gourmet made the news this past week due to its cancellation, it turned out that I wasn’t the only person who had felt the same way.

I didn’t stop being a foodie when I stopped reading it. I didn’t stop reading it because the Internet came into being and replaced old-media. Something did change in my media and consumer habits, though, and maybe the Internet has had something to do with this change (whether cause or effect, I’m not sure). I stopped thinking of some of my media and leisure consumption as habitual, or as a kind of personal tradition. And I started having a much more pronounced hair trigger when it came to changing that consumption. Gourmet or anything like it stopped being habitus, a thing that defined an aspirational life or state of mind. I started reading Cook’s instead because it seemed practical and useful. But I’m just as much on a hair trigger with that as I am with anything these day. Christopher Kimball’s completely inane frontspiece to every single issue is enough alone to make me pull that trigger, but in the latest issue, they’ve started sequestering some of the content in the print magazine behind a paywall on the website. That’s pretty much the end for me.

This is the real issue for a lot of old media. They used to be a habit, a tradition, a part of life. As such, you ignored what you didn’t use or like the same way you ignore a tear or a stain in a piece of furniture that you otherwise find comfortable and can’t afford to replace anyway. But now I think a lot of audiences have a much more active imaginative engagement with what they read, and much less patience for a publication that isn’t nimble in its response to the needs and desires of its readership. You go to old media for a kind of quality you can’t get in new media, but now we expect much more for our (relatively small) payment.


On the other side of the fence, though, it’s curious to see how much an old rhetoric about an expectation of quality still informs the way that some readers interact with new media. I was struck a bit by this right here at Swarthmore recently. In recent years, there’s been an online campus newsletter, the Daily Gazette, in addition to the regular campus newspaper, the Phoenix, both published and written by students.

Both publications have editorial staffs and operate under an old-media umbrella in the sense that they’re composed of articles that the editorial staff has commissioned or reviewed and decided to publish, rather than being new-media platforms that are open to any content. In practice, though, it seems to me that any student who really wanted to write something could publish it in either, particularly in the Daily Gazette, which is purely digital and isn’t affected by an economy of limited space.

Recently, one student published a satire aimed at the activists behind the Kick Coke campaign here. Several students wrote a column in reply complaining about low standards in student journalism and calling upon editors and reporters to publish better, more meaningfully investigative work.

The divide between old media environments and new media ones isn’t about print and digital. Mostly, old media is now clearly a packaged product. I buy it, I consume it. If I’m sufficiently unhappy with it, I stop consuming it. Print journalists lately have been proclaiming themselves instead to be public servants, to be an organ of civil society, and made it out that the consumption of print journalism is a form of republican virtue. This may have been true at some point in the past, but if that’s the social contract between readers and reporters, the reporters broke the contract unilaterally some time ago.

If I’m unhappy with the content of new media, well, first off, change the channel. There’s a lot out there. If I don’t find the blogs I like, switch to Twitter feeds or asynchronous bulletin boards or what have you. More importantly, roll my own, if I can.

Sure, I couldn’t do a blog reporting on current conditions in Guinea because I’m not there at the moment. But somebody can. But I could and do blog about issues in higher education, scholarly writing, U.S. politics and popular culture. Making your own media tends to connect you to others who are making media that provides some of what you can’t provide for yourself.

In a new media environment, complaining that someone should not publish work that you find to be of low quality is mismatched rhetoric ported over from old media consumption. You can certainly criticize such work, though often I think it’s best to just ignore what you really disdain. If it’s not what you think should be said, though, it’s up to you to say it. So in the case of the Swarthmore debate, for example, it feels oddly antiquated to me to see students (especially students with activist aspirations) arguing that it is the responsibility of student editors to provide the readership with a different kind of content while suppressing other kinds of content. A digital publication can shrink or grow dynamically in response to the amount of material provisioned to it by authors and creators. It doesn’t have a resource or price limitation that forces an editor to choose to publish a satire or an investigation, a light piece on fashion or a serious treatment of a public issue.

For a student at a college like this one, there’s nothing easier than writing what you’d like to write about the life and culture of the institution. There’s a lot of information lying around waiting to be used. The best complaint is not a demand that others write and publish differently. It’s rolling your own, saying what you think ought to be said, putting your own name and reputation on the line.

I’m completely happy to relate to some media and forms of information passively, to buy it and stop buying it as a product depending on my satisfaction with its quality. I might even warn a producer that they need to change the product to keep me pleased. But if it’s the kind of media where barriers to an active, participatory role are low, that’s not the right kind of response. Then my job is to make what I want rather than demand that it be made.


Addition: It turns out Christopher Kimball knows that people hate his stupid frontspiece and doesn’t care. Bang! Goes my hairtrigger.

This entry was posted in Academia, Blogging, Food, Information Technology and Information Literacy, Swarthmore. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to From Gourmet to the Daily Gazette

  1. Gabe says:

    That article reminded me of what drives me crazy about Cook’s. I don’t really want “foolproof” in a recipe, nor am I sure what that is. There’s just a weird insistence in that magazine that there is some perfect way to do everything which seems to take all of the fun out of cooking. But I suppose in some ways thats an attitude borne of having the time and energy to mess around with stuff. Still, I’m just not convinced food really works that way. There are really too many variables to control to have it always turn out the same way no matter where you are and if it did that would be boring. Isn’t consistency for resturants.

    The great part about cooks is the equipment reviews, because thats where the whole scientific approach is helpful. Its the only reason I still keep my subscription.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree about “foolproof”, though I enjoy reading them think through technique and seeing what produces different results.

    The equipment and ingredient reviews are what I’m there for as well–and that’s what they’ve started moving partially behind the pay wall of the web magazine. You get part but not all in the print edition.

  3. kaleberg says:

    Gourmet used to have interesting articles about the world, cultures, places and food. It also used to have great recipes. Under Ruth Reichl it turned its world interest into a travel PR feed, and the recipes have grown increasingly uninteresting. They also went into kitchen gadgets and design in a big way. I’m sure it helped their advertising sales, but it didn’t help the magazine. It wasn’t just the internet that killed them.

    I’ll second having reservations about Cook’s. My aesthetic and Cook’s aesthetic are all too different. Cook’s always seemed to go for the more homogenized, institutional cooking school version of any dish. So, they’d do some great experimental work, but they’d wind up with lump-less mashed potatoes. I like lumps. They’d exhaustively analyze heat transfer and heat reactions and wind up with an evenly cooked tenderloin, but I like mine with burnt bits on the outside and a gradient of done-ness inside.

    As for the arguments with regard to the Daily Gazette and Phoenix, a lot depends on who is paying for what and how visible they are, on and off campus. Publishing still has a place on the internet. Anyone can write anything they want, but it makes a big difference in whether it is posted on a big billboard at the entrance or on your own kitchen refrigerator. Sure, readers follow reputations, but the shift takes time, and incumbent publications borrow credence from the school.

  4. lc says:

    A glance at the Swarthmore student pieces you linked to suggests — to me at any rate — that the students complaining about the quality of journalism were at the same time “rolling their own,” or saying that they were going to do so. So the distinction between “complaining” and “doing it yourself” seems somewhat artificial in this case.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Maybe. I read them as demanding that someone else do it. Some of the comments suggest some directions for investigative work, though I think the commenters might find that if they did something as simple as ask about the issues they hint darkly are conspiracies, they’d find something less spectacular. But that might be part of the problem: the issues that lie underneath higher education at a place like Swarthmore are pretty profound, but it’s less a matter of investigation in the Woodward-Bernstein sense and more a matter of taking the time to understand the real choices if you want to write about them from a student perspective.

  6. hwc says:

    Complaints about student news publishing at Swarthmore may lack a bit of perspective. It is difficult to find a similarly-sized school that pubishes a paper as regularly and as competently as the Phoenix. To find a school that also supports a daily online publication like the Gazette is impossible. So, yes, judged against some mythical ideal, the two publications will surely come up lacking. Judged against the real world, however, they are top shelf. Don’t believe me? Do some surfing of liberal arts college newspapers. Start at the top of the “rankings”.

    I don’t think that the Gazette gets enough credit. Lauren Stokes published some superb historical articles over the last few years. Her series on the history of Sager and LGBT issues at Swarthmore was fabulous college journalism. It’s probably safe to say that everyone who read that series learned something.

    On current issues, it’s hard to find one more topical than the impact of the economy and endowment problems on the College. Both the Phoenix and the Gazette have done a decent job covering this issue, routinely getting the “money quotes” from the VP of Finance.

Comments are closed.