Kill the Critic: My 2008 Restaurant Reviewing Manifesto
Ed’s Note: I wrote this memo 10 years ago. I submitted it to my editors, who ignored it. I quit two weeks later.
BY ED MURRIETA
The formal restaurant review as written by an anonymous critic is an out-dated concept that short-changes readers. Here are my recommendations for restructuring how the News Tribune covers food and restaurants in a way that gives readers more content — delivered faster, delivered with more immediacy and produced at a lower cost to our company.
1. Eliminate restaurant reviews based on multiple visits over extended periods of time. Replace traditional reviews with frequent blog reports of the “first bite” and “second bite” variety.
On the Internet, where everyone’s a critic, amateur blogs and restaurant review sites abound. Newspapers, especially one our size and resources, and their readers no longer need the traditional restaurant critic; instead, they need a guide — the South Sound’s Best Foodie Friend who tells readers about great new pizza and burger places, incredible winemakers’ dinner, last night’s fabulous Yukon River salmon at Sea Grill and things like my latest finds at the Korean supermarket food courts.
Not only would readers get more content, they’d get it faster; readers want to know about new and interesting places to eat now, not three months from now when the traditional restaurant review is ready for publication.
Writing more frequently, and with more immediacy, also would benefit readers by making the News Tribune’s online restaurant guide timely, urgent and useful. Restaurants that may not otherwise be reviewed could now be
featured in all of our platforms: web site, restaurant guide and newspaper. Restaurants that haven’t been reviewed in years could be revisited for readers.
In addition to giving readers more content, my recommendations would enhance the value of the News Tribune’s restaurant guide as an advertising asset.
2. Rethink whether the restaurant critic’s anonymity serves the newsroom or serves the readers.
As a half-time anonymous critic and half-time ambiguously anonymous reporter who is also expected to report and write features about food and life in the South Sound, I short-change readers in the areas of multimedia, immediacy, accountability and the type and scope of stories I can report.
Tearing down the wall of anonymity would enable me to give readers multimedia, immediacy and accountability. I could take and post photographs of every meal I eat. Readers could see for themselves if the critic’s pork chop was bigger than theirs or whether he got more mashed potatoes than they did.
I could interview chefs in their natural environment – in their kitchens, where, as a reporter who knows my way around kitchens, I could give readers an insider’s look at the food and people they want to know about. I could more freely write about farmers, winemakers and other food purveyors who work directly with chefs. I could attend and freely report on food events and trade shows.
Tearing down the wall of anonymity would enable me to build upon the community that I’ve created with Ed’s Diner. I would like to further engage readers and build my blog community by dining with readers. I would be accountable to and transparent with readers, who would be able to see and judge for themselves whether critics receive perks that regular customers don’t. (In my world, the answer is no.) My reviews could publish side-by-side with readers’ views. The News Tribune could milk this marketing-wise.
3. Examples of precedent are few. To my knowledge, only the New York Daily News has had the vision to raise the public profile and reader accessibility of its restaurant critic.
Earlier this year, the Daily News hired a new critic: Restaurant Girl, the highly visible and photogenic creator of a popular New York City restaurant blog. Daily News editors did not respond to my telephone messages or e-mail inquiries. However, in her debut column, the Daily News’ Restaurant Girl argued that critics are the readers’ links to restaurants, chefs and their food. Chefs, Restaurant Girl argued, should be given the opportunity to present their best to critics – and through critics to readers. To that same point, several chefs have told me that they would like to serve me non-anonymously and let the chips fall where they may. Success, of course, depends on the integrity of the critic and the trust the critic has with readers.
At the Los Angeles Weekly, Pulitzer-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold is no longer anonymous. A distinctive-looking man, his picture was widely published, online and in national newspapers, after he won his Pulitzer in 2007. Gold reports no adverse effects on his ability to perform his job with impartiality.
At the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, two former restaurant critics report that they have been better able to serve readers – in the newspaper and on their blogs – since they transitioned from full-time critics to food writers. (Both newspapers replaced staff critics with freelancers.)
In a business climate that demands more content with fewer resources -– and in a market that cannot afford a full-time critic – new rules must be written. More content must delivered faster, delivered with more immediacy and produced at a lower cost to our company. In addition to the trust of readers and a track record of professional integrity, I believe I have the vision, skills and background in online publishing to take the News Tribune and restaurant criticism in a new and better direction.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.