By: Joe Strupp
With war, the bad economy and other worries on the minds of newspaper leaders, the American Society of Newspaper Editors chose to open its annual conference on Tuesday with some lighter subjects — food and wine.
“We wanted to have a soft entry,” said Rena Pederson, chair of the convention program committee, who added that the remainder of the conference will include plenty of sessions related to war, diversity concerns, readership needs, and the economy. “We will wake them up and hit them with those tomorrow.”
Attendance at the convention has dropped this year, due mainly to the war and newsroom cutbacks, ASNE officials said. The number of paid attendees is 493, compared to 522 last year. Officials estimate at least 40 editors at the convention have reporters in the war region.
On the first day of the four-day event, editors heard from wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher of The Wall Street Journal, as well as longtime food writer and Editor Ruth Reichl of Gourmet magazine. With the convention taking place in New Orleans, the group also asked local chef John Besh of August restaurant to contribute.
First, Gaiter and Brecher, a married couple who began their joint column in 1998, discussed how a good wine column can work — not with snobby opinions on upper crust wines, but with a fun approach to the joys of wine drinking.
“Drinking is not what it’s all about, it is about connecting,” said Brecher. “We use wine to write about the very important things in life — like love, romance, and family.”
The columnists stressed that the approach needs to look at how readers — of all kinds — enjoy wine, choose their beverages, and relate them to their lives. In creating a wine column, they said newspapers should not rely on reader surveys, citing the fact that many readers may not know if they would read a wine column until they see it.
Brecher and Gaiter also said columnists covering wine should be given the assignment as a reward, not a punishment. Critics also need to listen to readers’ opinions,” Brecher said.
The couple pointed out, as well, that wine columns should not just be written for those who dine often at expensive restaurants. “Write for the person who just wants to drink a wine that makes them feel good at home,” Brecher said.
On food, Reichl, whose experience includes stints at The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, worried about the “shrinking food sections of newspapers.” She added, “The interest in this subject is important and the demographic has changed. It used to be just women, but you have men readers and more young people.”
Reichl that local newspapers can really differentiate themselves from other papers with a good food section that covers local restaurants and cuisine. “Some food sections are elitist,” she claimed. “Sometimes you should just talk about who is cooking and what they are cooking.”
Other suggestions include writing more about people cooking at home, re-visiting restaurants that have been reviewed at least once per year, and not getting caught up in high-end restaurants and complicated recipes. “There is a food culture for college students and singles, too,” Reichl said.
Besh urged editors to make sure their food sections include both positive and negative reviews of restaurants, while writing about more than just the food. “Take them close to the chef, close to the foreigners,” he said. “The farmer that grows a certain vegetable.”
Looking ahead to the remainder of the week, ASNE will welcome a new president when Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, takes the helm from Diane McFarlin, publisher of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, on Friday. Bhatia said he hopes to focus on freedom of information needs, diversity, readership, and training. He said a FOI Summit set for June 5-6 in Washington, D.C., will mark the first move in a major push to fight the recent crackdowns on public access to records and information by the Bush administration.
“The homeland security act goes much farther than it has to for national security,” he said about one of the biggest obstacles to FOI requests. “It is much, much harder than in the past.”
Bhatia said he hopes the summit will provide a game plan for fighting recent restrictions on public information. When he takes over Friday, he will hold the president’s post for one year.