Editors Cooking Up Tasty ‘Food’ Sections — On the Web

By: Liz Logan

Food editors at daily newspapers increasingly see the Web as a helpful friend, a refrigerator that keeps their content fresh. In an age when people are more and more concerned about where their food comes from, for example, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, on the Web, is taking its readers straight to the source.

A video series called “Homegrown” on the paper’s Web site profiles growers at four Minnesota farms. The first video, posted in November 2007, shows readers how Heritage turkeys are raised at Nature’s Little Farm in Kellogg, Minn.. A link with information on where to buy these birds accompanies the video.

“You can hear the cows mooing,” said Star Tribune Food Editor Lee Svitak Dean. The series is an example of how the Web allows her to accomplish things she never could in print — namely, as she put it, taking readers to the farm. Dean wants to continue using video to educate her audience about the local food community.

To compete in the crowded Web world, top food editors are keeping their coverage local, filming videos to engage tech-savvy Web readers and developing extensive, easily searchable recipe databases — because recipes are in demand with Web and print readers alike. Editors are taking workshops and teaching themselves new skills to become competent multimedia producers, often while their staffs are shrinking.

“People keep the print a day, maybe,” said Dean, while stories and recipes may live forever online. The content in food sections is perennial and always relevant, which is why it works so well on the Web, said Kathleen Purvis, food editor at the Charlotte Observer. And the Web, like food, is about connecting people.

As food sections get thinner and thinner, the Web also offers editors space to create a bigger spread. “You can only make a recipe so tight,” said Purvis. “The recipe has to say what it says.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s site, SFGate.com, offers a weekly e-newsletter focused on a particular ingredient with recipes pulled from the paper’s archives and re-packaged. Michael Bauer, executive food and wine editor, answers a reader question in each newsletter, which he considers a supplement to the print section.

Cooks on Camera
“The goal is to tell the story in different ways and attract hits from those younger readers who read only online,” said Jill Wendholt Silva, food editor at the Kansas City Star and President of the Association of Food Journalists. Her staff produces a multimedia feature just about every week. Last November, Silva video logged — or “v-logged” — her experiences preparing Thanksgiving dinner.

WashingtonPost.com offers regular video and multimedia segments, such as “Chef on Call,” which features notable D.C.-area chefs like Eric Ripert giving cooking lessons in people’s homes. In one notable video, Michel Richard, “Washington’s preeminent star chef” according to The Post, helped two pre-teen girls cook a surprise birthday dinner for their father.

The Hispanic population in and around Charlotte has grown dramatically in the past few years, said Purvis, who created a video for The Observer’s site about an open-air Mexican market. “Food is the universal language,” she narrates in the video, “[at the market] you don’t have to speak Spanish to make yourself understood.” Her objective in taping herself, a middle-aged white woman wandering through a slice of Latin America, was to make the market seem less intimidating to readers.

Other papers use video to play on their strengths: Well-known New York Times writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman has been filming how-to video versions of his column, “The Minimalist,” for a couple of years now, according to Pete Wells, editor of the Dining section. Bittman’s authority and fun-loving personality translate well to the Web. In a video about making roasted tomato soup, Bittman fashioned a companion doll for himself using tomatoes and other vegetables, and called it “Mr. Tomato-face.”

Keeping it Local
Many editors differentiate their sites by focusing on local coverage — writing, filming, photographing and podcasting the stories only they can do. Giving readers a taste of local flavor draws readers worldwide to newspaper Web sites in cities both big and small.

The Charlotte Observer’s siteincludes many authentic Southern barbeque recipes and receives clicks from readers in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia, according to Purvis.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s site offers “a definitive California point of view” and “a Northern California sensibility,” according to Bauer, who also receives a large number of emails from people outside the region. Last October, Bauer introduced a multimedia feature called “Pizza Friday” on his “Between Meals” blog: Every Friday he takes readers to a new Bay area pizza joint, often with a video detailing how each restaurant bakes its pies (http://www.sfgate.com/). When Bauer started writing about pizza in the paper, reader responses poured in, and “Pizza Friday” continues to receive numerous online comments from readers.

Recipes for Success
“Recipes are the international language,” said Wells of The New York Times, which nevertheless lacks an online “Recipe Finder.” Wells admires the “Recipe Finder” that The Washington Post introduced in April 2007, which Post editor Joe Yonan describes as one of the most easily searchable recipe databases on any newspaper site. Readers can limit their search by course, type of cuisine, ingredients, recipe name, and other factors such as “healthy,” “fast” or “kid-friendly.”

The Post database, an ongoing project, has been quite a challenge: For starters, staffers had to input all the recipes from scratch. Once the process began, Yonan realized that many of the recipes had head notes refering articles they appeared with, and the notes didn’t make sense taken out of context. Thus began an exhausting, unexpected recipe-editing process. As of this February 26, the database offers 1,734 recipes, “and counting,” Yonan said.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a database of over 10,000 tested recipes, according to Bauer. That said, he wishes the site had a better search function. Currently readers can only limit their search by a date range and a keyword.

The Charlotte Observer recently took a different approach to the recipe database, encouraging readers to interact with the site: Purvis started two recipe databases — one for “Observer-Tested Recipes,” meaning recipes the paper tested in its test kitchen, and another for “Reader Recipes.” It’s important to differentiate the journalism side from “the interactive free-for-all,” Purvis said. There are 84 Observer recipes and 35 reader recipes available.

Doing More with Less
Creating multimedia content for the Web is a like “learning to fly a plane while you’re doing it,” Purvis said. She’s used the Poynter Institute’s online tutorials to teach herself how to write video scripts. She’s also gotten used to writing two versions of articles — one for print, and another for the Web. Sometimes the Web version is straight news and the print version has more feature elements. Other times it’s the opposite, and recipes and details that didn’t fit into the print section find a home online.

“We have to do more with less — do more multimedia and write more, and do this in the same time we always have,” said Dean of her work at the Star Tribune. Two-thirds of her staff was cut last year in a buyout and won’t be replaced, she noted, so she and her reporters have gotten used to more responsibilities, such as taking their own digital photos when they cover stories. Doing more with less means she’s had to decide which aspects are more important than others.

“Some are more professional-looking than others,” said Yonan of the food videos on WashingtonPost.com. Washington Post Newsweek Interactive (WPNI) has offered multimedia training to Post staff as well as support for more ambitious videos, according to Yonan. He says the learning has been a lot of fun, with “a lot of things to think about.”

Most editors say that their sites, like most things on the Web, are works in progress. Organizing content is the biggest challenge; for example, videos often are hard to find. Wells said the templates for NYTimes.com are much more fixed than those for the print product, leaving him with less control over the results. He called the Dining section on the Web “an ongoing experiment.”

Over at the Star Tribune, Dean said she has “big plans,” but they are too preliminary to reveal. One ingredient is constant at these food sites. Said Yonan, “We’re all trying to figure out who the Web audience is.”

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