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Grumpy Old Men

In Tom Wark’s annual American Wine Writer’s Survey, we learn that most wine writers are men over the age of 50. We also learn that wine writers working in print don’t, in general, like or respect bloggers. In fact, in identifying the greatest threats to professional wine writing, the wine writers surveyed zeroed in on three: the declining financial status of print publishing, the emergence of blogs, and “inexperienced wine writers.”

While the divide is on its face generational — wine bloggers tend to be younger and less experienced than print writers — it’s also an indication of the largely suppressed anger that wine professionals feel toward wine bloggers. Breaking into the wine business can be difficult, and most everyone goes through a period when they, in effect, suffer for their art. The terrible jobs they’ve all worked weeded out those not truly committed to the business. For wine bloggers, there’s no barrier-to-entry and thus no screening process. It takes fifteen minutes to set up a blog, declare yourself an expert, and start contacting publicists demanding free wine.

I’ve heard professionals all along the wine value chain complain that their incomes are affected by wine bloggers. The the not-entirely-unjustified stereotype is of self-declared experts who write snark for snark’s sake, amusing themselves and their tiny audiences while laying little bombs out there for search engines to find. Then, when someone considering a wine purchase Googles a brand, what bubbles up is a mixture of informed and uninformed opinion with little or no way for most people to decide which is which.

Adding insult to injury for print-based wine writers is this: online media are killing print media. Most wine writers didn’t start out as wine writers. They worked tough beats and wrote about wine on the side, often for no additional pay, until late in their careers they were moved over to the wine beat as a reward for decades of hard work. Now newspapers and magazines are cutting staff, and its the marginal positions like wine critic that get axed first, so it’s not surprising that the resentment seethes.

And it’s not just wine bloggers who make the ink-stained wretches crabby. They’re not real happy with wine publicists, either.

This group of employed writers was also far more critical of the public relations and marketing people they often deal with. In fact they were three times less likely to say that the work of public relations and marketing professionals was extremely or very useful to them than the average wine writer.

So if you know print-based wine writers, you might want to stay at arm’s length. You don’t want to get bit.

UPDATE: Wark comments on his own report here. And then his commentors comment on Wark’s comments, and then they comment on each other’s comments in a whirlwind of concomitant commitment to commentary.


12 Comments

  • Thomas Pellechia

    May I dissent for a minute?

    My view is that the dichotomy between print and online wine writing has less to do with the two technologies than it is made out to be. Instead, the direction of the technologies is driven by the sociology.

    Print was slowly receding long before blogs quickly ascended. People simply don’t read much, and those who do read steadily lost interest in newspapers for a variety of reasons, the latest being the Internet. If anyone writing about this situation would do some investigative journalism, he or she might find newspapers failing on a regular basis over the past thirty-plus years, well before blogs.

    Also before the ascendancy of blogs, newspapers slowly changed the focus of wine writing to critical wine reviewing–that was the main reason behind Frank Prial’s departure from the NY Times a number of years ago. In fact, when he left, I remember the wine geek obituaries that complained about his writing the way they complain about all wine writers who don’t issue ratings and personal wine reviews, which Prial hardly ever did. It took reading to appreciate his writing.

    Third, if it takes 15 minutes to start up a blog and proclaim yourself an expert, you deserve to be viewed with derision. I know that it’s work to build a few years of experience, and I have no sympathy for people who aren’t willing to do so, plus I don’t hold in esteem publicists who take advantage of the situation and send wine all over the universe looking for one great shot at boosting sales to the unsuspecting, which at best is a stupid tactic.

    I don’t generally take surveys so I passed up on Tom’s survey (I hate being viewed as part of the average) but I can fully understand the results, even if my reasons differ from what will likely become the official online reasons.

  • 1WineDude

    “It takes fifteen minutes to set up a blog, declare yourself an expert, and start contacting publicists demanding free wine.”

    Yes, but in those 15 mins., no one will really listen to you. Is it really true (as some might argue) that the 3 people who read that new (and probably bogus) blog will be “stolen” from the potential audience for print media, never to return, and that the amalgam of all of those hundreds / thousands of readers “siphoning off” are killing wine print media?

    Or is it a bit more likely that the best wine blogs are connecting with audiences in ways that print media simply cannot, and are actually being headed by fairly experienced wine “semi-pros” who know what they’re talking about, and the combo. of that with the fact that print media in ANY form is suffering is actually what is killing print wine media.

    I know which one seems more likely *to me*… :)

  • Tom Johnson

    There’s no question but that a variety of forces have caused print media to slide, economically. Two big ones, pre-Internet, were the rise of television and the switch from commuting on public transport to commuting in cars. (Farewell, evening papers!) When newspapers rolled-up into chains, they made the mistake of thinking their core competencies were ad sales, printing and delivery, and they cut their content creation to save money. They filled their pages with syndicated copy which eventually became available on the web, a full day before it arrived in the morning paper.

    But I think the rise in wine blogging — some of which is really good — has had a huge effect on print media. It allows the development of distinct voices that would not survive the editorial process of conventional publishing. The flip side of that is those distinct voices make standard wine writing seem drab and indistinct in contrast.

    Dude’s right about the connection with audiences. I’ve worked in print and on the web and the interactivity of the web can create a kind of intimacy that may or may not be real — but it certainly is involving. Comments and traffic stats give any blogger who works at it the ability to know what the audience is looking for and provide it. Is that a commercial corruption of the creative process? Sure. But who cares? If I didn’t want an audience, I would have kept writing poetry.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    Tom,

    I fully agree about the good thing behind the interactive nature of blogging (except on my blog–you need readers to have interactivity).

    Still, I reject the notion that interactivity is inherently better at imparting solid information; as I scan blogs, I find a handful that are well written. Granted, I tend to value the art of communication maybe more than those who don’t understand the nature of a writing career.

    Incidentally, while the following two are presented as one thought, they don’t come close to being that.

    “It allows the development of distinct voices that would not survive the editorial process of conventional publishing. The flip side of that is those distinct voices make standard wine writing seem drab and indistinct in contrast.”

    Even the best writers could use editing, but not being edited has nothing to do with writing talent and skill. Distinct voices are fine, as long as they aren’t useless voices. I consider your blanket statement a factoid, certainly not a fact, as I have no idea what you mean by “standard wine writing.” It sounds to me like a fabricated appellation.

  • Steve

    Thank God someone put together a concise summary of that survey. I’m guessing Señor Wark probably could’ve condensed that report down to two pages without losing much meaning, but then, 36 pages feels so much more legitimate. Anyway, as usual, Joe beat me to the punch on dissenting with the dissenter. A few disjointed thoughts just so I don’t feel completely uninvolved…

    As one of those self-amusing, sample-grubbing, snark-for-snark’s-sake, inexperienced wine writers bloggers, I’ve felt the thinly veiled condescenscion from some of the small handful of print wine writers left out there (and a few bloggers, too). And I get it – they may say their gripe is that their art is being diluted by imposters (not entirely unjustified), but at the end of the day, their meal ticket is threatened by jackholes like me. I’d be pissed, too. But any more just about all print writers publish content on the internets, so it’s not a one-or-the-other thing, it’s sort of a club. An increasingly exclusive club. Still, pedigree be damned – there’s a reason the landscape is shifting from print to to online, and it ain’t just a concern for the environment. IMHO it’s due to three factors: relevance, portability, and quality.

    A lot of print writing is written from a detached insider’s perspective, which is (gasp!) irrelevant in the context of so many alternative easy-to-relate-to voices. Tom’s absolutely right about the disctinct voices. As to whether they are useful or not, well, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. As has been discussed on this blog before, readers of wine writing want to find writers who share their tastes, preferences, and sense of humor. Relevance.

    Important to this shift is that online content is available to readers’ eyes anywhere, anytime – and it’s easily sharable. I haven’t done any investigative journalism on the subject (eschewing research in favor of making shit up – it’s way more more entertaining for author and reader), but in his June 2010 piece ‘Your Brain on Computers’, Matt Richtel (Pulitzer Prize, New York Times) wrote, “In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960.” So, you can’t really argue that people are reading less. We’re reading more. Online media facilitates this by making content insanely accessible. I mean, hell, I read this blog (and three others) at the stop lights on my way in to the office this morning. Portability, baby.

    Finally, there seems to be this percpetion of quality being something unique to print media. Hogwash. This blog, for example, is not only relevant and portable, it’s really well written. So are plenty of others. Yeah, there is a lot of piss-poor writing out there – you’ll have that when there’s no barrier to entry – but if print writers are categorically that much greater than bloggers, why do blogs continue to proliferate at such a pace? Just ask any annoying publicist – they have the eyes.

    All that said, what started years ago and continues to accelarate in this space is the redistribution of wealth from the few to the many. And any time you fractionalize a revenue stream, the people who had it to themselves before get upset. If that survey asked a few more pointed questions, my guess is the thin veil would slip right off to reveal some pretty sharp fangs. Like Tom said, you might want to stay at arm’s length.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    Steve,

    “…A lot of print writing is written from a detached insider’s perspective…”

    Can you help me understand how the alternative voices of wine blogging differ from the above? Faling that, can you maybe give one example to “a lot of” print journalists.

    I believe that “a lot of” the hand wringing over this subject is more opinion than fact. Now doesn’t that sound like I’m hedging my facts???

    People consumed 3 times as much information!
    I love words and I love how they can fool us. Take “consumed”: is that to be construed as the same as “assimilate, understand, or read?” Not necessarily.

    Take “information”: is that the same as “necessary information”? Not necessarily.

    And Steve, this is your funniest statement.

    “All that said, what started years ago and continues to accelarate in this space is the redistribution of wealth from the few to the many.”

    As a 20-year writing veteran–print and online–I can tell you with a straight face that no wealth has yet been redistributed. When you consider the money available for online writing–it isn’t wealth, but when you consider the way print has reduced payemnt to writers, it sometimnes doesn’t even seem, like revenue!

  • Thomas Pellechia

    …of course, I meant ‘failing that.”

    really ought to learn to preview before I hit submit.

  • Tom Johnson

    Quality isn’t exclusive to print writing, but there is a built-in filter (at least theoretically) screening out bad writing: editors. The winnowing process in blogging is the marketplace. Better writing will tend to find an audience larger than bad writing — though the definitions of good and bad have to do with the audience’s wants rather than the editor’s judgment.

    That alone is significant difference. Given that, as H.L. Mencken once said, no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people, self-publishing absent an editor’s elevating judgment considerably lowers the performance bar.

    Good editors protect their writers from sloppiness, self-indulgence and their own worst tendencies. Most bloggers would benefit from that. On the other hand, it would make blogging a lot more like work, and who wants that?

  • Thomas Pellechia

    HL also said:

    “No one in this world has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people…”

  • John

    Thomas – a good editor would have caught that ;-)

  • Tom Johnson

    I checked the quote on the Internet, and everything on the Internet has to be true. There’s a law or something.

  • Thomas Pellechia

    Tom,

    I think both sayings came from Mencken, along with myriad other caustics…

    John,

    Do you know a good editor? Obviosuly, I cna use wone, wone, one!