A Gift Guide: kinda
We decided to publish this subscriber newsletter as it is a topic we think is important to discuss, and is something we would want to come back in the future. It is also about transparency in relation to how we operate at SOURCED and the world of media that we occupy, therefore should be available for all to read. Our [paid] subscriber newsletters allow us to pay writers and researchers, therefore if you would like to sign up that would be greatly appreciated, details here of how to subscribe.
As freelance journalists we have been ‘gifted’ things and experiences and have recently been sent products we felt have value to SOURCED. This has spurred us to think about how we feel about gifting. Is it possible to uphold our values of transparency and inquiry into ethical sourcing when getting something for free? This newsletter is our untangling of the system of gifting in food and drink media.
For complete transparency the people we spoke to for this newsletter are friends and/or people we’ve worked with and we felt they can offer interesting and trustworthy insight into the topic, but do accept our bias. The gifts we’ve received were the book ‘Faviken: 4015 days, beginning to end’, a bottle of Equiano Rum, and a cooking class from Diaspo (all of which we found interesting, delicious and beneficial to our work)
Eating out, the business of
To know an industry, you must know what is on offer: what products does it sell, how does it shape desire, what are the trends it follows. Even if you’re trying to write and research outside of the mainstream (which we are) you have to understand what drives the establishment. For culinary systems, this includes knowledge of restaurants, bars and brands. As a food and drink journalist, engagement in these spaces requires access and ability to travel and the financial ability to afford the products on offer – unless you can secure them for free.
It is very difficult to pay for this kind of access on a freelancer’s budget so writers often rely on an editorial budget to cover the cost or on brands to be able to comp a meal/experience. The latter is the most accessible option for freelance writers.
Naturally this means companies with the largest budgets to comp tend to get the most real estate in publications. As an industry of aspiration, food and drink media has the ability to shape tastes and trends, but how reliable is it if coverage is dictated by who has the biggest budget for freebies?
In an interview with SOURCED, associate editor of Eater London, James Hansen explained that gifting creates a system that “privileges praise over critique”. This system is driven by the culture of gifting in the industry wherein writers are caught in the delicate balance of needing to accept gifts because editorial budgets are slim or personal finances are tight and needing to maintain objectivity. James explains that within this system of gifting, critique can often be misread as a personal affront: “the proportion of celebration to critique is so skewed that the latter feels like an explosion rather than an inquiry.”
Eater is one publication that does not allow free meals, of any kind, and has a budget for their editors to eat out. But the practice of gifting is so embedded in the system that there is an assumption that their coverage is bought and paid for. An Instagram post by Eater London for a piece (written by Eater editors) about where to get good roasts received a less-than-positive comment from a fan of a restaurant that was not featured on the list. The restaurant replied saying “because we don’t pay to be in shit listings babe”.
This does not mean Eater is without fault. They rely on a wide pool of freelancers, who do and can take gifts. One way they navigate this to avoid skewed coverage is that they’ve made restaurant lists map based, and freelancers are commissioned to write about areas or themes that are known to them. Their lists are also never as broad as ‘The Best Restaurants in London’, instead they refine ‘best of’ lists to themes or specific areas to avoid the exclusion of restaurants that don’t have budgets for PR and gifting.
In 2019 we worked together to create Eater London’s vegan map and set a restriction on ourselves to show the cultural breadth of vegan food and showcase restaurants that have offerings for a variety of diets. We received no comped meals and the fee for the piece ultimately covered food for two days of travelling around London (sometimes together, sometimes alone) to eat at all the places we had spent time researching. While this kind of structure does lend to more objective reporting it also takes a lot of time and effort to break even. When you pay for everything out of pocket, writing about food and drink is a hobby, not a viable career.
Gifting gives brands a chance to soft pitch. These gifts are meant to put a brand on editors’ and writers’ radars so that restaurant / brand / personality is in their mind when things like ‘best of’ lists are commissioned. It is natural to write about something you already know and like. These are press nights of a new restaurant or menu, an invite to a press trip or lunch with a PR. These gifting experiences also save time – time to eat out, time to research, to network and develop relationships. As a freelancer you are always hustling, hustling for story ideas and hustling for people to pitch to, when a PR comes to you with something, that means you have more time to think about the actual writing. Gifts can be mutually beneficial, you just have to be savvy about how you accept and interact with them.
Over the years, Anna has developed a strict set of rules to help navigate the prioritisation over who and what gets press (her) attention:
“I ask PRs to only pitch me women or PoC; I have instagram to see what the white boys are up to if I need. What this actually allows is for PRs to pitch me very specific things that fit what I am interested in writing about - which saves all of our times. My favorite pitch - paraphrasing here - was a PR saying ‘I know this is essentially white boys making whisky, but I think you will find what they do interesting because XYZ’. I then spent the next day researching them and agreed they were absolutely doing interesting things around what I was already researching. That trip introduced me to a lot of other ideas.”
So, the question for us isn’t necessarily whether or not to partake in gifting, rather it's about practicing due diligence. A gift may spark interest in a topic, take that opportunity to ask yourself: Who could I also involve? How do I make room for brands/people/restaurants that don't have access to PR budgets? Who are they, where are they? How can you find out about them? What knowledge is missing?
The art of influence(rs)
Influencer culture has been built on the concept that a hobby, if done well enough, can become a career. It is one that is centred on aspirational lifestyles. Therefore, the people who are in those positions of influence, built up their following (and cultural capital) by having money to spend at many restaurants, passports that allowed them to travel easily and the confidence to talk about the experiences they were having.
The influencer economy, like food media, is entrenched in a system of gifting. Social media can provide brands/people/etc with coverage that targets a specific market depending on the influencer’s brand. Food influencers have become central to trendsetting and shape the way the average consumer engages with the food and drink industry. Food is a very visual product, so people who operate in food media often toggle between social media influencer and journalist.
The system of gifting – and influencing - is built on accessibility and how you are valued by others, and there are many privileges behind that. In 2018 Aditi Juneja wrote a piece for Vox media about the hidden privileges that allowed her to get on to the Forbes top 30 under 30 list – could we get an audit of the food world? This doesn’t take away from good work being done, but it asks the question of who gets to be the purveyor of taste and influence in food? For transparency, Chloe has been able to quit her day job and work more on SOURCED because she has a partner who is able to support her between freelance writing commissions; Anna has taken a part time admin job so that she is not spending time hustling commissions and can spend that on SOURCED. We have therefore been able to prioritise our SOURCED income on commissioning work.
There seems to be an over-saturation of the classic ‘influencer’ label and it carries a lot of flack with it. Some is justified, we both personally witnessed or experienced rude, entitled behaviour on behalf of influencers that show a complete lack of care or understanding about the work and investment put into press gifts. But, Melissa Thompson - journalist, BBC Good Food columnist and at times defined as an ‘influencer’ - explains:
“I find a lot of this criticism is drenched in snobbery and privilege. Certain people seem to be allowed to accept freebies and invites and no one berates them as influencers. They're often men, and often white, and of a certain social class - professional, middle.” She also notes, “a lot of anti-influencer sentiment comes from people with close ties to traditional food media - even when they are posting ‘influencer’ content themselves. I’ve wondered if it's because they're subconsciously frustrated about the rise of online reviewing etc. And so many of the 'influencers' who escape wrath for doing what they do are awful at correctly labelling things as gifts and freebies. It's incredibly frustrating.”
[ASM note: as an Asian-Antipodean, I have also noted how often we are part of this ‘accepted’ group. Adjacency to whiteness in food media, and what passports you hold are topics to be explored another time!]
At the heart of Melissa’s approach to gifting is support – and although this possibly falls under ‘praise over criticism’ it sits within a very specific space of social media, and can be therefore understood in that prism; it is about personal taste, it is a platform that is built on the beautiful and a pleasing aesthetic. “I only go to a place or accept gifts from places I think I'll like; the establishment gets a boost and I get to celebrate them with nice photos. If I don't like it, I'll give feedback privately and won't post” Melissa said.
A Balancing act
Accepting gifts can be tricky business because ethically, you cannot guarantee coverage but we also don’t want to accept gifts we cannot write about, it is a huge waste of our time. The time we engage with products/people/places costs us money because our pay check is tied directly to our engagement with products/people/places.
James from Eater explains:
“Producing quality restaurant and food writing necessarily requires eating at the places you're writing about and eating costs money. There are various solutions to this and they vary according to who is providing the solution. Restaurants, either through PRs or as PRs, offer invites to people they believe have influence over paying diners. Publications can provide dining budgets for editors...which averts the need to take #invited meals; publications can choose not to allow sponsored content about or by restaurants. Allowing contributors to do their best work requires paying them sufficiently and the alternative is that only people with additional wealth get to write about food, which narrows perspective and ultimately the usefulness of any given content.” [emphasis our own]
Food media operates with an imbalanced financial structure. This isn’t an admonition of people who have earned or inherited wealth but it does have an impact on how food media is produced. Food and drink media is mainly driven by the luxury and leisure markets, its message is meant for the wealthy and the aspirationally wealthy. Yeah baby, food writing is capitalist propaganda.
As journalists engaging in spaces of privilege, objective writing requires an assessment of your own privilege: how did you gain access to this space? What level of comfort do you feel? How is your professionalism respected? Korsha Wilson writes about this in a 2019 piece for Eater called ‘A Critic for all Seasons’. When matters of taste, both literal and figurative, are dominated by privileged voices there is little room for innovation in the way we engage with food and drink culture.
James also explained that it “is not deliberate deception or misinformation, but a climate around gifting and the nature of media relationships that implies things are free before they are paid for; that content is bought before it is earned; that integrity is a luxury and not a baseline.”
So the only real answer is transparency, on the part of the writer and the reader. As a writer, it is necessary to look critically at your work to ensure you clear up any blind spots. As a reader it means thinking critically about what you accept as ‘expert’ advice.
Less obviously, the dynamic between PRs offering gifts and writers accepting them needs to be better understood. Alex Chatwin, founder of LX PR explains: “The reason a PR will be offering you a product is because they're under pressure to achieve coverage for a client. If you're up front and say you're happy to try something, but can't guarantee coverage, it's then up to them to decide whether it's still appropriate to send something to you. At the same time if you've requested a sample, make sure you always feed back.” A good rule of thumb before entering a relationship with a PR company is to also look into their client slate and develop communication between yourself and the agency about what type of coverage you are comfortable participating in.
For us at SOURCED, it is important that we are transparent about how and when we accept gifts, and that we enter relationships with brands that respect our control of messaging. We also understand that people who freelance for us might be producing content that has resulted from a press gift or invite. We could eliminate the murky ethics of gifting by not accepting this content altogether but ultimately decided that it would affect our ability to commission the breadth of work we would like to publish. At the moment we accept pitches from brands and freelancers working with brands but these pieces receive a lot of scrutiny in order to ensure they don’t operate as embellished advertisements.
Gifting in a pandemic
The pandemic has fundamentally altered the way dining culture operates but the way the average consumer engages with food media hasn’t. Consumer habits are hard to break and lists sporting titles like ‘Best Places for Tier-2 Dining in London’ still rake in the clicks. The audience food media aims to engage still focuses on the consumer relationship between the diner and the restaurant.
Media coverage is still just as crucial for brand awareness, if not even more so, but budgets for freebies are just not there any more. Restaurants are lucky to break even this year and this has made the ethics of gifts even more difficult.
Melissa Thompson explains:
“Since lockdown, I've purposely not accepted invites to a few places and gone and paid instead. The hospitality industry is on its knees and as I'm doing ok financially at the moment, I can afford to do that. That said, I can't afford to do that all the time and do get invites and gifts sent through, and I'll shout about them as much as I can. I'll offer to send photos for use on their social media etc too, so hopefully they stand to gain from it beyond any perceived "exposure". And I ALWAYS tip if I've eaten for free. It boils my piss that some people don't.”
As mentioned before, this kind of positive coverage can continue to perpetuate the notion that coverage is bought. However when we accept gifts and provide any kind of coverage of them, whether in print, online or in personal social media feeds our words carry weight. Because food media has the potential to drive consumer choices, we have to think carefully about how we wield that influence. When writing for a publication, this means we need to make sure we aren’t writing about something just because we’ve received a gift, and on our personal channels we have to acknowledge how we’ve gained access to opportunities.
Alex notes that PRs have to work within the remit given to them by clients and rely on feedback from gifts to be able to better represent clients. As gift recipients, positive coverage isn’t always necessary or possible but as Alex explains, “I think it's generally an unwritten rule most people follow, but if you're gifted something for free that you really don't like then direct feedback to the PR as to why is always better than no feedback, or public feedback on social media! It means we can let our client know and have done our due diligence.”
We also have to consider where the gift is coming from. Alex says, “If it's a smaller brand and limited stock is available, we know that the people we send it to have to be giving us a pretty much (if not totally) confirmed piece of coverage. Whereas brands with larger budgets, or those after raising awareness, might have more to play with meaning the net can be cast a bit wider.”
Gifted meals, products and opportunities have been embedded in the machinery of food and drink media. As writers and editors the best we can do is ensure that we are conscious of how these interactions can influence our coverage and are also respectful of how and when we accept freebies.
We have also made some of our other subscriber newsletters public, so you can get a feel for what it is we write bi-monthly to our subscribers!
Finding New Questions: leaving restaurant work and the ethics of alcohol
Let's Get Started: decolonising, mid-century American salads, nationalism & whiskey