Reflections on Tom Wark’s wine writers survey
I figured I’d weigh in on Tom Wark’s impressive new survey on wine writers, which has garnered considerable attention. Its main bullet-point findings, as the press release on Business Wire says, are that “American wine writers are getting younger, are more female than in past years, are abandoning print for digital, don’t appreciate the work of publicists and marketers that court them and are very concerned about the economic difficulties that have effected the publishing industry.”
(You can find the entire PDF of the study here.)
It’s obviously good that wine writing is feminizing, as is everything else in America, as women now go to college in equal numbers to men and have equal (or nearly so) access in the workplace. All during my professional career here in California I’ve known and been surrounded by female wine writers, so this isn’t surprising to me. I think women bring a more humanizing touch to wine writing than do men, and about time. We’ve been talking a lot about the human touch lately here on the old blog, and that impetus is being stirred by the increased presence of women in my wine writing field.
It’s also not surprising that writers “are abandoning print for digital,” although I’m not sure that “abandoning” is the word I’d use. When you abandon something it’s usually deliberate. Except for Mr. Suckling, who deliberately left Spectator to go online, I’m not aware of anyone else who voluntarily gave up a juicy print gig to go online. Instead, they get fired or laid off, and that’s when they go online. The other reason for so many wine writers going digital is obviously because it’s easy to do. The bar to entry is non-existent. But then, Tom explicitly acknowledges that in the study when he says, “To be blunt, it costs nothing to start a wine blog and reach a potentially large audience. This lowering of the bar where reaching an audience is concerned also is contributing to the increase in younger wine writers.”
There was actually very little in this study that surprised me, except for the part about wine writers not appreciating the work of publicists and marketers. It was said that 20 percent of wine writers with 20 years or more of experience found information from wine publicists “rarely useful,” while that number jumped to 40 percent for those with 5 years or less of experience. Later, only 19 percent said they found information from publicists “extremely” or “very” useful. Eighty-one percent found it only “somewhat” or “rarely” useful. This led Tom to speculate that for most wine writers, “The typical view is that [publicists] are responsible for ‘spin,’ a form of communication considered only slightly more reliable than outright lies.”
There’s much more on this topic in the study’s 36 pages, and it makes for interesting reading. Meanwhile, I’d like to get in a word or two on the subject of publicists before we get it go. While it’s true, by definition, that a publicist is explicitly paid by an employer to tout or “spin” the company’s products, it’s also true that a good publicist can be extraordinarily helpful to a harried wine writer. I’ll speak from my own experience in California, but I’m sure it’s true for veterans in New York or New South Wales or Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If I were giving advice to younger wine writers, I’d tell them to not be dismissive of publicists. They’re willing to work with you. They “know where the bodies are buried,” so to speak, and can often point a writer in the direction of a hot lead. Publicists know how to work “off the record,” and when a writer cultivates good relationships with publicists, it will make him or her a better, more informed, more linked in writer. And when you get to know publicists, you’ll find them (I want to say this carefully and respectfully) grateful for the least tidbit you can provide their client. It’s not like you have to give them a front page story or a fantastic review in order to get help. If you did, the better publicists would stop respecting you. They understand that quid doesn’t necessarily lead to quo. Publicists understand that writers have ethical constraints, and they respect our boundaries. Many’s the time I’ve rejected a publicist’s original pitch, only to engage in a conversation that resulted in a story I really liked. In fact, dare I say it, older writers are more sensitive to both the trappings and the allures of publicists than are younger writers.
So, if I were to add a question for the next time Tom launches the wine writers survey, it would be something like, “How do you work with publicists in such a way as to enhance your job?” In other words, don’t just bash them. Writers, get to know your publicists. Befriend them. Form relationships (that magic word again!) that are based on mutual trust and respect. You won’t regret it.
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I want to wish everyone the happiest, healthiest, safest Thanksgiving ever. See you next Monday!