Wine Writers Symposium: Groundhog Day
Was it just me or was the Wine Writers Symposium ending today at Meadowood pretty much a repeat of last year’s? Which was also pretty much a repeat of the last few Wine Bloggers Conferences.
The same workshops: the future of wine writing. Monetizing your blog. How to get a real paying job. How to write profiles, columns, pitches, books. The same panelists. The same audience. The same coaching sessions at which hopeful wine writers take frenzied notes: Do this. Do that. The same issues and questions, the same debates, the same non-answers. The same handful of power players who can actually pay real money for wine writers and are eyed covetously by the hungry. The same feeling of frustration: if you already have a job, good for you. If you don’t, come back next year, pay your fees, and we’ll have exactly the same workshops as we did this year, with exactly the same ambiguities.
It’s getting boring.
The WWS reminded me of a big rig stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels, trying to get somewhere, but unable to go forward.
I do not, repeat not, re-repeat not, assign blame to its organizers, or particularly to Jim Gordon, who pulls off this complex feat every year with seemingly effortless ease. Jim is a class act. The problems with the WWS are due, not to any lack of due diligence on his part, but to an inherent stagnation that has beset the wine writing industry itself.
It’s mired down.
Some memorable quotes:
“I represent the Ghost of Wine Writers Past.” Blake Edgar, the esteemed acquisitions editor at U.C. Press who published my last 2 wine books. Do you hear the note of resigned sadness in his voice?
“We are spending a lot more money than we meant to.” The brilliantly engaging, entrepreneurial Corie Brown, founder of ZesterDaily.com, on the difficulties of making money online even when you have an intelligent, superior product.
“I don’t really think that everyone does have a voice, or a voice worth reading.” Richard Bradley, Editor-in-chief of Worth magazine, basically telling 99% of bloggers they’re not worth a bucket of warm spit.
If I were a beginning wine writer, I would have left this year’s WWS deflated and pessimistic.
Why does it feel like we’re slogging through molasses? With all this new stuff happening—iPads, phone apps, digital magazines, blogs, twitter, Facebook—we all know that stuff is changing faster than ever. The problem is that despite the pace of technological change, nothing really seems to be changing for wine writers hoping to make a living doing what they love.
The 800 pound gorilla in the room was advertising. Except for a handful of exotic publications, such as Worth, magazines, whether print or online, need advertising money to pay writers. But advertisers are getting increasingly aggressive in this economic slowdown. They are telling publishers, in effect, “We’ll advertise, if you let us dictate content.” And the most frightening takeaway for me from WWS was an apparent willingness on the part of some people to say, Okay, if that’s the only way to get paid, we’ll play. Pay to play, is what it’s called. And there were some influential voices in that room, whom I won’t mention but they know who they are, who were saying, basically, “Hey, that’s where reality is going. Get used to it. I have. Your morality is old-fashioned.”
I personally was very proud to be sitting next to Wine Enthusiast’s executive editor, Susan Kostrzewa, during these sessions, and I believe we shared many of the same reactions. We live in this world where the line between pressure from advertisers and independent editorial decisions is constantly tested. At Wine Enthusiast, I am happy to say, we have a culture in which that line is respected. It’s bright red, a real third rail, and if anyone tries to cross it, they get electrocuted. I’m not saying we’re perfect, but after the disturbing talk I heard today about compromise and the nefarious, untransparent practice of letting a caramel candy company talk you into writing a Halloween article about caramel recipes in exchange for an ad, I felt clean and unshoddy. I cannot see how any self-respecting person could write much less authorize such a travesty, especially without a warning label. If there’s a lesson to take home from the WWS, it’s this: beware what you ask for. You may gain the world but lose your soul. In fact, you may lose your soul and end up gaining nothing at all, except having helped destroy journalism.