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Wine Writers Symposium: Groundhog Day

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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.

  1. Nice post. I’m curios how this year’s Wine Bloggers’ Conference will be.

    You should go and write a post about it!

    Your SEO looks good. Add meta descriptions and you’re golden.

  2. I gathered as much from the live Tweets I saw, ‘be authentic in your writting!’

    Writting well is hard. Too quickly we want to jump right to the fun part, getting paid. Expecting that to happen is like expecting to dunk in your first street game in the Bronx after dribbling a ball a few weeks.

    Conferences does not a wine writter make.

  3. As one of Blake’s ghosts, I can certainly understand what he’s talking about, and why you feel a sense of ennui and deja vu. Wine writing and especially blogging seem to have entered the Horse Latitudes – dead calm, stalled, directionless. The same topics get repeated over and over and beaten to death. Couple that with the degradation and dissolution of advertising-supported media, especially print media, and you have many of the factors that contribute to the current malaise. But there are things an aspiring writer can do, and the work has never been easy, the path never clear, whether the topic is wine or anything else. Diet books appear every year, seemingly inexhaustible. Wine writers need to tap into the same sort of muse. Become a spin factory. If that sounds boring, well, yes, sometimes it certainly is. But that’s part of the job. My two cents.

  4. Terry Hall says:

    Steve, as you know, I am a great fan of yours, but I think you are not being fair to your readers. You are painting a picture of the symposium as an outsider looking in, meaning you have attended almost none of the conference. Your post on day one was actually the second day and you admit that you came in at the end, having not experienced it for yourself. The rest of that day…out and about. You did attend yesterday’s morning session which by all accounts but yours was a rousing, greatly interactive and represented a variety of challenges and options facing wine writers. The rest of the day we will have to read about as you did not attend.

    A good bit of the value for this symposium is the community created. As you know, wine writers work in solitary environments and the time spent networking, sharing challenges and opportunities, et al is what makes the gathering of value. It’s why the top writers in the country come time and again. This is the part that you are sadly missing. I think you stand in a position in the world of wine writing where you could use your stature to mentor, influence and guide the conversation. I think you should note to your readers that there is a fine, if nonexistent line between speaker and attendee, so this really is a gathering of a community and the value is in the whole.

  5. Raley Roger says:

    Is it true that you barely attended the conference? That puts a different spin on things, especially the first and second paragraphs of this post.

  6. Terry, it’s true that I did not attend all of the events. Those that I did seemed like rehashes of what went on in the past, including the bloggers conferences. I do not blame anybody for this. I congratulated Jim for doing an outstanding job. From my perspective–which you refer to as a “mentor”–whatever is happening in wine writing has been in a state of suspended animation for several years. That is simply my analytical conclusion. A lot of sound and motion, so far signifying–what? Very little. Certainly the sense of community is a lovely thing. I enjoyed myself, seeing old friends and acquaintances. But a gathering of communitarians hardly constitutes the kind of real, material progress everyone is waiting to see. If the WWS (and WBC) are going to be anything more than conventions at which friends gather annually to eat, drink and have the same breakout sessions over and over, then what’s the point? So please don’t misunderstand me. The social aspect of WWS is great. What I am simply wondering is, has anything materially changed over the last 2 years? Are younger wine writers any closer to getting paid jobs today than they were is 2008? Are blogs closer to getting monetized than they were two years ago? Are we any clearer about the future of wine writing than we were? I don’t think so. Besides, had I been on any of the panels, I would have been in a more formal position to make my points that just blogging about them. I blog 5 days a week and have consistently tried to “guide the conversation,” in your words. But sometimes one has to speak the truth, and not just be a cheering section.

  7. Paul, thanks for weighing in. The sense of deja vu was exactly what I was trying to express.

  8. It sounds like people keep lamenting the same point: the future of wine writing in advertising supported (esp print) media is bleak. Well no duh. Why not instead focus on the fact that interest in, and consumption of, wine in the U.S. are on the upswing? Americans are more interested in than they’ve ever been. Parker, while still a force to be reckoned with, doesn’t have the same primacy he used to, leaving a vacuum that begs to be filled by a variety of new voices. Mobile/social media have created opportunities to communicate with audiences like never before. Given this context, not sure why WWS has to be such a downer.
    If you’re interested in writing long-form journalism about wine, sure, you’re screwed. But if you’re committed to sharing your knowledge, perspective and, yes, voice, with the growing number of people in this country who care about wine, there are lots of opportunities out there. Granted, it’s not easy figuring out how to make money here, either — but there’s certainly more potential in these arenas rather than fighting over the few (and dwindling) scraps that print media is doling out.

  9. Sasha, you hit the nail on the head. Thanks.

  10. I have never attended the Wine Writers Symposium but, as an organizer of the Wine Bloggers Conference, I have a few thoughts. First, at our first WBC in 2008 we heard loud and clear from two top wine bloggers that there was little money to be made in wine blogging. That was the beginning and end of any attempt to make the WBC about monetizing your blog.

    Second, there are probably over 1000 wine bloggers in North America and we consistently get new bloggers at our conferences, in part because we move them each year. Since many attendees are new, we feel somewhat obliged to provide some repeat seminars on the basics of writing, blogging, and reviewing.

    Third, we make a huge effort each year to come up with new topics and speakers. In fact, Steve was a keynote speaker last year and had his 60 minutes to present all of us with new ideas, which he did eloquently and passionately. This happens every year with new speakers and new topics.

    Finally, a BIG part of the conference, in addition to the nourishment of the community, is to let bloggers lead conversations themselves about what they want to discuss. This section of each conference is composed from topic suggestions given to us by bloggers and the topics themselves are presented by bloggers. So I hardly think they, the attendees, find this boring.

    Having said all that, I do agree that wine blogging (and wine writng) could be in a rut. I imagine it is hard as an unpaid wine blogger to consistently devote the time, energy, and resources to come up with insightful posts or revelatory information. Of course, that is one reason the Wine Bloggers Conference exists – to renew the spirits of those who attend, giving them another year’s worth of motivation to continue writing on their blogs.

  11. Dear Allan, I had a hugely great time at WBC last year. Wish I could be there this year and hope to be there next year. THANK YOU for understanding the meaning of my post, which was that wine writing is in a bit of a rut. I thought I got that idea across with my metaphor of the truck stuck in the mud, but some people still read it as an attack on WWS or the people and organizations that run it. Nonsense. My blog was an analytical commentary of the state of the wine writing industry as I see it–and I have a fairly unique perspective. My greatest hope for WWS as well as WBC is that the logjam currently impacting the industry will loosen up, so that there can be actual developments. Can you imagine hiring actually being done at WBC or WWS? I mean, employers with actual payrolls taking resumes, doing interviews, etc., like a college career fair? Now that would be something! But first, history has to move — the gridlock has to ease. How and when that happens, I don’t know. Thanks for writing in.

  12. The wine community is still a limited circle of people who spent a lot of time and effort communicating to and engaging with each other. This is problematic, and one needs to find ways of engaging beyond this growing, but still finite audience. I have encountered a striking example amongst the German wine community: There were lots of activities on twitter 2 years ago, but the community was limited. The same people exchanged similar interests, after a few months the efforts died down. Communication needs to expand beyond the usual suspects.

  13. The situation you describe is the same at travel writer conferences. I think this applies to almost any kind of conference. Especially writing conferences. The organizers do their best, but it’s hard to offer content that will satisfy a wide range of experience levels across the attendees. It’s particularly difficult to come up with anything groundbreaking to say abut writing. It’s a solitary thing and you just have to find the will do it and carry on.

    But I think the majority of people attending conferences these days go for the networking and inspiration.

    I just wrote about this very issue two weeks ago: “These days I honestly don’t expect much content wise when I attend a conference. Even the American Wine Bloggers Conferences I’ve attended are pretty so-so and dullsville in terms of the break-out sessions. (Although I hear the European WBC has superior content.) But I go mainly to meet the other attendees and learn about the wines of the region. It’s rare that I actually get anything of value from the speakers.”

    I f interested, you can read the rest of the post here:
    http://comeforthewine.blogspot.com/2011/02/part-2-wine-pleasures-conference.html

  14. Marcy, I know that the sponsors of American WBC are thinking long and hard about how to make their event more relevant. As a matter of fact, every organization I know that has annual events — whether charitable, for business purposes or whatever — has post-mortem analyses to analyze problems and figure out ways to make next year’s event better than ever.

  15. Raley Roger says:

    I think Markus said it best; we’re all kind of preaching to the choir. Most wine blogs are read by industry folks. Ditto wine mags. The only time the public really catches wind of what we’re all doing is when shelf-talkers don store shelves, or Leslie Sbrocco goes on Kathy Lee and Hoda, etc. It’s otherwise all of us just talking to each other. There are outliers; wine geeks that attend all the events…..but, even that is a small audience.

    Here’s the real issue: THERE’S ONLY SO MUCH YOU CAN SAY ABOUT WINE.

    If you want to be a full-time wine freelancer these days, you can’t just fixate on wine. You have to be willing to write about travel, food, and other areas of interest. And, also, you need a full-time job to support your freelancing career.

    That’s the reality of it.

  16. this is a very tricky subject Steve. I wonder what winemakers take on all this? Especially ones who still work for large corporations who often have their hands tied. Also how relevent then are wine competitions if the wine writters stopped showing up.
    off to the Pinot Symposium in SF this am
    cheers

  17. Hey Nick, I don’t know.

  18. Steve,

    With all due respect, you’ve taken my quote out of context, perhaps because you did not attend Dominique Browning’s talk the prior day. I was referring to Dominique’s argument that all writers need to find their “voice,” and responding that I think this is too often an excuse for self-indulgent writing and blogging. The writers I look for at Worth must first and foremost have great reporting skills (which many bloggers, ahem, lack). And I was suggesting that sometimes bloggers think that their voice is more important than that of the magazine for which they’re writing, which is generally not the case. Blogs are about individuals; magazines are, for the most part, a collective.

    So I wasn’t pessimistic about wine-writing; I was emphasizing a particular skill and a professional requirement the acknowledgement of which would help any writer. That’s not quite the same as “basically telling 99% of wine bloggers that their work isn’t worth a bucket of spit.”

  19. Also, Steve—again, with all due respect—I am confused about Wine Enthusiast’s “real third rail” of editorial integrity where, if anyone crosses it, “they get electrocuted.”

    Yet on your very own website, you have a tab that says “Services Offered,” and the first words it starts with are…

    “During my career I’ve been pleased to serve the wine industry in a variety of expert roles…”

    Serve the wine industry? That doesn’t exactly sound like editorial independence. Journalists tend to think of serving their readers, not the industry they cover.

    You later write, “If you’re interesting in obtaining my services, please email me at….”

    Steve, forgive me if I’m misunderstanding the nature of this advertisement for yourself. But if the Wine Enthusiast’s “bright red…third rail” was really so bright, they’d either not hire you or prohibit you from participating in such outside gigs (or, perhaps, require you to disclose who’s paying you). How could you possibly be an objective writer or reviewer when the industry you cover is, by your own solicitation, helping to pay your salary?

    Everyone has to make a living; I’m not faulting you for that. But the hypocrisy’s a bit much.

  20. What a luxury! To live in such a simple, gorilla-free world, where the source and timing of your next paycheck is never a wonder…where the bright red third rail isn’t the dividing line between the longevity/integrity of your career and next month’s rent. How fortunate. Your rare, clean, and unshoddy position is indeed the envy of us all.

  21. Richard Bradley, the “third rail” has 2 aspects. First, the editorial staff at Wine Enthusiast resists efforts on the part of advertising to blur the line. Secondly, I stand on my own personal integrity. My scores are inviolate. They are never, ever influenced by advertising for the magazine or for any services I render to anyone. I have no way of proving that to you, so you’re free to conclude whatever you want. But it happens to be true.

  22. Richard, well, the “bucket of spit” was perhaps a bit hyperbolic on my part, although it is a lovely metaphor and has historic echoes in America and I like it. But you did say that thing about most writers’ voices, and I agree completely with you. I didn’t say you were pessimistic about wine writing; I said if I were a young ambitious writer who attended the WWS, I would be pessimistic. I probably would want to write for Worth, very much, as well as World of Fine Wine; but I probably would have concluded, after listening to the discussions, that that wasn’t likely to happen. What intrigues me in particular about your comment, though, is that “Blogs are about individuals; magazines are, for the most part, a collective.” That is a very interesting and provocative comment, one that I haven’t fully thought through. But now that you mention it, the joy I have in writing my blog is in part due to the fact that the magazine I write for does have a collective, institutional voice–which means it’s not my “real” voice. I mean, it is my real voice, obviously, but I have to adapt it to the magazine’s collective voice, which implies certain obligations, mostly no-no’s. I’m awfully glad to have my job, but I love my blog because there are no no-no’s (well, almost none), and that is a form of freedom that only a professional writer can understand.

  23. Steve—I do take you at your word about objectivity, but, you know—lots of news organizations wouldn’t permit that kind of double-dipping.

    And I know just what you mean about the magazine/blog dichotomy (for lack of a better phrase). I enjoy it as well, both when writing for/editing Worth or blogging at my personal site, richardbradley.net.

    But I do hope that I didn’t send the message that people at the conference shouldn’t think they can write for Worth. On the contrary—I’d welcome them reaching out to me. If they have good ideas and good skills and initiative, they’re a large part of the way there.

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