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The future of wine writing, redux

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They call it “the gig economy,” a “growing tribe of independent contractors and freelancers who are hoping to transform hardship into opportunity on the sidelines of the nation’s traditional 9-to-5 economy,” in the words of a recent New York Times story.

The article reported on people in their 20s and 30s who, unable to land “real” jobs in this post-Recession economy, opt for the freelance life. Not only writers, but lawyers, website developers and many others, they exist from gig to gig, working out of their homes, or from wi-fi enabled coffeeshops, enjoying the freedom their unemployed lives give them–but worried also about paying the bills, much less saving anything for their retirement.

From the perspective of journalism, including wine writing, the gig economy should worry consumers who want solid, honest reporting. You can argue that a reporter who doesn’t actually work for anyone is all the more independent, because she doesn’t have to be concerned with how her publisher, editors, company CEO or advertisers feel. Instead, she can fearlessly investigate and report the news, and offer opinions (e.g. wine reviews) that are fiercely objective.

True. But there’s a risk in going the independent path. Several risks, actually. They include:

1.   Not having the solid bench of staff a reporter needs to do the job properly. An old-fashioned newspaper had copy editors, fact checkers, librarians, ombudsmen and others who, working alongside the reporter, can ensure the greatest depth and credibility to her stories.

2.   Working a consistent beat. Print reporters generally specialized: you had the police guy, the City Council guy, the science writer, the sports guy, the style writer, and so on. Specializing meant that the writer could get really knowledgeable about his field, getting to know the major personalities and thus offering a value-added perspective. In the new gig economy, it’s hard to get a job that’s consistent, and so the writer is forced to write about whatever he can get paid for at that moment (or whatever wine is coming in, willy nilly). It’s a scattershot way of reporting.

I don’t mean to suggest that wine writers in the gig economy can’t be good. They can. But it’s going to be increasingly hard for them to make a living, because wages in the gig economy just aren’t very high. That’s the whole point of a gig economy: it provides cheap labor to employers, who not only don’t have to pay well, but also don’t have to shell out benefits. And as low as the pay is, it can be even lower when the number of job applicants exceeds the number of job opportunities–as it the case with wine writing today.

What is all means for the future of wine writing is obscure. But it is very hard to escape the suspicion, or dread, that wine writing’s glory days are coming to an end. Not tomorrow. Not in five years. But in twenty? Unless there’s some kind of major shift in the paradigm–and I don’t know anyone who thinks well-paid wine writers are coming back.

  1. Wages in the gig economy are extraordinarily low for most. For wine, one of the driving factors is how formulaic the writing has become. Whenever you can formulate something (in this sense of its definition: “to reduce to or express in a formula”), it is then ripe for an outsourcing model. This has already happened for the majority of wine writing, only the product has not been outsourced to a foreign nation’s labor force but to a labor force within the U.S. that is willing to work for very low payouts. If you have “okay” content that fits the formulas being produced for under $50 per article, but it costs you at least $500 for an excellent article, most outlets will likely (and regrettably) choose “good enough” and live with the lower standard. This is a model we’ve seen perpetuated for a long time in IT (and I know this setup fairly intimately, as I made a very good living helping to implement those models, seeking standards better than “okay” but realizing they usually wouldn’t be “excellent”). What it means for the future of wine writing is not obscure; it means the quality of that writing will diminish over time unless the situation equalizes in some way: consumers are willing to pay more for higher quality content (unlikely), or outlets identify and seek a lucrative/competitive advantage in bringing on better content creators and paying them more as a result, but these are not investigative/feature reporting and in most cases are geared towards consumer entertainment/education and promotion of the publishing company’s values & services (more likely). The gigs I am getting now fall into that latter category in most cases, so I think the future is now, so to speak. I should add that the traditional publishing models we know now are certainly in their death throes. In NYC last week, I had a conversation with a co-author of one of the best-selling wine books in U.S. history; that person told me that it’s nigh-impossible for wine writing to pay a living wage, including now book royalties from wildly popular (in wine terms) books. If that person, who is regarded as a bit of a living legend by people such as me, cannot make a living doing this, it bodes disaster for most who would try. Sorry to be Debbie Downer here, but I see few logical ways to look at the situation and come out of it with a positive spin.

  2. It’s good to be a dinosaur!

  3. Paul – Dinos got paid!!! :-)

    You know, we will see it shake out and some models will pop up that gain traction and offer better pay to talented people, I think we just need to hit bottom on it before things rebound. But they won’t rebound to today’s status quo.

  4. Hello there,
    I get paid (sometimes) to write about wine and feel there is a huge differential between what is offered.

    For the most part, print pays better but exposure might not be as good….while writing on the web sometimes doesn’t pay at all…but you have a wider audience. The sub-editing in print is WAY better…however sites like Zester have very high-standards on the writing submitted.

    Saying all that, writing about wine is my second gig. I have a full-time job and write, for the most part, in the evening. How else could I live in the San Francisco?!

    Most disturbing about the influx of freelancers, however, is the lack of overall knowledge…people are suddenly experts in the wine field having only tasted a small proportion of the stuff.

    Therefore praise, or even criticism on whatever wine being written about is hollow with not much in the point of reference.

    That is a concern of mine….paying gigs are going down, but so is the quality.

  5. I am a Millennial but I have the commons sense to analyze who is publishing the content I read. Choose media sources wisely, that is the best advice I can give. Of course I studied at the Poytner Institute and have worked for some of the best media sources around and know what goes into it. I also know how the new 24 news cycle has corrupted media as well. Even the big organizations, sadly, have an agenda – because a large amount of people prefer their agenda. Try to think real hard if you are consuming the media content because it already confirms your world view or if it often challenges it.

  6. @1winedude you know people who can write as good as you can get paid what you deserve because your content actually drives marketing initiatives. I see poor content all the time (one that is particularly nagging me lately) And I know they will stop outsourcing for $50 an article soon because they will see that it in not driving their marketing initiatives and are making them look generic with no brand identity. But I fear that these companies who outsource won’t know that great content can achieve their desired marketing initiatives, once their first attempt fails. It is better to have one great article a month than 4 – 8 really bad and generic ones.

    It will all come down to the data. Look at your monthly unique visitor rate per month. These outsourced writers can’t come near that.

  7. “I don’t know anyone who thinks that well-paid winewriters are coming back”.

    I would say that there are more well-paid winewriters today than ever. Look at all the folks who work for WS, WE, WA, CGCW, Tanzer, not to mention the SF Chron and the NYT, F & W, WSJ, W & S.

    Where were all those well-paid jobs in the past. How many? How long ago?

    What I see is far more people who would like to write about wine than ever before and an Internet that encourages them to try their hands at it. Is there even one of them who is making a living on the Internet? Dude? Alder? Blake? Dr. Vino? Hardy Wallace? You? Me? Tom Wark? Ron Washam?

    Me thinks not. And so I do not conclude that all this gloom and doom is part of death of paid winewriting because I do not assume that the WS, WE, WA, W & S, Tasting Panel, etc, etc, etc are going away.

    Nor do I assume that wine blogging is going away. It will be just as lucrative as it has always been, and people will continue to try it.

  8. [CAPITALIZATION USED FOR EMPHASIS – Bob]

    Excerpts from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page a15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124701229573408977

    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    Free:
    The Future of Radical Price
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    “It is easy to see why free is an appealing price for consumers, although how companies make money by giving stuff away is less obvious.

    “In ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price,’ Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of ‘The Long Tail,’ sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    Mr. Anderson explains how the underlying economics of digital services make free business models far more widespread than they were in the analog world. Central to the new ‘free economy,’ he says, are the ‘near-zero marginal costs of digital distribution (that is, the additional cost of sending out another copy beyond the ‘fixed costs’ of the required hardware).’ . . .

    “Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy — that’s why you get a “free” mobile phone when you sign up for a long-term service plan. In the digital realm, the ‘freemium’ model offers the elusive free lunch. . . . The free [product or] service is a loss leader (and cheap marketing) for premium paid services.

    “Advertising is plainly the best known free model. . . . As Mr. Anderson notes, though, advertising can’t pay for everything online.

    “IF YOU HAVE A BLOG, ‘no matter how popular,’ THE REVENUE FROM ADSENSE – a Google service that places ads on Web sites – WILL PROBABY NEVER ‘PAY YOU EVEN MINIMUM WAGE FOR THE TIME YOU SPEND WRITING IT.’

    Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches.

    BUT IF YOU HAVE TO EARN A LIVING FROM THE WEB, ‘FREE’ CAN BE A PROBLEM.”

    . . .

    RECALL THIS STATEMENT FROM LETTIE TEAGUE IN HER WINE STREET JOURNAL “ON WINE” COLUMN: “Alder Yarrow, who writes a much-talked-about blog, Vinography, told me that he earns $12,000 to $16,000 from it annually, most of which comes from banner ads.”

    Link: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323419104578376630145206770

    SIDEBAR TO JOE (1WineDude) ROBERTS:

    I assume that living legend New York-based wine writer is no “dummy.”

    (signed)

    “Sheer-Luck Holmes”

    SIDEBAR TO PAULG(-regutt):

    Can’t be considered a Brontosaurus; paleontologist now consider them to be a fiction.

    Link: http://www.npr.org/2012/12/09/166665795/forget-extinct-the-brontosaurus-never-even-existed

    SIDEBAR TO CHARLIE:

    At The Wine Advocate, Antonio Galloni was paid $300,000 and expenses per year.

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/features/food/dailydish/la-dd-wine-advocate-sues-excritic-antonio-galloni-for-missing-tasting-notes-20130320,0,2753202.story

  9. ERRATUM;

    Recall this statement from Lettie Teague in her WALL Street Journal “On Wine” Column . . .

    ~~ BOB

    (Non-rhetorical question: Do wine bloggers ever run “errata” like book publishers, or “corrections” like newspapers? Examples, anyone?

    Steve got it right when it comes to the layers of scrutiny an article goes through before hitting the mainstream press.)

  10. Courtney – thanks for that, hopefully you’re right! :)

    Charlie – if I were single and living in a LCOL area, then, yeah, I’d be making a living, but only *just*… and certainly not building wealth (see http://www.1winedude.com/sommelier-journal-building-wealth-wine-writer/ for more on that).

  11. Excerpt from Seattle Post-Intelligencer Online
    (February 22, 2013):

    “Behind the Blog… Joe Roberts, 1WineDude [Interview].”

    Link: http://blog.seattlepi.com/bluecollarwineguy/2013/02/22/behind-the-blog-joe-roberts-1winedude/

    By stanthewineman

    With all his popularity, it seems obvious that Joe Roberts is making money with his blogging. So when I said that he has to be making some money now, here is what Joe said.

    “Some, would be a good way of phrasing it. The media side of it, which I can do pretty well is not that lucrative, at least in terms of content creation. Advertising is not all that lucrative either. Occasionally things pop up that are pretty good. My advertising probably covers the expenses of hosting and that kind of thing for the blog.”

  12. On further thought, I’m not quite done with this.

    Both of the risks you mentioned – like most risks – can logically be restated as potential benefits/opportunities:

    Not having the solid bench of staff – also means not having topics dictated, or mandated, and controversial but important elements not being edited into oblivion.

    Working a consistent beat – Wine is a beat to most publications. Working multiple “beats” within wine provides a broad perspective (not necessarily the best thing for a critic per se, but a phenomenal thing in terms of the general craft of writing about a broad topic).

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