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Food Bloggers Receive Praise, Scrutiny

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 10, 2007 5:00PM

2007_10_yelplogo.jpgIt's hard not to stumble across a food blog while browsing the web. Two recent newspaper articles shine a light on the positive and negative aspects of the rise of food blogging. The front page of the Sun-Times' food section this morning is all about LTHForum, from the origins of their formation, their wide coverage of neighborhood and off-the-beaten path eats, the immediate response that can make or break a restaurant, and their overall influence on Chicago's dining scene.

The grayer issues surrounding the rise of food bloggers was covered in a Wall Street Journal article last weekend. That story focuses on how chefs and PR firms are targeting food blogs by dangling free meals in exchange for favorable write-ups or attempting to threadjack forums with excessive praise of certain restaurants. One noticeable example of the former in the Journal piece was a dinner set up at Dine for members of the Yelp Chicago board, an event costing $1500 that resulted in a flood of favorable reviews for the restaurant, with only a few members acknowledging the event was free. We wrote LTH's David Hammond about their ethics guidelines and any protocols they use to sniff out ringers.

Hammond wrote back that LTH is "developing a more articulate (ethics) policy right now, but in the past, our policy has been simple: No free shit." He also wrote that "shills are fairly easy to spot... (the) first-time poster who waxes hyperbolic about a place that's never been mentioned on the board before. Our preferred response is to (privately message) the poster and inquire as to his/her possible affiliation. That said, we invite chefs, servers and others who have industry affiliations to post on our Professional board."

We also e-mailed Michael Nagrant of Hungry Mag for comment on the Journal article. He replied, "While I don’t have an official statement yet, anytime someone wants to write a review, I write a long personal email about how they can’t accept free meals." Nagrant also read the Journal story as an "an old guard slam on new media: why the Journal, Times etc. is still superior", and asking why the author couldn't "devot(e) just as much time to the free stuff given to traditional media." Nagrant further expounds on the question of ethics in his latest NewCity column.

What we perceived from the Journal piece was the issue of personal cost clouding the quality of a review. Would leaving Dine about eighty dollars lighter have affected the reviews of those Yelpers? Would a review by a restaurant critic for a newspaper or magazine be affected if he wasn't reimbursed for his meals? No one knows but the reviewer. Having shelled out a lot of money eating and drinking during our time at Chicagoist without reimbursement, we can say with certainty that it hasn't clouded our reviews. We're certainly not slamming Yelp here, only trying to highlight both the "echo chamber" effect of the Internet and the increasing savvy of PR and marketing firms in promoting their clients. Restaurants (especially fine dining) are an increasingly PR-driven industry, and any good words that can be pimped and incessantly quoted quickly become law. This would be a good point to reiterate our own guidelines regarding free shit:

Gothamist bloggers cannot accept gifts, free meals, tickets, or other consideration in return for running posts. These and all other manner of quid-pro-quo relationships are strictly forbidden. Gothamist writers may review product samples or enter events on press passes as long as doing so does not bias their coverage.

Nagrant pointed out, "This still seems to leave open the door that people can accept comps, just as long as there was no specific promise made." It does, and we do our best to err on the side of discretion here. We've definitely taken our lumps when we've disclosed accepted invitations to events. Nor has it stopped traditional media from engaging in the same conflicts that were highlighted in the Journal piece.

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