Food bloggers go pro: The unlikely journalists in our digital age

Karen Poh - food bloggers go pro, unlikely journalists in the digital age

Much of the research and wider public discussion surrounding the citizen journalism phenomenon has focused mainly on political news and commentary, and perpetuated the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news, and a bias in privileging the political over most other forms of reporting – relegating to the background other areas of the news which may benefit just as much from a broader range of news outlets and contributions from non-professional journalists. This was an observation that Axel Bruns at the University of Queensland made in his paper Citizen Journalism and Everyday Life: A Case Study of Germany’s myHeimat.de. It struck a chord with me as I went about my research at the University of Melbourne last year. Examples that came to my mind included food, fashion, beauty and ‘mummy’ bloggers.

The journalism project which I had been working on and have since completed looked at the viability of establishing a peak body for online publishers and citizen journalists in Australia. As part of that, I had, through the eyes of Thang Ngo, the privilege of gaining a more in-depth look into the world of food blogging, the place it occupies in online publishing, and how food blogging practice has evolved over the years. The interview that follows occurred last July, but the project was submitted only in October, and I am able to release it now. However, I believe the insights are still relevant many months on.

To provide some background and context, Ngo is the multicultural director at Universal McCann Sydney, a global media agency that provides services in marketing consultancy, communications strategy and media buying. He is also one of Sydney’s top food bloggers – with a difference. He has a self-published code of ethics on his popular food blog Noodlies. While Ngo says he doesn’t ”pretend or aspire to be a food critic or journalist”, he accepts fair responsibility as a content publisher – but admits accountability is the exception rather than the rule in the food blogging community.

In the digital age where everyone can publish to the world, bloggers started as amateurs, Ngo says. Distinct from professional journalists and writers, they largely viewed blogging as a hobby. As food blogging became a phenomenon not just in Australia but around the world, the early adopters were rewarded with the first mover advantage, attracting large audiences, the attention of marketers and advertisers who saw a new channel for outreach, and for some, an income stream. It inspired a wave of new entrants wanting to get in not merely because they were hobbyists, but because of the perks they perceived were being freely dished out.

It invited the criticism of Fooderati’s Melissa Leong, who spoke out on the ethics in food blogging. In addition to being a blog writer, her other roles as a PR consultant, freelance food writer and radio host, allowed her to see an unsavoury side of the blog world. To be fair, she observed that bloggers weren’t the only ones doing the offending, but on the side of content publishers at least, she cites instances where bloggers have called on restaurants to demand free meals, failed to disclose freebies they’ve accepted, soliciting payments for guaranteed posts and plagiarism.

In her own words:

Unlike the 4th estate, who are generally (there are always exceptions) ruled by a code of ethics, blogging and social media influencers have no such widely accepted, enforced framework around which to operate.

Given that the roots of blogging (web logging) come from what is in essence an open public diary entry, since when did it become OK for bloggers to don the ego and demand preferential treatment from restaurants or free stuff from PR agencies, all in exchange for a post that may or may not be that great to begin with?

…I’ve come across some pretty questionable behaviour on the part of bloggers as well as restaurants and their representatives. I’ve had PR agencies send unsolicited goods and then badger for coverage, and I’ve had freebie whore bloggers demanding free meals at hatted restaurants as if it were their god-given right. Neither of these things is acceptable and most alarmingly, the frequency of this kind of behaviour continues to increase.

As Ngo recalls, Leong’s criticisms, understandably, sparked a backlash among the food blogging community. He saw the need for ethics, but rather than join the fray, he thought the better way of communicating this need was by committing to a self-published code of ethics on Noodlies.

Sticking his finger in the wind, Ngo believes the blogging community still largely regards the lack of accountability as a plus. They’ve been going so far without, it would be hard to imagine any move to introduce regulation of any sort, voluntary or otherwise, would be warmly received. “Many food bloggers are now wanting to commercialise, but they would be reluctant to be accountable,” he says.

But perhaps Ngo’s own learnings would compel some food bloggers to think differently.

Started in 2009, Ngo’s Noodlies blog was initially a response to incessant requests from friends for recommendations on where to eat in the culturally diverse suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney where he lives. Today, in addition to uncovering authentic, culturally diverse food and culture around Sydney, Ngo has expanded his coverage to include travel and lifestyle issues that pique his interests. He has a YouTube channel, which has attracted more than half a million views to date.

Though Ngo has never been formally trained as a journalist, he has a sophisticated understanding of editorial strategy and regularly employs the tools of the trade to perform acts of journalism.

He reports on food trends such as the ramen craze – on that Ngo says “there’s only so much you can say about the broth and the decor of a restaurant”; and has delved into investigative-type reporting examining the popularity of Sydney’s food blogs. The outcome of which was a list of the top 30 Sydney food blogs using data from Urbanspoon, Google and Alexa, first published in July 2013. The response was so great Ngo eventually mobilised the food blogging community to participate and add to the list (his own website was ranked fifth) and now seeks to update the list regularly.

Through his investigations, Ngo has made some interesting observations. With so many food bloggers out there today, those who have succeeded in attracting sizable audiences have typically one thing in common – they operate by a code of ethics, whether expressly declared as a manifesto on their website or not. Content coverage is largely independent, and pecuniary interests, be it in the form of gifts, samples, free meals or sponsorship deals, are declared.

Already, he notes the impact that food bloggers are having on mainstream media. There are now fewer food critics employed not only because media outlets have to pick up the tab on every meal reviewed, but because one will have to question the wisdom of paying a professional to do it when everyone else is doing it out of their own pocket anyway. Add to the mix platforms that crowdsource public opinion to give you a rating (think Urbanspoon), and user-generated photos of what a restaurant looks like and the dishes being ordered (thanks to geotagging on Instagram). Mainstream media’s solution, says Ngo, has been to offer up food recipes instead.

As Ngo ponders this point, he wonders if the burden of accountability is perhaps the bullet that food bloggers looking to “commercialise” will need to bite. Audiences value independence and don’t want to be sold to, not least through content that purports to reflect an individual’s honest appraisal on matters such as quality, taste and service. And though food bloggers would nary regard themselves as or aspire to become a journalist or food critic, Ngo nonetheless believes there are benefits to learning to do like the professionals do, not just when it comes to ethics, but also in areas such as content strategy – understanding what audiences want and expect, and how that all feeds into their ultimate aim of commercialising.