Today, at the Noosa Food and Wine Festival, I went to a session The Courier Mail held on Social Networking, Blogging, and Mainstream Media. The panel, eight strong (and this was noted by MC David Fagan) was stacked with old media faces: food reviewers, editors, and so on. Two food bloggers were present, and they seemed both well liked and competent. Indeed, many of the panelists seemed reasonable and erudite.
However. There was a palpable bias, stemming from the fact of their employment, that old media was better, more reliable, more authoritative, more responsible, less prone to corruption, and so on. At one point, someone said the problem was that "we need to find a way to get people to pay for [it]", where "it" stands for information about restaurants — the reviews and opinions which so many people give away for free on the internet. It's fair to say that at least some of the panelists just don't get it.
Here are a few points that I'd dispute:
Yes, a newspaper's experienced reviewer can give a longer and more thorough opinion than random unpaid amateurs online.
Yes, some reviews are rigged (positively or negatively) on Urbanspoon, Tripadvisor (they do food too), Eatability and other sites, but the vast majority are not. The solution is not, as one panelist suggested, that "maybe the restaurants should start suing Urbanspoon". The public is just about smart enough to discern a worthwhile review from a valueless one.
No, I don't think many people really read food blogs compared to print media. Print still has the stickiness of simply being there on a table, ready to picked up and leafed through; I have to choose to visit a blog. It's the same reason that broadcast TV survives: many people are happy to consume what they are served. The influence of "food blogging" is, I think, overestimated.
However, I think they perhaps underestimate the power of the amateur review. If I'm looking for a special occasion meal, then yes, I'll read the opinions of the best reviewers. If I'm on holiday or really can't be bothered cooking, I'll just call up an app, look on a map, and find the best looking place nearby. I judge those places based on the collective wisdom of the internet, fed through my personal filters, possibly amended when I turn up and see the place. If a place has multiple negative reviews from different people and no positives, it's unlikely that they're all fakers from the restaurant next door. I didn't need a professional review, just a thumbs up or down.
And that's the thing. Print is still the place people will go for regular, informed opinions about restaurants and much else besides. They also have an important role in introducing people to new restaurants. Today, though, they're not the only source of that information. While real foodies (and I am not) will still prefer the in-depth print review, I don't usually need it, and can get the brief information I seek without print.
Before the internet, I would have asked a friend or taken a blind stab, and now I can ask strangers. I don't ask food bloggers, just random users of whatever service showed up on Google and looked reasonable.
Similarly, before the internet, I wouldn't have tracked down an old paper for a review from months prior. The mobile internet answers the "is this restaurant any good?" question in a way that print never did and answers the "what's the best restaurant near here?" question in a way that it never can. Print never solved either problem, they only gave a restaurant something to photocopy and display next to their menu on the street.
To keep their current committed foodie audience, print media needs to ensure that their content is better than the alternatives, and that it's just as visible. Their content's fine, but they're losing the visibility war that's so important for the casual review-seeker. If print wants to remain relevant, it needs to make its content just as obvious, searchable, location-enabled and user-comment-friendly as its competitors. If not, their audience will slowly drift away. Convenience, in the end, always wins.