Every time I come out here, life pulls into sharper focus – it becomes more clear what I want to do and why I want to do it – why it’s important – and then I go home and it kind of collapses into the day to day minutae. One of the things I always seem to struggle with is how to make a living – while maintaining my integrity. I know I’m not the only one.
So here I am in the midst of a blog redesign – still, because for years I’ve been trying to figure out how to do things better, what the right next step is, how to stand out from all the sameness yet maintain familiarity, worried that if I do take a sudden jag, people will lose interest. (And if they do, isn’t it my own fault for being boring?) As always, my blog keeps getting back-burnered for actual work deadlines – I have to answer to editors, publishers and producers, not so much to myself.
But I’ve finally (!!) hired someone to do it. It’s anxiety-inducing to choose someone to come up with a design that defines you, and to tinker with the back end so that you don’t lose all your stuff. But I’m struggling myself to determine what kind of content I want to produce that people will care about – and how to organize it all, and are blogs really dying? But even if they are, from now on and forever people will always get recipes from the internet, right? Until something comes along to replace the internet? This is why I’ve asked for advice from friends and readers, because they see it all from an audience perspective, and really are the only ones who matter. But one recurring comment makes me bristle each time I hear it: No ads!
And I get it, I do. I don’t love ads – least of all the ones that pop up when you open a page, or blare weight loss promises with distasteful images, and I don’t like the look of blogs that have dedicated every square inch of space to Google Ads either.
But. I’m a food writer. It’s what I do – it’s my job. I’ve wanted to be a food writer for as long as I can remember – since telling my grade 3 class I wanted to be the food editor of Canadian Living when I grew up. I love doing it, and would love nothing more than to be independently wealthy or financially supported enough to be able to write about whatever inspires me that day or week rather than what I’m assigned that pays the bills. Because this work -and Mike works with me- pays our bills. I’ve never relied on my blog to pay the bills, but here’s the thing: it costs me $3000/year for web hosting – I pay extra to have a dedicated server so that it loads more quickly – and I’m paying $6500 to do this redesign. So that’s $10k so far this year that I’m forking out to just keep this blog out there, which I’m happy to do, but I don’t think it should mean compromising my integrity to offset some of those costs.
As it stands, the only ways to do that – by selling ad space or creating sponsored content – are frowned upon by many. (And it seems to be more so in the food blogging world than in fashion, travel or design blogging.) In the past, content like this could only reach the masses through traditional means – recipes and photos and essays and kitchen tips were only available in newspapers, magazines and cookbooks – all of which you’d have to pay for, and most of which also ran ads because subscription revenue is never enough. You don’t hear complaints about Bon Appetit or Lucky Peach running ads. No one thinks less of me when I get paid to write stories for print magazines (which themselves run ads and charge for issues), and if I were to bind all these recipes and photos together in a book, print copies and charge $40, it’s considered a (huge!) success, not a sellout.
Create custom content – sponsored posts – and you risk being labeled a shill. Of losing your integrity in some peoples’ eyes. (And this makes sense from a journalistic standpoint – a professional journalists’ code of ethics stresses autonomy, but most have staff jobs and salaries so that never the two shall meet. But what about being wined and dined by restaurants, PR agencies and tourism boards? And of course the publication itself still has advertisers to keep happy. There are so many grey areas these days.) Sponsored content has become the way to do things in the advertising world – I don’t think I write for a single print publication that doesn’t offer custom content, or native content, or whatever term they’ve come up with to distinguish advertorial from editorial. Buzzfeed is often held up as the standard to which we all should aspire – a digital magazine with an entire team dedicated to creating custom content for their advertisers in much the same way ad agencies do, in a way that fits with their own publication.
I vacillate between thinking that carefully curated box and banner ads are the most inoffensive – people are used to seeing them and blocking them out, right? although those who work with ad networks say it’s becoming impossible to make a living that way anymore anyway – and sponsored posts, which I reason at least provides the opportunity to produce content in my own voice that I think might have some value to my readers. But these days a lot of people feel deceived by sponsored posts, and again the writer loses credibility.
So traditional print media outlets are starting to fold, largely due to lack of advertising. (Where are all those ad dollars going? Digital has finally surpassed print, TV and radio in terms of ad spending – but my understanding is that it’s mostly going to Facebook and Google.) That means big staff cuts, slashed freelance budgets, editors getting back into the freelancing pool, and overall fewer publications to write for. (If Gourmet can’t make it..?) Online publications generally pay a tiny percentage of what print magazines do, and there are often those willing to write for free, or almost, for exposure (something I’m not against). Of course the concept of working “for exposure” goes beyond writing; at my first home show appearances in 2002 I was paid $2500; nowadays a few celebs are paid as a draw – the rest come on their own dime, and some chefs actually pay to participate as a promotional opportunity. I guess my point is, even the option of subsidizing your blog with columns, other paying gigs and cookbook royalties (a few dollars per book) is more difficult than it used to be. (Maybe it’s my own fault for not being a self-promoter – which is a big part of the game these days – my new web guy was shocked to hear that I have 7 cookbooks and don’t promote or sell them on my own website. But that’s just me.)
As usual I have more questions than answers, and I often think the solution is – or comes from – better understanding. What do you think about it all? I’m going to the beach.