Lucky Dip – Monday, August 27, 2013

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This brings new meaning to the phrase “Animal House.” Photograph by Kai Fagerström [Twister Sifter]

The above house is in Finland, but it could play stand-in in the movie version of Al Jourgensen’s war with raccoons. [Slicing Up Eyeballs]

There was a time where I’d be all ranty about bloggers taking freebies, screeching about “ethics” and “selling your soul” and such. Now I just sigh sadly and move on to the next news story. (But I will emit an evil chortle if it comes out that this guy living on free stuff does actually run out of toilet paper.) [Toronto Star]

The ocean is awesome. [Discover Magazine]

Because who doesn’t need a cardboard cut-out of David Hasselhoff? [Gawker]

3D printers are crazy cool, but sometimes, things go awry. [Flickr]

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She Works Hard for the Money

In my last post (really? August 24th? Whoops.) I ranted on about how bloggers shouldn’t solicit or accept payment for endorsed posts on their own blogs. And I still firmly believe that. But there is a way for bloggers, especially those with a specific area of expertise, to work with companies and corporations, and that is as a consultant. The oft-touted theory of “I deserve to be paid for my time and effort” doesn’t ring true when you’re being paid to say nice things about a product on your own blog, but when a company comes to you, asking for your help with something they’re producing, you most absolutely deserve to be paid a fair price for your work.

I bring this up now because I have been contacted, yet again, by a corporate entity that expected me to “help” them for free.

The person in question represented a very well-known show on the Food Network. The host of this show has a product line and endorsement deals. Their show is aired internationally. It is safe to presume that the major players involved are making a decent amount of money.

The request I received was for me to call the show’s researcher (long distance) and advise on some places in the Toronto area that would be appropriate for the show to visit on an upcoming trip here. I am familiar with the show only peripherally; I watched part of an episode once and didn’t much care for it, and since we cancelled our cable about six months ago, I haven’t watched anything on the Food Network at all. So I calculated how much research I would have to do to learn about the show and the types of places they covered, as well as how much work I’d have to do to come up with a short list of places that would be appropriate, and I replied via email stating a rate for my consulting services.

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Lucky Dip – Friday, June 24th, 2011

In the version of this column that used to run on TasteTO, I’d often take local bloggers to task for running inaccurate reviews, pointing out that they could affect the restaurant’s business with a review that was not supported by research and fact. Now a blogger in Taiwan is facing fines and jail for exactly that issue. Watch what you write, folks. [Globe and Mail]

Who paid for the study? It’s a refrain heard in nutrition circles regularly, especially when the research appears to be in favour of processed foods that we know to be bad for us. It turns out, some scientists are happy to take a cheque from a corporation to fudge some numbers in their favour. [ABC]

Best idea ever – a packaging-free grocery store. That’s right, one massive bulk section where customers bring their own or buy compostable containers to get stuff home. [Good Food]

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Chefs Versus Bloggers

In pretty much every conversation I’ve had with a chef in the past, oh, month, the topic of bloggers has come up. Usually it’s the bloggers who show up on the first day of a restaurant opening and trash the place in a review because things are not perfect. Chefs and restaurateurs seem not to know how to handle this kind of criticism, and when they ask me for advice (like I’d know!) I’m at a loss as to what to tell them.

I mean, it’s not as if I’m anti-blogger. I really believe that the future of food writing exists online; I run a number of blogs myself, run a blogging network and somehow convinced myself that creating the Canadian Food Blog Awards would be an easy thing to do to promote food bloggers in this country (umm… yes, I did pretty much just make a 2nd full time job for myself). But I still don’t have the answer.

What I really want to do is give the bloggers who do these (usually poorly written) too-early restaurant reviews a smack in the head. I mean, there’s one school of thought that says that some person on the internet with no qualifications or expertise isn’t going to be able to affect the business of a restaurant, that most people don’t even pay attention to blogger restaurant reviews, instead relying on long-time experts for the major dailies and weeklies who have the experience and writing skills to back up their opinions. But I’ve also seen (and talked to) a lot of restaurant owners and chefs who are mighty worked up about a shitty review or comment on some site like Yelp or Chowhound.

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In Bloggers We Trust – Why the US Disclosure Laws Treat Bloggers Like Children

Are bloggers untrustworthy?

Obviously, we all blog for different reasons and we all approach blogging in a different way, but a recent statement of intent to enforce disclosure laws in the United States by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) means that bloggers in the US are required to disclose when they mention or review any item or service that was provided free of charge or that they are being paid to write.

What does that mean exactly? It’s nebulous. The laws are being enforced mostly to clamp down on websites like ReviewMe or PayPerPost where bloggers can register and advertisers can select blogs to write advertorials about their product or site. Usually there is no free product offered for these services – during the brief period when I was registered with ReviewMe.com a few years ago, I was asked to “review” a miracle berry juice product (acai or goji or something like that) based solely on their website. I pretty much tore it apart and was inundated with cranky emails from distributors selling this stuff to desperately ill people under the premise that it cured cancer,  so I certainly didn’t get paid for a favourable review, although the advertiser did pay me, and ReviewMe does require disclosure of the association.

Also suspect in this situation are occurrences of restaurants paying or bribing reviewers or bloggers to favourably cover their business, such as the case that recently occurred on Yelp when a California restaurant offered a discount to anyone who came in and showed the manager that they had written a review of the place on the local Yelp website.

 

A bonus of this legislation is that it may put pressure on viral marketers (sorry… “social media experts”) who target bloggers and invite them to events with freebies and swag, provide misleading comparative product information, and then pressure bloggers into writing about the product.

However, the laws don’t pertain to news or mainstream media. From Slate:

Because of a pesky thing called the First Amendment, the guidelines don’t apply to news organizations, which receive thousands of free books, CDs, and DVDs each day from media companies hoping for reviews. But if the guidelines don’t apply to established media like the New York Review of Books, which also happens to publish reviews on the Web, why should they apply to Joe Blow’s blog? Regulating bloggers via the FTC while exempting establishment reporters looks like a back-door means of licensing journalists and policing speech.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, magazines and papers don’t disclose free product or free dinners – it’s assumed that they’re comped (note that the exception to this would be restaurant reviews that are always done anonymously and therefore are paid for by the reviewer personally or the media organization). Having worked on the other end of things when I ran a record label, we gave away dozens of free CDs to magazines and websites each month without ever expecting disclosure. The same occurred when I worked at an accessories distributor – we gave free product to magazines to be used in fashion shoots – we seldom asked for the items back unless they were expensive.

So are blogs news media? At TasteTO, we often say that while we use blog software, we don’t consider the site to be a blog. We run our website with probably more professionalism than a lot of dead tree publications – who determines if we’re media or hobbyists? I run this blog as a professional site as well, although the content is more general – am I a “writer” or a “blogger”? Is it the terminology that will make a difference when it comes to the legality of writing about a free jar of jam?

Incidentally, as Eat Me Daily points out, the laws are very much designed to deal with sites and organizations openly soliciting bloggers, and not individual hobbyist bloggers who write about a free cookie from their local bakery.

Even if you fail to make the appropriate disclosures, it’s important to recognize that your risk of fines is quite low. For one thing, the FTC doesn’t actually have the authority to impose fines for this sort of regulation. It must seek court orders to enforce the regulations, and the courts can impose fines if they choose, but that would take a long string of very preventable and unfortunate events. The worst-case scenario in which you actually get fined would probably require you to refuse to comply with a cease and desist letter from the FTC, then later disobey a court order to remove the offending posts. In other words, fines will likely be quite easy to avoid, even if you don’t start making the called-for disclosures. And just in case you still need reassurance, officials from the FTC have now said repeatedly that the FTC will not ever be going after bloggers.

So it’s actually a moot issue. But one that can be the beginning of another conversation. Is it time for bloggers, individually and as a demographic, to start taking reviews more seriously, and approaching their writing more professionally? Should we be looking at maybe dividing bloggers into professionals and hobbyists in some way in order to instill some trust from government organizations? Or are individual bloggers okay with being treated like children and forced to disclose that free cookie in fear of vague legislation (from another country if you’re not in the US) that will likely never be enforced?

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Picking and Choosing

I had an interesting conversation the other night with two different people involved with small independent bookstores. The conversation touched on how customers come into their respective stores and get upset when they don’t have something in stock. But as a small indie shop, they don’t have the space or budget to carry every single title in the genres in which they specialize. So they have to make a decision as to what makes the cut. And their customers mostly have to trust that judgment.

The art of curating (or editing) – it takes place all the time, in every industry, on every level. It’s somebody’s job to decide what products make it onto shelves and racks in various stores, what artwork is included in a show, what stories make it to the pages of magazines and book anthologies.

There’s a certain unfairness to it, of course – depending on the topic or product there might be 5 or 20 or 100 things that don’t make the cut for every 1 that does. This also comes with a lot of responsibility – woe be to the fashion buyer who chooses incorrectly and sticks her store with something that doesn’t sell – especially if it was ordered in the hundred – or thousands.

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