UGC: the real reason that wine writers are an endangered species

The wine writer as a species is endangered. This has been discussed quite a bit within the wine media community. I remember at a bloggers conference in Ismir, Turkey, back in 2012, when Andrew Jefford delivered a keynote speech announcing the death of wine writing. That went down well.

And more recently, at the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, there was a lot of discussion about how wine writers need to earn money doing other stuff: the traditional wine writer, taking commissions from magazines and newspapers and making a living by actually writing alone, is now very rare. I missed the ‘golden age’ of wine writing by about a decade, when there were plenty of specialist newspaper columns for grabs, each of which paid a more-or-less proper salary for producing a wine page each week. So I’ve always had to do a range of things (lecturing, judging, consulting) in addition to writing in order to make a living.

So, even if wine writing isn’t quite dead, wine writers are in peril. But I haven’t heard a lot of discussion about the main reason for this: UGC.

No, UGC isn’t referring here to the Union des Grands Crus, the Bordeaux organization. It’s user-generated content. Let’s be honest: wine writing has always existed on the back of advertising. It’s advertising that pays most of the bills in media. The content exists as a way of getting eyeballs, and eyeballs bring advertising. There are only a very few publications where the content is paid for without advertising. The World of Fine Wine, which I write for, isn’t advertiser driven, for example (although it does take some advertising): it charges a hefty subscription fee. But it’s rare.

With the advent of the internet, advertising spend has largely shifted online. However, it hasn’t all gone to traditional media organizations. Newspapers have been forced to remain free in order to maintain traffic (paywall experiments have not been terribly successful, except for in a few cases). The main newspaper brands do get get huge traffic, but they only have a slice of the advertising revenue that they used to enjoy when everything was print. Instead, the bulk of online advertising revenue has shifted to Google ($67 billion in 2015) and Facebook ($4.3 billion last quarter), and here’s the crucial feature: the content that lures the advertisers isn’t professionally produced. It’s user-generated. It’s our tweets and Facebook posts. Pictures of cats and videos of accidents, and that sort of thing.

Smartphones may have allowed us to increase the amount of media that we consume. But a significant slice of our media diet is now through social media. So there is now much less of a need for professional content generators. Indeed, a good portion of my output is now delivered up for free, on social media or on my website. I could have stood back and said that my content is too good to be given away, but then this misses the point of what it means to be a communicator in today’s digital age.

The other threat to wine writers is the shift from professional criticism (of restaurants, hotels, electrical goods, wines) to user reviews. Apps such as Vivino are producing lots of easily accessible wine reviews from users. You can even scan restaurant lists with this app, and it recognises the bulk of the wines from the text. Very clever. And sort of useful.

Wine writing is very much alive. But professional wine writers, as we know them, are an endangered species, potentially heading for extinction. And this is all because of UGC.

4 comments to UGC: the real reason that wine writers are an endangered species

  • Damien

    The key word within that ‘UGC’ is the ‘C’: content. Fortunately for yourself, you manage to combine the combination of knowledge (‘authority’ I think it’s known as) and accessibility which most manage to miss completely.
    Witness you latest comments on Twitter re Bordeaux’s en primeur tastings; manage to make Kissack/Atkin et al look rather old, red-trouser-wearing old farts compared to what the majority are looking for.
    Long may it continue!

  • Jamie, aren’t we bloggers much more of the problem than apps with scores/reviews?

  • Bob Henry

    PART ONE . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (July 8, 2009, Page A15):

    “To Rake It In, Give It Away”

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB124701229573408977#printMode

    Book review by Jeremy Philips

    “Free: The Future of Radical Price”
    By Chris Anderson
    (Hyperion, 274 pages, $26.99)

    “It is easy to see why free is an appealing price for consumers, although how companies make money by giving stuff away is less obvious.

    “In ‘Free: The Future of a Radical Price,’ Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and the author of ‘The Long Tail,’ sets out to explain why free is an increasingly compelling business model.

    “Mr. Anderson explains how the underlying economics of digital services make free business models far more widespread than they were in the analog world. Central to the new ‘free economy.’ he says, are the ‘near-zero “marginal costs” of digital distribution (that is, the additional cost of sending out another copy beyond the “fixed costs” of the required hardware).’ . . .

    “Free business models, whether purveying digital products or tangible goods, are based on cross subsidy — that’s why you get a ‘free’ mobile phone when you sign up for a long-term service plan. In the digital realm, the ‘freemium’ model offers the elusive free lunch. . . . The free service is a loss leader (and cheap marketing) for premium paid services.

    “Advertising is plainly the best known free model. You don’t pay for Web searches, any more than you pay for network television, because in both cases ads are attached to the product you are getting free. As Mr. Anderson notes, though, advertising can’t pay for everything online.

    “If you have a blog, ‘no matter how popular,’ the revenue from AdSense — a Google service that places ads on Web sites — will probably never ‘pay you even minimum wage for the time you spend writing it.’

    “Of course, that’s fine for bloggers more interested in fame or influence than in money or for blogs (like Mr. Anderson’s own) that are loss leaders for more lucrative endeavors, such as writing books or making speeches. But if you have to earn a living from the Web, ‘free’ can be a problem.

    . . .

  • Bob Henry

    PART TWO . . .

    Excerpt from The Wall Street Journal “Off Duty” Section
    (March 29, 2013, Page Unknown):

    “Five Wine Blogs I Really Click With.”

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323419104578376630145206770#printMode

    By Lettie Teague
    “On Wine” columnist

    “I spent the better part of last week doing something that relatively few wine drinkers probably do: reading wine blogs. Not just a handful of blogs here and there but hundreds and hundreds of wine blogs from all over the world. I read until I was absolutely blog-bleary; I probably totaled 10,000 page views.

    “I did this partly out of curiosity. I don’t read many wine blogs, and I wondered what I might be missing. What was being discussed? What wines, wineries and topics were hot? After all, people in the wine trade have called bloggers a powerful force, capable of challenging — perhaps even eclipsing — traditional media and conventional wine critics. I’m not sure if that’s true, but the numbers are certainly impressive.

    “There are about 1,450 wine blogs today [circa 2013], of which about 1,000 are nonprofessional endeavors (the rest are ‘industry’ blogs), according to Allan Wright of the Zephyr Adventures tour operator, who has organized the 2013 Wine Bloggers Conference in North America for the past five years. But most bloggers haven’t been doing it very long: ‘Only 18% of [wine] bloggers today have been blogging for more than six years,’ he said.

    “Most of the bloggers were doing it just for ‘personal satisfaction,’ Mr. Wright said, since the possibility of making money was quite small. Alder Yarrow, who writes a much-talked-about blog, Vinography, told me that he earns $12,000 to $16,000 from it annually, most of which comes from banner ads. Said Mr. Yarrow, who began his blog in 2004 and has a day job: ‘Monetizing a blog is very hard if you don’t want to sell products, sell advertising to wineries and therefore look like a shill.’

    “Most bloggers are more like Alice Feiring, a traditional wine journalist and blogger who has never made ‘a cent’ from her blog, the Feiring Line, which she started in 2004. (It’s one of the few that I read on a regular basis.) But unlike most other bloggers, Ms. Feiring has a newsletter; she has 450 subscribers paying $65 a year for 10 issues. ‘The blog was a soapbox; the newsletter is a mini-magazine,’ Ms. Feiring explained.”

    Alice wrote for Time magazine, and yet even with that formidable publicity platform she garnered “only” 450 subscribers to her newsletter.

    Wine Spectator boasts around 350,000 paid subscribers.

    The Wine Advocate boasts between 40,000 and 50,000 paid subscribers.

    (I don’t know the paid circulation for Decanter and Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits magazines.

    Nor do I know how many paid subscribers Vinous — following Antonio Galloni’s acquisition of Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar — or Allen Meadow’s Burghound boast.)

    The subscription model of media — sans paid media advertising — can only support an oligopoly.

    Self-evidently not 1,450 wine blogs circa 2013.

    Those bloggers are effectively working for free (collecting “psychic income”).

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