jamie goode's wine blog: LIWF, final day: the future of wine journalism

Thursday, May 14, 2009

LIWF, final day: the future of wine journalism

Day 3, LIWF. Took part today in a panel on the future of wine writing, organized by Catherine Monahan of Clink Wines. The panel was pretty hardcore, with Mike Paul, Angela Mount, Chris Murphy, Robert Joseph and Richard Siddle.

I normally shudder at the thought of anything with the word 'future' in the title, but I accepted the invitation, partly out of curiosity. And the discussion was pretty good. It was broad-ranging in scope, covering all manner of topics from social media, newspaper columns, the level of influence wine journos have and the wine merchant's perspective. It focused mainly on mainstream wine. I think Catherine will be doing something with the film of the session, so those who missed it will be able to hear what was said.

Here are some of my random thoughts on the topic, with some thoughts about what it might take to become a wine journo today.

1. What is a wine writer anyway? There are currently a number of people making a successful living out of words and wine, and they seem to be following different models. There's the wine critic model: Robert Parker et al, selling essentially reviews of specific wines. Then there are broadsheet wine journalists, whose primary activity is a newspaper column (Tim Atkin, Anthony Rose). Then there are book authors, whose chief focus is writing wine books (e.g. Tom Stevenson, Hugh Johnson). We mustn't forget broadcasters, either, or people who write articles for trade and consumer magazines. Bea in mind that there are many hybrids out there: people who do a bit of this and a bit of that. There's no one job called 'wine writing'. Jancis Robinson is notable because she spans everything from books to TV to twitter, and is making a great success of using all these different communication tools effectively.

2. I love newspapers and I am glad to have a newspaper column. But newspapers are not doing well financially, and so if your business model relies on getting a newspaper column that will give you a sizeable chunk of your necessary income, then forget it. In the old days you'd get a proper contract and a decent wadge of cash (equivalent of 25-40 K) if you landed a broadsheet wine column. But things have changed. The last two columns to change hands were Victoria Moore taking over from Malcolm Gluck at The Guardian (she's excellent, but does her column in addition to her day job as features writer for The Daily Mail), and Bob Tyrer taking over from Joanna Simon at The Sunday Times (he's a senior manager at the paper and will do the wine column in his spare time).

3. TV trumps everything, still. Especially national TV. One of the reasons Oz Clarke can charge an enormous day rate is because he is in a league of his own in that he's the only wine writer to do regular national TV, and he does it well. Olly Smith has come from nowhere in recent years to be one of the top UK wine journos simply because he's done quite a bit of telly, and he does it very, very well. If a proper celeb took an interest in communicating about wine they'd be catapaulted forwards to the front of the wine writing queue. TV is just so powerful as a medium.

4. So you want to be a wine writer? Not a problem. You need to start by building your own audience. Don't rely on other people and other media platforms the internet has provided all of us with our own soap boxes. We can all build a tribe of followers. If you have to ask me how, you aren't ready to start, and you clearly don't need it enough to make a success of it.

5. You need to have unshakeable self belief. Now I reckon there's a difference between self-belief and arrogance, and that it's possible to be humble (a good thing) and yet believe that you're better than most of the other guys/girls out there. You have to have absolute confidence in your tasting ability, and also (perhaps more importantly) in your ability to communicate effectively.

6. Don't use your elbows. It is competitive out there the queue of prospective wine writers is long buy play nice. The negative energy generated by worrying about the competition and behaving selfishly outweighs any benefit it may bring you. Others higher up in the food chain will likely be nice to you and give you help; make sure that you don't forget to help those around you in turn. Make sure you pay back into the favour bank, and don't just withdraw from it.

7. Is this what you were 'made for'? Is your skill set best suited to this activity? Do you enjoy it enough that putting in silly hours is going to be sustainable?

8. Who is your audience? Aim too low, and there simply won't be people motivated enough to read your work. Aim too high, and you'll be writing for very few. TV is a good way to reach low involvement consumers, especially when there's interest other than just the wine. So are lifestyle magazines. A mistake is to aim for high involvement consumers (for example, by charging a subscription for content) and then deliver consumer-level reviews about mainstream wines.

9. Find your own voice. Don't assume that what has worked for others will also work for you. You are unique. There's an authentic voice that only you possess, and you need to find it. It's the innovators and risk takers who are likely to get the attention in what is a crowded field.

That's enough for now. It really is a broad subject.



At 11:25 PM, Blogger Paul Tudor said...

I am not sure about the wisdom of asking wine journos to comment on the future of wine jounalism, but that aside...

Your comment on the "sustainability" is a good one. Most wine producers do not understand that there is a cost in everything we do and, quite frankly, freelance wine writing aint lucrative. Like most other people in the wine trade, we do this because we love it. Reminds me that a regular essay topic in the MW exams (comes up every three years or so) is "How do you make money in the wine trade?"

But I am concerned that true independence is being compromised. Stick to your guns is my advice - certainly play fair, but be your own person - this also reminds me of the particularly nasty comments made on this blog by some Anonymous poster about myself and my own wine writing career. I have my suspicions where that person is coming from and, no, I am not backing away from the public stances I have taken on a couple of controversial issues here in NZ. My views might not be widely held by some in the trade here, but equally there is some support for them.

Otherwise, if we have wine writers all saying the same things, then how is progress going to happen? Isn't one of the reasons we like wine the very diversity of the product?

I would be interested to hear what the other panellists had to say - and is there some record of the session somewhere?


At 12:28 AM, Anonymous Gretchen said...

Interesting post. I just read Jancis Robinson's speech (on her website) about the same topic. She said very different things than you. All of it is great food for thought, for me. I'm 31, at the upper end of the so-called Millennial generation. I intend to make a living wine writing (am now making a half living or so, and another half living with other things). I know the future is bleak, there are lots of more experienced unemployed wine journos out there (met many of them at a wine writer's conference a few months ago), blah blah, but I dunno. The future seems bright for me, personally. Mainly because I have the love and the drive. I know I'll make this work for me. Which is basically your point, right?

At 6:05 AM, Blogger billn said...

"5. You need to have unshakeable self belief. Now I reckon there's a difference between self-belief and arrogance, and that it's possible to be humble (a good thing) and yet believe that you're better than most of the other guys/girls out there."My only comment is that it is not about 'being better' per se, it is about having opportunities that few people have either the access or the time to replicate, and communicating something from those opportunities in an interesting way that resonates with your audience.


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