At first blush, the Cod was shocked, like many, that lead restaurant critic Brett Anderson was among 33% of Times-Picayune employees pinkslipped yesterday. After all, New Orleans is nothing if not a food town, and if your paper is getting leaner and meaner, doing more with less, etc, etc, you would focus on strengths, like your Beard-winning restaurant ciritc, and cut elsewhere, right?
Maybe, maybe not. What follows is uninformed speculation, and I would love to be wrong. As the boss announces here, the Times-Pic is becoming a digitally focused news organization. That's a fancy way of saying that going forward, you will be more of a website, and less of a newspaper. There are serious issues concerning this platform shift -- going digital shifts costs from publishers to readers, who are responsible for having access to a device and broadband to consume the news product -- but it's not just a platform shift. In theory, a "digitally focused news organization" could take advantage of lower production costs to be a trimmer and tougher news outlet. In practice, the web side of news organizations seem to rely on reader-submitted content. So, instead of more sustained investigative journalism, you get more pictures of readers' pets dressed up in the colors of the local NFL franchise. For example, the Boston Globe's Pulitzer-winning coverage of Catholic sex abuse was a product of the print edition; Boston.com today has a feature on funny license plates.
The sad truth is, you can have a "food section" like this without paying a critic. If your readers will click and argue and generate pageviews fighting over what's the best roast beef po-boy, why pay Brett Anderson? Indeed, a single, qualified voice will sometimes be contrarian, while a mass of reader comments by definition represent conventional wisdom, which is what makes advertisers comfortable. It's possible to imagine a critic like Brett Anderson revealing that a new venture from a beloved chef ain't all that, or worse still, that a beloved institution is slipping. It's very hard to imagine one could learn the truth about brunch at Commander's Palace from a swarm of reader comments. If pageviews, rather than restaurant criticism, is your news organization's goal, a real restaurant critic is unnecessary, and possibly detrimental. The future of restaurant criticism in newspapers looks more like Yelp than it does like Anton Ego. The Cod suggests that ambitious NOLA restaurauteurs make sure they have plenty of dishes with brains on the menu.