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Nearly every week for the past decade, someone has written to me to ask for career advice. Except for those messages that went to my spam box, I’ve answered every one. I do it because I too have been in that wandering state, unsure of what’s next. People helped me then, and now I want to keep the karma chain going.
I also help for selfish reasons. Because I like meeting young people with fresh ideas and following their progress; it’s a narrative that I get to observe and enjoy in bits and pieces. A few of the people I’ve spoken with have written books, some have started companies, we’ve hired a couple, and many have succeeded in other fields like law, fashion, and architecture.
What has struck me recently, though, is how sharply and suddenly my spiel to aspiring food writers has changed. Five years ago, I would take people through what I thought were the best steps toward getting hired at the limited number of food publications, and/or putting themselves in the best position to write books. This usually involved suggesting they go to cooking school, or, better yet, work in restaurants. Then I offered a few tips for getting a foot in the door at a newspaper food section like the L.A. Times or national magazine like Saveur or Gourmet (getting a face-to-face informational interview so an editor will remember you; getting clips not in your local paper but the smaller publications, like Edible or Gastronomica, that these editors read; structuring a pitch letter so it will catch an editor’s attention; sending editors something you’ve baked – everyone’s a sucker for a home-baked good) – I let them know it would be a difficult road but encouraged them to dive in.
About 2 years ago, I stopped giving this advice: I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer. Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines' business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse.
If I weren’t working on Food52, I would not be a full-time writer because, even as an experienced journalist and best-selling author, I would not be able to pay my bills. Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist. Advertising revenues, already on a steady decline, plummeted online. Online, $35,000 to $60,000 a year and $.25 to $.75 a word is more like it. New publications simply can’t pay very well, if at all. Just ask our writers.
And the real problem with these figures is that they're static – you don’t start at $40,000 and work your way up to $80,000. You either happily stay at $40,000, or leave and let the next young, bright writer take your spot. This $40,000 also comes with many fewer perks – no expense accounts and little travel budget. In 1998, the New York Times sent me to France for two weeks to find some stories. Today, this would be unimaginable.
So what happens now if someone comes to me wanting to become a writer? I don’t totally crush their dreams. I just step on them a bit -- before trying to help the aspirant re-imagine his or her future in a whole new way.
Start a blog, pitch magazines, go after a book contract, I say, but instead of relying on writing as your bread and butter – and instead of torturing yourself with the rejection and struggle for respectable payment that this will entail -- look to other interests in the food industry. We’re in a moment of great change. There’s never been more opportunity to make a difference, to shift the way we think about buying and eating food, to create something new, to start a business. This is what you should be doing.
Don’t feel glum; this new era is actually better. Everyone who can write well is now welcome to. At the time I got started in the 1990s, I was considering becoming a bread baker, but you couldn’t get anyone to hire you as a writer if you worked “in the field.” There was widespread snobbery toward non-professional writers, and an assumption that it would be a conflict of interest – or just too much self-interest -- for a chef to write about cooking or a farmer about raising chickens.
The observers kept out the doers, a system that never really made sense. Now people want to hear from the doers. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef at Prune, is a sought-after writer with a best-selling memoir; David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, has launched his own hit magazine, Lucky Peach; and Tamar Adler, a cook and csa director, has written “An Everlasting Meal.”
Blogs changed this exclusionary system, both for the better and the worse. While they gave an exciting new platform to those formerly shut out of gatekeeper publications like Food & Wine, The New York Times and Gourmet, they also created a new, more democratic but competitive arena in which, ultimately, most would fail. The best blogs would grow into their own self-sustaining brands, and the rest would be left to struggle and starve, or subsist as an unpaid hobby. The brand-achievers, the talented writers and photographers behind SmittenKitchen, The Pioneer Woman, and Simply Recipes are able to make more money than I would have dreamed of earning when I was a staff writer at the New York Times (then considered the pinnacle of food writing jobs). They are earning this money in part because they began before the huge growth spurt in blogging, but mostly because they've successfully built a committed and large audience that advertisers are willing to pay to reach -- and they should be lauded for both their prescience and business smarts.
Blogs also turned content into an inexpensive commodity, which spread ad dollars thinner and put even more downward pressure on writers’ pay.
You can aim to become one of these brands, but the journey will be unpredictable. Better to see writing as part of a more personally-crafted career that will allow you to pursue an array of interests -- and a career that you will need to treat in an entrepreneurial way, inventing and reinventing what you do along the way. Your lifestyle may still not be that lavish, but it will at least be yours to shape. You will have the chance to have a much more varied and engaging career; I wish mine had begun this way.
And so, if you want my advice, here’s what I would do if I just graduated from college and wanted to become a food writer:
1. Right away: get your hands dirty, in as many places as possible. Skip journalism and cooking school. Instead, use that money to support yourself while you do mostly low-paying food jobs. Wash dishes in a restaurant. Work on a farm. Get a job in a food factory. Assist a commercial fisherman. Intern at a start-up (I know the perfect place for you…). Volunteer at a co-op.
2. Broaden your skills so you can control your destiny. Take a photography class. Learn to edit video. Study HTML and CSS. If you’re entrepreneurial, go to business school.
3. Never eat the same meal twice. If you want to be knowledgeable about food, you need to experience it yourself.
5. Create a blog and write about what you do.
6. Start your own venture. An online service for pantry staples a la Diapers.com. Start a network of small slaughterhouses (there's a need). Create a solution for distributing the goods of small farmers beyond farmers markets.
7. Last but sort of least: write articles or a book on the side.
Photos by James Ransom