Why bad cultural consumption writing makes writers so mad

Yesterday, CBS Local published a list of the best martini bars in Chicago. I had a few things to say about it.

The piece is poorly written and not well-informed. Even if you concede the popular use of the term “martini” no longer means a certain type of drink with gin (or, OK, vodka, if you’re a heathen) and vermouth with an olive, onion or lemon twist and instead means any cocktail served in a triangle-shaped glass – which might be fine! words evolve over time! – it’s laden with awkward or repetitive phrasing like “stylish characters have made the drink even more fashionable by ordering them” or the way Fireplace Inn’s martinis are twice described as afterthoughts to the food. And mentioning Martini Club’s name three times in its writeup seems more about boosting the piece’s SEO value, not the reader’s knowledge, especially if you suggest martinis pair well with Cuban sandwiches.

The author of the above also wrote a questionable piece on the best local rock bands in Chicago, the objections to which were summed up by Chicagoist: “This list is great, if you’re looking to travel back in time to 2004…”

So, a site with little authority on either rock bands or food & drink repeatedly employs a writer not gifted with either knowledge or a kind editor. Who cares, right? Plenty of other stuff to read on the Internet. If you don’t like it, don’t read it!

Except…

Getting paid (at all, much less paid well) to write cultural consumption pieces in 2013 is really hard, whether it’s about music, food, events or any other where-to-go, what-to-do activities. It’s a really crowded field. So when you’re a freelance writer of some skill and see someone doing a poor job of it, you think “I could do this so much better! Why aren’t I getting paid for this?” Getting paid to write that piece would have meant ramen with chicken instead of just ramen last week. Of course, publications can pay someone without knowledge and skill a lot less than they can those steeped in culture and craft, which literally devalues good writing. In short, a piece like this contributes to scarcity of resources all around.

It’s especially galling when sites with wide distribution do lists like this because they contribute to a dim view of a city’s culture. CBS Local doesn’t have much authority in these areas but it has a lot of distribution and reach, especially when these pieces are constructed for eyeballs instead of brains. A list of bad picks that pops up on the first page of Google reinforces the idea that Chicago lacks for a quality martini bar and its rock output stopped sometime after the Smashing Pumpkins first broke up. If you’re someone who writes about your city because you love it, it bugs you when you see writing that makes it seem like Chicago has less to offer than a place one-third its size.

Finally, writing a piece with “best” picks that can stand up to amateur and professional criticism is tough, way tougher than it looks. Even if it’s a list of solid choices, the hard work comes in the justification. Communicating the thought process that went into why you chose one place over the other is often impossible due to word count or not wanting to sully your text with “inside baseball” conversation that’s best left to Twitter. When someone produces work that makes it seem like anyone can do it, you start to wonder why you bother to put in the time especially when you start to do the math on the number of hours you spend on it versus how much you got paid.

That’s why it’s important to object when someone does a lousy job. Or respond with your own list like Chicagoist did. And praise/link to really great lists like Chicago magazine’s roundup of best craft beers in Chicago. The same tools and conversation that call out bad work should be the same ones used to elevate the good stuff.

UPDATE: According to Anthony Todd at Chicagoist, CBS is in a partnership with Examiner to re-publish its content. It’s not even commissioning its own work.

6 comments for “Why bad cultural consumption writing makes writers so mad

  1. Mike Gebert
    August 30, 2013 at 9:47 am

    The qualifications CBS Local was looking for are all in her bio:

    “She has worked as a model in Chicago and studied broadcast journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She has traveled to Europe on several occasions”

    Not to be cranky old guy, but this seems to be incredibly common now: they hire bubbly young things because they’re presumed to be with it and on top of what’s hip, they get bubbly, naive and inexperienced copy, and we cranky old guys mock them relentlessly on Twitter for it.

    • Anthony Todd
      August 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

      Except that there are a few of us (not many, admittedly) who are neither cranky old guys nor stupid bubbly young things. Scott is right that it’s WE who get screwed when outlets hire these people, because we’d do a decent job for the same paltry $$. Sigh.

    • Scott Smith
      August 30, 2013 at 10:59 am

      I purposely didn’t mention her bio because – while I think it doesn’t help your writerly cred to lead with your life as a model and your occasional travel – there’s nothing that says you can’t be a model and a good cultural writer. In fact, there is a woman named Amber Gibson here in Chicago who is a model, writes about food and does it well. Her work is in Chicago magazine occasionally and anyone who knows Chicago dining editor Penny Pollack knows she has damn high standards for what appears in its pages.

      Also, that writer is chiefly a style/fashion writer so life as a model and world traveler might actually help inform that type of writing.

  2. Martina
    August 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

    I don’t think they hire the inexperienced young writers because they necessarily think they’re hip – I think they hire them because those writers are hungry, desperate and, most importantly, dirt cheap. But there are a lot of good, cheap young ones who actually are hip, talented and informed, so I still don’t see how this woman is getting all this work. Lazy, out of touch editors who don’t know enough to know it’s bad perhaps?

  3. Mike Gebert
    August 30, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Yeah, I know Amber, I hired her for Grub Street and she did a fine job despite the disadvantage of being an internationally traveled model :)

    The point is that much of our recent food media got much worse recently in what seemed to be a search for youth at cutrate prices, no doubt justified by a belief that it would be hipper and more in tune with the scene. E.g.:

    http://www.timeoutchicago.com/restaurants-bars/16248311/duran-european-sandwiches-restaurant-review

    No, good writers who do research are who’s in tune with the scene; mere chronology does not confer understanding, amazingly enough.

    But I suppose the worse thing is that according to Anthony’s piece, NOBODY hired this author or bought this article— it was just sucked onto a major television station’s site from the vast amateur wastes of the internet by some form of osmosis. Well, I hope they got what they wanted with everyone discussing how you shouldn’t trust content from CBS Local ever again.

  4. November 4, 2013 at 6:57 am

    Late to this party, but when you mention upping the SEO value… My guess is that the only reason that piece was written was for SEO. It’s depressingly common to write stories that are only Google bait. Even stories that are written for ostensibly better reasons (such as relevance or quality) may need to be dumbed down. (I frequently have my heds changed to lead with SEO-friendly terms, which makes me sound like the world’s worst headline writer. Which is frustrating, because I’m clearly the world’s fifth worst headline writer.) I’m not sure I want to stay in the digital content production business anymore, because you’re not even writing for eyeballs. You’re writing for robots.

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