Earlier this fall, I was approached by Corie Brown to contribute an opinion piece to the new food and wine Web site Zester Daily. Corie was an editor and the wine columnist at the Los Angeles Times before they eliminated her department in 2008, and in her capacity there I found that she brought a journalistic intensity to the wine stories that in other hands often become puff pieces. I was sorry to hear that the Times had made the decision that it did, but it's just one more bit in a mountain of evidence that newspapers are in trouble.
Enter Zester Daily, which Corie co-founded and for which she serves as General Manager. It's a cooperative site with 25 contributors from around the world of food and wine, including experts on cooking, gastronomy, health, wine, spirits, gardening and media, as well as writers focusing on the food traditions of different regions around the country. Their home page is below:
The contributors are noted in their fields; their wine team consists of Patrick Comiskey (Wine & Spirits, L.A. Times, and many other publications), Jordan Mackay (San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Food & Wine, and many others) and Corie herself. The articles are more serious in their conception and execution than is typical for food and wine blogs. In fact, they're better thought of as articles than blogs as I learned when I submitted my piece on sustainability in the world of wine. I thought the piece was a good one, but Zester Daily editor Robin Rauzi (also an ex-editor at the Los Angeles Times) turned the piece inside-out. Nearly every sentence was changed, the piece was reordered and tightened, and the cumulative effect made a much clearer and more powerful article. It was my first experience being professionally edited, and it was humbling. I regained a small measure of pride by making some small additional changes, and adding a new paragraph that I thought was needed, and having her accept them as presented. You can read the resulting article "The Dirt on Sustainability" at the Zester Daily site.
I think that the concept of Zester is an appealing one, and a possible model for food and wine journalism in an era where few newspapers can support full-time journalists. They're not limiting themselves to strictly writing about cooking, or food -- they expect to address everything from politics to the environment through the prism of food and wine.
But does it work? It's a free site, supported by ad revenue rather than subscriptions, and from what I've read, non-search online advertising revenue is hard to come by. I asked Robin whether it could replace the food and wine journalism jobs that are being lost around the country, and her response was interesting. She pointed out that Salon began an online food section and The Atlantic launched the Atlantic Food Channel after Gourmet shut its doors, and that interest is growing, not contracting, around the topics of food and wine. If a company can create a destination for these educated, affluent readers, it will be appealing to advertisers.
Zester Daily is a site where the contributors share any revenues that the site produces. So, it will succeed or fail on the collective talents of its creative team, and its ability to publicize and create excitement around these talents. It probably won't replace the full-time jobs that so many print journalists have lost, but Robin points out that it wasn't designed to do so. It was designed to allow talented writers to share their thoughts, their work, and their audience, and hopefully provide an outlet, and a little income, for writers who are working on other projects at the same time.
The bottom line: Zester's success in keeping its writers will be determined by its revenues, and its revenues will be determined by its readership. I hope it works; it has the potential to be a unique and valuable contributor to the world of food and wine. Please check it out, and I invite your comments here to share what you thought.