You Get What You Pay For

Philip Berne - Jun 23, 2010, 1:30 pm CDT
You Get What You Pay For

Gourmet magazine is relaunching itself as a free iPad app. The New York Times’ Jenna Wortham previews the new app and asks whether a repackaging of the magazine’s decades of content will be enough for Gourmet fans. Home cooks, she says, “are now used to interacting with others by sharing and commenting on recipes online.” Pardon the pun, but what a crock.

I’ve spent plenty of time reading online food and recipe sites, and I can tell you they exemplify the biggest problems of the so-called Web 2.0 movement. When I read a recipe on Epicurious, for instance, I usually check the comments to see how the recipe turns out. Instead, what I always find are comments like: “I hated this dish. I followed the recipe exactly, except that I didn’t have fish sauce so I substituted Heinz ketchup, and I didn’t have fresh chicken, so I used broken glass instead.”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration, and occasionally the comments can be useful. But they aren’t reliable. My sister is a chef and has tested recipes for the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times and Martha Stewart Living. It’s an arduous process, and when she’s done testing a recipe, she knows it works exactly like it should. She’s an expert. She’s been well trained in cooking and journalism. I would pay to read her opinion, even if we weren’t related.

There’s a serious lack of expertise in Web 2.0. Take the new Forbes magazine online format, for instance. As Paul Carr reports on TechCrunch, Forbes is going ‘crowd-sourced.’ The site is going to use content from thousands of contributors, possibly unpaid volunteer writers, and, as Forbes editor David M. Ewalt tells Carr, “Forbes editors will increasingly become curators of talent.”

That isn’t what readers are paying for. That isn’t what advertisers are paying for. Carr says that “quality, originality and exclusivity are fast becoming irrelevant.” I would clarify his idea of quality and say that content providers are ignoring the importance of expertise. This used to be of singular importance, but now it seems that clicks and speed are of the essence, while expertise is a luxury sites feel they cannot afford.

I worked for a site in the late 90s called eTown. It was made up of former freelance journalists. I was a production associate, but I also got to pitch review ideas. I remember offering to review a nice set of headphones and being roundly rebuffed. I was not qualified. I had no audiophile training. I could review more casual products, but certain categories required real expertise. Television sets, audio equipment, that sort of thing.

eTown went down in a blaze of glory, laying off the entire staff in one fell swoop and failing to pay the last paychecks. That was on Valentine’s day, no less. In the end, the real value in the site was not the editorial content, but the massive product database that the company had created, with specs, feature listing and photographs. Perhaps content was never really respected, even from the start of the Internet boom.

Gizmodo was recently denied access to the Steve Jobs keynote at the Apple WorldWide Developer’s Conference. Instead of attending, the site put out a call for help creating a sort of meta-liveblog of the event. If you were there, presumably you could contribute photos, information and commentary, and Gizmodo would collate the news into a readable form.

I have respect for Gizmodo, even though they have a well-deserved reputation for acting and writing immaturely. Their best work is their original reporting and features. They took a week-long trip to the Lego factory a while back that was fascinating, original and exclusive. I did not follow their liveblog of the Apple keynote because I saw no value in it. If they had sent their own experienced reporters, like SlashGear and Gdgt did, among many others, I would have followed them. But without expertise, what’s the point? How can they compete?

I’ve reviewed thousands of products since I started working in this industry. Mostly cell phones. I don’t build phones or design phones, but I still have some expertise in the field. I’ve spent quality time with every major phone release in the past four years. Every phone that costs $50 or more, I’ve gotten hands on and probably spent a few days exploring every feature and using it like you would normally use a phone on a very busy weekend. I frequently talk with the manufacturers, the OS developers, the retailers and others involved in the industry. I’ve attended classes and workshops, sat on panel discussions and waited on long lines with consumers waiting for the next big thing.

I don’t think I’m better than my reader, or that my opinion is more valid because of the work I’ve put in. I do think I have more experience with cell phones than most consumers. I’ve put in the work so that you don’t have to. When I write my opinion about a device, I’m an expert because of the time I’ve spent and the questions I can answer.

When I read a review or a news story online, or even a recipe, I want it to be written by someone like me. Someone who has spent the time to understand the issue. Someone who has asked the questions I might ask, and then some of the questions I wouldn’t think of asking. Someone with experience.

You might not agree with my opinion. I appreciate that, and that’s why there are so many reviewers out there for consumer electronics. You follow someone’s advice, and if it turns out he was right, you keep following. When Frank Bruni reviewed a restaurant in the New York Times, I usually had an experience that was in line with the expectations he set. Now they have a new reviewer, Sam Sifton, and my experience doesn’t match his. He doesn’t ask the questions I want answered. So, I’ve stopped reading his reviews.

It can be fun participating in a more social discussion, but not when I need the opinion of experts. I love arguing politics because I don’t have a dog in that fight. I’m not a politician, and beyond voting and a few loud rallies, I’m not going to be politically active. But I will definitely buy a cell phone in the next year. I will definitely invest my money and plan for a distant retirement. I will definitely be cooking dinner for my wife’s birthday.

When that time comes, I want to turn to an expert. I don’t want to hear what a thousand different people say to do with my money. I just want one or two solid experts with a proven track record to give me advice, and I’ll follow it or not. I don’t want my recipes clogged with a thousand different opinions when one will do nicely. Have a thousand people seriously tested the Baked Ziti with Mushroom Ragu, over and over again until it’s perfect? If not, I’d rather just read the one person who has.

I think there will be a backlash among readers if expertise vanishes. If you buy a phone based on my positive review and it turns out to be a real stinker, or if I missed some major problem that’s important to you, you definitely won’t read my review the next time you want to buy something. On the other hand, once you’ve learned to trust me and my opinions about consumer electronics, you won’t have to sort through a thousand different opinions before you get to the one that’s valuable.

Gourmet could simply open their archive and have a successful, if not vibrant digital magazine. The recipes are tested and respected. Forbes, on the other hand, will fail miserably in their experiment to let the inmates run the asylum. Right now, there is an unprecedented level of participation and collaboration on the Internet with the Web 2.0 phenomenon, but there’s little value in it, except in terms of advertisers and clicks. But when I need to find real, valuable information on the Net, I don’t want to muck through a thousand comments from users who have nothing at stake. I want to read the opinion of someone who has their livelihood and reputation on the line; someone who has experience and integrity. I’m spending my time, and time is money. I just want to get what I pay for.

Must Read Bits & Bytes