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City Paper Editor Michael Schaffer on Critics & Anonymity

Yesterday, the Washington City Paper announced the hire of Jessica Sidman as its new food editor and Young & Hungry columnist and, shortly thereafter, Sidman confirmed to Eater that she would not be anonymous. Well, apparently this is a big deal? The revelation prompted pieces from the Washington Post and Huffington Post reflecting on food critics and anonymity. Which is great and all, except that Sidman is not actually going to be a food critic so none of that matters.

Rather, according to City Paper editor Michael Schaffer, Sidman will be doing "a different kind of food journalism," one that relies on reporting and breaking news. Which is pretty much what he announced from the start. Of course, previous Young & Hungry writers have indeed practiced anonymity to a certain extent, so it's sort of a break from tradition. Then again, Eater occasionally spotted the most recent Young & Hungry writer Chris Shott at restaurant events and his predecessor Tim Carman once appeared on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. So there's that.

Anyway, in the following interview, Schaffer clears things up about this whole anonymity mess and why everyone should probably just take a deep breath.

Is Jess going to be considered a food critic?
That's the key question. No. Her title is food editor and I want her to write compelling, memorable journalism about food.

Jess gave us a very strong pitch to do a different kind of food journalism. We're a publication where writers can have opinions all the time, so I assume that she'll be doing a lot of telling us what she likes and what she doesn't, but I don't think that kind of traditional full-dress criticism is going to be the main case of the work she produces. I think a lot of this debate about anonymity misses that point.

If we were hiring somebody to write Tom Sietsema's column then anonymity would be a pretty useful or maybe even essential tool. But I think if you look at what the Young & Hungry blog has been and if you look at the direction that food journalism is going where there's all kinds of criticism and a lot of people seek their advice in Yelp and other forums, I think some of the most valuable stuff a professional reporter could do is in shoeleather journalism. Either reporting or identifying trends or doing analytical pieces. All of that is going to involve some kind of judgment on the quality of food, but I don't think that traditional food critic role is the main bulk of her job.

That seemed to be more of what Chris Shott was doing, too.
Chris mixed it up as Jess will, too. But, again, if it were a situation where we just wanted to have someone doing nothing but criticism then anonymity would be a very desirable thing. But it's not. That's not the only piece of her work.

I used to see Chris Shott at restaurant openings, but he avoided pictures. What qualifies as anonymity?
Anonymous isn't a legal status. I think there are some food critics, including Chris, who try to not get pictures of themselves published and so on. But in the real world, I don't think anonymity is a binary. It's a spectrum. So the question is how far will you go to hide your identity?

I feel like some of this coverage is a little bit naive in this assumption of a binary view of anonymity. I suspect that if you really, really wanted to set about it, you could find out exactly what Tom Sietsema looks like. And I suspect that a whole lot of people in the restaurant world for whom that's an important piece of knowledge do know that. That's not to say, if I had his job, I would do my best to try to keep pictures of myself out of circulation too. There's no suggestion he's doing anything wrong. I think in our case Jess has different aims and I think given where the food audience is, I'm interested in letting her follow those aims.

Has the Young & Hungry columnist always gotten to choose direction?
The City Paper has been a place where we try to hire journalists who have their own voices and encourage them to hone their own voices. For this job, I was kind of looking for someone who was going to be able to write compelling stuff. They were going to present what they thought was compelling. Jess would be, by my count, the fifth Young & Hungry. The first three of them were all hired at a time sort of pre-blogs where their main job upon being hired was to produce a weekly column that was almost always a piece of traditional restaurant criticism. By the time Carman finished, he was doing that alongside a very, very good blog that broke news.

I think if you look at where the food audience is, I don't know if there's as much demand anymore for traditional restaurant criticism. When done well, it totally rocks. But I don't know if the demand is there. I do think the thing that someone who is a professional journalist can do is go out and break news. Report on it like it's a business beat or it's a culture beat. Because it is in a lot of ways.

I guess what I've picked up from some of this coverage is that we don't as a society don't really have a way of thinking about food writers without assuming that they are first and foremost critics. The food staff of a big newspaper where there's multiple people who write about food, most of them are not critics. They might be incredibly great, gifted writers and reporters, but most of them don't have a job description as a critic.

I'm looking at this HuffPo thing as we talk. Where there's this idea of people in their 20s and 30s, there's pictures of them all over the place in social media and their identity is out there. And that's certainly true, which makes the task of hiding your appearance from the people you write about trickier. But that wasn't really the issue here. The issue here was how Jess defines the job. And if HuffPo had called me I could have told them that.

· Jessica Sidman IN as New Young & Hungry Food Writer [-EDC-]
· New Young & Hungry Columnist Won’t Be Anonymous [WaPo]
· Jessica Sidman, New 'Washington City Paper' Food Columnist, Will Not Be Anonymous [HuffPo]

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