A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from the folks at Pom Wonderful, the super-expensive fruit juice in the Mae West bottle. Apparently they trawl the web looking for food bloggers, and the souffle post came up in the net. They asked if they could send me a free case. I didn’t reply. But I did Google the woman’s name on the e-mail, to see what turned up, and what ho, there were several blog posts that ran something like this: “The Pom Wonderful arrived today! It sure is delicious! Yum yum! Thanks, Pom Wonderful!”
Welcome to the future of journalism. Which is a lot like the past, only maybe with a bit more transparency.
Here’s how the 20th century Journalism Ethics 101 class would analyze my offer from Pom Wonderful: Turn it down. I’m not a food blogger, and even if I were, if I wanted to write about pomegranate juice, I should buy my own. That way, my opinions are not influenced by the fact they sent me a case free of charge — about $22 for an eight-pack of eight-ounce bottles.
In reality, it doesn’t work like that, mainly because companies don’t ask first. If I had an office with a publicly listed address, I’m sure they would have just sent it with a press release, and once it’s in the office, it’s too much trouble to send back. Every newsroom in America gets piles of freebies, most of slight value, sent in the hopes the product might turn up, by name, in a story down the road. Among the things in my own house that I didn’t pay for: An apron with the “Hell’s Kitchen” logo on it, a blue bowl and a single spoon (part of a cereal promotion), T-shirts galore, an airline-size bottle of Chivas Regal, books, bookazines, oh my the list goes on.
Different newsrooms have different distribution policies for this stuff. In Columbus, it all went into a drawer, and when we had enough for everyone in the department to get one or two pieces, we drew lots on a Friday and distributed it amongst ourselves. In Fort Wayne, whoever opened the mail would stand up and say, “Anyone want a bowl and a spoon?” or “Anyone want a banana bread mix?” or “Anyone want a T-shirt?” and if no one said yes, it went into a pile and either found a home later or went into the trash. The other paper held a semiannual sale, and the money went to a good cause, or maybe the newsroom flower fund, I can’t recall. Later, we had an editor who thought that, ethically, she was beyond reproach, and the rule became: All gifts, no matter how small and crappy, must be donated to charity. And so every quarter or so someone would have to drag a box of junk, most of it useless, to the United Way office. Sources say they rarely smiled when they saw us coming, as I doubt there was a pressing need among their client base for giant buttons that played the Purdue fight song.
You may notice something: No one ever opened the bowl-and-spoon box and said, “Wow! Great idea! Let’s do a story on cereal!” or “You know, this banana bread mix is just the thing for the busy homemaker with no time to smash ripe bananas! Get right on it, cub reporter!” It is safe to say we are thoroughly jaded about this crap. (Although mainly that’s a matter of degree. I’ve been on fashion-writer outings where there were drawings for diamond jewelry or designer clothes, and there was no jadedness there, I regret to say.)
I should pause here to note that this applies only to newspapers. Magazines are another breed of cat, particularly fashion magazines, which have a much cozier relationship with their advertisers. We all saw “The Devil Wears Prada.” I’m told the movie oversold the legendary Vogue sample closet, but only in the sense that it implied staffers were free to plunder it at will. They are not.
Anyway, here’s my point, a few hundred words later: Bloggers, some of whom are amateur journalists, are the new recipients of the banana bread mix and pomegranate juice, and some of whom don’t know you’re supposed to disclose how it came into your kitchen, as well as noting that they didn’t give it to you because they like your smiling face. Someone on Facebook noted the other day that the travel-writing game is already filling with professional PR people who have no qualms whatsoever about recommending a resort with crummy food or dirty bathrooms, because hey, they got a free vacation. It’s buyer beware all over again.
That said, there’s a restaurant in Sterling Heights here with a signature drink — the pomegranate martini. God, is it good. I don’t know what they make it with.
There’s a new resident at Coozledad’s Vegetarian Farm and Petting Zoo, and lordy, is he ever cute. I think his difficulty coming into the world was due to that adorable Disneyesque punkin head of his. Also, watch the YouTube link, just in case you’re called upon to assist a laboring Holstein.
Roy drops in on Brother Dreher, and finds his readers discussing where to move when they abandon Obama’s Amerikkka. Remember all that right-wing jeering about Alec Baldwin’s threat to move to Canada? Yeah, me too.
Oh, and just in case you missed this when Moe posted it in comments over the weekend: Extreme shepherding. Really entertaining video.
Me, I’m off to edit citizen journalism. Because I’m crazy that way.