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Across the Nation, Restaurant Critics a Casualty in the Demise of Newspapers

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Photo: Times-Picayune

The national demise of print media is an inevitable, swirling vortex. Over the past few years, thousands of newspaper employees have lost their jobs, and whole sections of papers have been gutted or shuttered. The collateral damage is an absolute decimation of local coverage — including restaurant reviews — in dozens of newspapers across the country.

As newspapers scale back their operations, full-time restaurant critics are being shown the door. Just yesterday, the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune laid off the Beard Award-winning New Orleans critic Brett Anderson. Anderson is one of many restaurant critics to have been laid off or have accepted a buyout in recent years.

It all comes down to money: reviewing is an expensive operation. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema once estimated he spends about $70,000 a year dining out on the paper's dime. A full-time restaurant critic is also a position that's considered more expendable than, say, political reporting, and a mighty attractive job for budget-slicing newspaper executives to cut.

In their absence, diners aren't left with many options: papers have replaced full-time reviewers with part-time staff reviewers (or sporadic freelancers). Sometimes it seems as though newspapers have maintained the same volume of coverage, but they've actually replaced veteran writers and reviewers with cheaper, less-experienced staff. In many cases, once the major daily paper cuts back its reviews, the only game left in town is a cash-strapped alt-weekly. Some cities have access to the user-generated (and somewhat unreliable) dining guides like Zagat; others are left with the rantings of their neighbors on Yelp.

Big cities in America are losing restaurant coverage and criticism faster than you can say "Print is dead." What remains are a few big papers with name critics still chugging along and a smattering of freelancers doing limited coverage elsewhere. There are large cities — such as Portland, Austin, and now New Orleans — with bustling restaurant scenes left with meager coverage. Below, an examination of the decimated state of America's food criticism.

Los Angeles

Population: 3,792,621
The Wreckage: The Los Angeles Times Food section has gone from eight pages to three pages in the last four years. If that weren't bad enough, they then made major cuts to the Food section this Spring when it got wrapped into a sort of catchall Saturday Section, which includes Home and Health as well. The Times also cut long-time short review critic Linda Burum. Burum now occasionally reviews restaurants for LA Weekly.
Status: Both S. Irene Virbila and former LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold review restaurants for the Times; reviews have been cut back from every week to every other week. Besha Rodell, formerly of Creative Loafing in Atlanta (more on that later), picked up Gold's position at LA Weekly.

San Francisco

Population: 805,235
The Wreckage: Patricia Unterman, critic for the San Francisco Examiner for 20 years, was laid off this Spring by Canadian publisher Black Company, which cut the staff in half. San Francisco has seen a good number of critic shuffles this Spring, although not all of them are confirmed to budget cuts. Still, see: Jonathan Kauffman formerly of SF Weekly (who decamped for Tasting Table) and Paul Reidinger of the San Francisco Bay Guardian (who was let go).
Status: Michael Bauer's holding strong at the San Francisco Chronicle and reviewing weekly, SF Weekly is trying out a series of "interim reviewers," Jesse Hirsch writes weekly for The Examiner, and Virginia Miller is reviewing weekly for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Atlanta

Population: 420,003
The Wreckage: Creative Loafing critic Besha Rodell left Atlanta for Los Angeles and LA Weekly after being asked if she would consider writing on a freelance basis.
Status: John Kessler reviews weekly at the Atlanta Journal Constitution; there's also Bill Addison, who reviews monthly at Atlanta Magazine.

Boston

Population: 617,594
The Wreckage: Reviewer Mat Schaffer was one of four employees to take a buyout from the Boston Herald last year.
Status: Devra First is reviewing for the Boston Globe weekly, Robert Nadeau reviews for the Boston Phoenix every week to two weeks, MC Slim JB reviews for STUFF every other week, B.N. Lee reviews for The Improper Bostonian monthly, and Corby Kummer reviews for Boston Magazine, also monthly.

New York City

Population: 8,175,133
The Wreckage: New York has actually had a fair amount of success holding on to its restaurant critics, but has seen a few cuts. Gael Greene was ousted from New York Magazine after 40 years of reviewing in 2008. The New York Daily News dropped Danyelle Freeman (AKA Restaurant Girl) in 2009; just today a new critic, Stan Sagner, popped up at the NYDN with no warning.
Status: Going strong: Pete Wells at the New York Times, Robert Sietsema and Tejal Rao for Village Voice, Adam Platt for New York, Jay Cheshes for Time Out New York, Gael Greene is doing her own thing on her website Insatiable Critic, a handful of folks review for the New Yorker, Ryan Sutton reviews for Bloomberg and Steve Cuozzo writes for the New York Post.

Portland, Oregon

Population: 583,776
The Wreckage Portland is kind of a hot mess. So, The Oregonian laid off restaurant critic Karen Brooks in February of 2010. (She's now the restaurant editor at Portland Monthly, where she also reviews.) Roger Porter, who reviewed as a freelancer for the Oregonian, was also laid off in August of 2010 due to "shifting coverage." And then another freelancer for the Oregonian, Michael C. Zusman was (wait for it) also let go in September of 2011.
Status: The Oregonian runs weekly reviews and has two reviewers: critic/restaurant reporter Michael Russell and David Sarasohn (who reviews bi-monthly). Karen Brooks reviews monthly at Portland Monthly and Chris Onstad reviews for the Portland Mercury.

Austin

Population: 790,390
The Wreckage: Almost exactly a year ago, Austin American-Statesman's full-time critic Mike Sutter took a buyout. His replacement, Matt Odam, covers other topics for the Statesman as well and only reviews about twice a month.
The Status: Sutter went on to review restaurants on his own website, Fed Man Walking. Odam reviews every other week for the Statesman (although he tells Eater there's a possibility that will increase). Food editor Virginia B. Wood writes reviews monthly for the alt-weekly Austin Chronicle and is supplemented weekly by reviews from freelancers.

New Orleans

Population: 343,829
The Wreckage: As mentioned previously, critic Brett Anderson was one of the 200 employees laid off at the Times-Picayune yesterday. Eater NOLA editor Alexander Hancock notes, "Anderson was going to be on hiatus for a Nieman Fellowship starting in August though, so possibly there is a replacement situation already in the works. Though it's unclear if it'll just be freelancers or something more substantial."
Status: Currently developing, but beyond Anderson, New Orleans has Ian McNulty reviewing weekly at the alt-weekly The Gambit and Tom Fitzmorris reviewing for CityBusiness, also weekly.

So what now? Do big city restaurant scenes even need professional critics to thrive? Seattle Weekly critic Hanna Raskin made the point that Portland is "doing just fine without an Anton Ego type issuing culinary decrees." Maybe removing the negativity that comes with some reviews creates a positive, loving environment that fosters creativity.

But then again, left to their own devices, will cities become overrun with writhing hordes of extortionist Yelpers making a bunch of noise? Gurgling Cod posits the masses are not eager to disrupt the status quo and often "reader comments by definition represent conventional wisdom, which is what makes advertisers comfortable." (Which is probably why the same restaurants rank highly on Zagat over and over.) The public needs critics to force them not to overlook that strip mall mom-and-pop, or to give them the tough news that their favorite landmark restaurants are slipping.

Restaurants need critics for the same reason: reviews, even negative ones, can be good for them. Positive reviews obviously generate diners, money, and boost team morale. Bad reviews are also important: They can be seen as a challenge, a call for constant improvement (and the fear of bad reviews keeps restaurateurs on their toes). San Francisco chef Dominique Crenn told Eater, "It gives us a goal to strive for, to correct whatever may have been wrong, to make something that may have been a hindrance into something great."

After restaurant critics are gone, will chefs and restaurants see bad Yelp reviews as goals to strive for? Can sporadic reviews from freelancers provide the constructive criticism a restaurant scene needs to thrive? And who will provide diners with the type of consumer advocacy they need? As newspapers continue to flounder and dining coverage dwindles, the country will soon find out.

· All Critics Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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