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The James Beard Journalism Awards Still Favor Privilege Over Diversity

As long as food writers are required to pay a steep entry fee, the majority of voices will be left out of the conversation

james beard award
james beard award
James Beard Foundation

Earlier this week, the James Beard Foundation (JBF) announced that it is making a series of changes to its annual award selection process for 2019 in an attempt to make the so-called “Oscars of food” more diverse and inclusive. While some alterations are wholly positive, like eliminating the uber-insular Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America, others seem like little more than lip service — particularly for food journalists. One of these changes, as first reported by the New York Times, is waiving the $150-per-story submission fee for first-time award entrants as a means of “attracting new voices.”

Almost immediately, in text messages and on social media, culinary writers — the very people the JBF is, ostensibly, trying to help — started talking about how the shift seems somewhat haphazard. In addition to the fee waiver for first-time entrants, the Beards will welcome early submissions in the cookbook, broadcast, and design categories by waving the entry fee entirely. But restaurateurs and chefs continue to be able to nominate themselves for free, while journalists and food writers outside the narrow number of first-time entrants will still be required to shell out money to be considered. And any entry fee at all means that the awards continue to be a pay-to-play system that ensures the majority of voices are left out of the conversation.

For those not in the industry, it might be hard to see how much a James Beard Award can mean to a food writer. Though anyone with access to the internet can write about food — self-publishing has democratized media, mostly for the better — a Beard Foundation nomination or win opens many, many doors, especially for young writers and editors who otherwise might not be noticed by the industry. Award winners can command higher rates, more lucrative book deals, and access to chefs and contacts they might otherwise never have met.

But the $150 submission fee for the chance to even be nominated for a Beard award — let alone win — is ludicrously high, and as such has long been exclusionary for writers from underrepresented communities, freelancers, and those just starting out. Freelance writers are notoriously underpaid, with one study by Payscale reporting that the average annual take home pay is $38,915, or just over $24 per hour.

The first time I submitted a piece for the Beards on my own dime, I had been paid $300 for it — total — so lost half my income just for the chance to win a prestigious, and hopefully career-boosting, award. I had to weigh the cost against the other things $150 could go toward — rent, groceries, electric bills, health insurance — and finally, tentatively, decided to go through with it. I wasn’t nominated, and probably should’ve just bought groceries. Another year, I truly couldn’t justify spending the money, and my parents gave me the entry fee as my Christmas present. (I wasn’t nominated then, either.)

The Beards are the tip of the iceberg of a sprawling, complex field (journalism) that’s historically easier to navigate if you’re someone of means. I was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky, and have never lived in New York City, the country’s major media hub. It might sound a little naive, but I have always been surprised — and, honestly, continue to be — by just how many of my peers were able to take unpaid or low-paying internships as a first step towards breaking into the industry. Food journalism — all journalism, really — continues to assume that all its writers have a safety net of monetary support to fall back on, or are young and hungry enough to take whatever’s given and gut it out in hopes of one day being invited into the inner sanctum of a staff job (or those dwindling publications that offer a dollar a word). Do you have an aging parent to care for and, in turn, can’t pay your own travel to report a story? Can’t afford daycare on the $200 offered for a heavily-reported, 2,000-word story that takes a month of research? That’s a personal issue, the industry will tell you, so you’re out of luck. But don’t worry, there’s always someone else out there who is willing to do it on the cheap.

The roots of the barrier-to-entry issues in food journalism might run deep, and this plays out in other media awards, as well. The American Society of Magazine Editors charges an absurd $395 per entry, while the Online Journalism Awards costs $175 to enter. (The contest entry for the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism is a comparatively low $50.) But there is an opportunity for the James Beard Foundation, as a highly visible platform in food media, to set an example — and that could start by completely waiving the submission fee for writers.

As several writers suggested on Twitter, the Beards could allow writers to submit their stories for free — all writers, regardless of previous entry — while continuing to charge a fee for publications. If they’re really worried about the coffers running dry by losing out on writer submission money, there could be a nominal fee for those journalists who are previous award winners. And if some kind of fee is an absolute must, they could make more concerted efforts to offer financial assistance to freelancers or more-seasoned writers with limited means.

But I know — and have long known — the system is rigged towards the well-off: the legacy food publications and the deeply insular community of writers and editors in cities like New York continue control the tides of award-giving and, more importantly, who is even given the chance to tell their story in the first place.

And I know, though we’ve made baby steps towards greater diversity and inclusion over the past couple of years, that without a great upswell of writers who are willing to stand up to machinations of a well-oiled food prestige machine, it’s likely that paltry offerings — like, say, waving a $150 award fee for first-timer submitters — will continue to be seen by groups like the Beards as very forward-thinking and generous. But until the Beards are accessible to everyone who is courageous enough to submit their story for consideration — freelancer or staffer, just-started-out or seasoned veteran — the award is nothing more than a shiny necklace of privilege.

Update, October 5, 1:32 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect that the entrance fee for the Pulitzers is $50, per entry, not free.

Sarah Baird is a writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, GQ, The Guardian, The Atlantic and more. She divides her time between New Orleans and Kentucky.