To conclude, I have been torn. My natural love of free food conflicts with my professional ethics, drilled into me at four years of journalism school. So I posted this dilemma in my food writing class chatroom. Wilma, a former NPR reporter, said she would rather starve than eat a free biscuit. Molly, the class instructor and a veteran food writer, responded:
In principle I agree with Wilma 100%. But as an on-the-ground food writer who has worked on-staff and as a freelancer I can say that those standards are unrealistic for all but a very few.
Some news outlets still have budgets for their food staff to expense everything – restaurant meals, new products, etc. But even at Sunset we took free meals (and more) and were encouraged to find ways to get them to save money. I would never review a restaurant that had comped me, but I have written up plenty of them (and also not written up ones that didn’t work for a story or weren’t good, etc.).
When you’re already writing a story about someone, it isn’t uncommon for them to feed you (for free) in the process. The food world is full of generous, hospitable people – the line between a comped meal and someone feeding you as part of getting to know them is sometimes difficult to discern (especially since they are often the same thing).
Okay then. I can live with that. In an era where publications have no budgets, in a warm and fuzzy medium like food writing, the industry standard is comped meals. And if it is a common practice, I won’t feel like I’m selling out for a free hoagie. With that, I am off to meet Muriel Goldberg for a gratis Italian dinner. (SK is joining, for backup.)