Session #86 – Beer Journalism: Looking to the Future.

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This post contains a number of firsts. It is the first time I have participated in The Session, “a monthly beer blogging get together founded by Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin and Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer” as my friend and Session idea adviser Heather Vandenengel noted. This project has been going on for years, with 86 derivations, but I’ve never actually participated for a variety of reasons.

This post also marks my first substantive return to the BeerScribe website in more than a year. Perhaps my absence is due to Twitter and the draw of its brevity and ease of use, the allure of paid work, or that the medium of blogging about beer just strikes me as dated. In any event, time to address Heather’s selected topic: beer journalism.

I have written about beer journalism or beer writing many, many times in the past. Most of my posts have addressed a variety of ethical issues, including the old Beer Journalism Awards, the ethics of paid travel, beer blogger conferences, and more macro reviews of beer writing and journalism generally. I’m not sure whether I’ve written more than anyone else on these subjects of little interest (it took 86 Sessions to get here, of course), but I’ve written more than 20 posts on the subject totaling more than 10,000 words. I actually suggested that The Session take on the subject of beer writing and ethics more than two years ago. So I’m pleased to participate.

So suffice it to say I don’t want to rehash what I’ve already written. So with that in mind, let’s look to Heather’s questions for new direction.

It starts with an issue, posed by Jacob McKean of the Modern Times Brewery in San Diego, as sort of a throwaway comment in an article in which he opined: “In an industry with an almost total absence of real journalism, the cheerleading is virtually indistinguishable from the “reporting.’” Followed up by some guy named Gregg on a website who with uncommon restraint added:

“I absolutely hate beer journalism. And I hate beer journalists – subhumans all of them, no matter how well-written their sanctimonious brown-nosing fluff is, beer journalism has almost always been a tepid affair; a moribund endeavor due to its singular objective to flatter and promote, without ever scratching beneath the surface.”

Let’s begin with the underlying premise here: that beer journalism actually exists. I’m not sure I agree that it does or that it is practiced by a sufficient number of individuals as to constitute a substantial and meaningful entity. Perhaps semantic in its nature, some understanding of the terms that we are trying to use in parsing this subject is required.

When discussing the subjects underlying this edition of The Session, participants often toss around terms such as journalist, critic, reporter, and blogger interchangeably. And I think this is where a lot of the trouble starts. For ease of use, I’ve consulted Wikipedia for its definitions of a few key terms. For journalists and journalism, Wikipedia suggests:

A journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information. A journalist’s work is referred to as journalism.

For a reporter, Wikipedia adds:

A reporter is a type of journalist who researches, writes, and reports on information to present in sources, conduct interviews, engage in research, and make reports. The information-gathering part of a journalist’s job is sometimes called reporting, in contrast to the production part of the job such as writing articles. Reporters may split their time between working in a newsroom and going out to witness events or interview people. Reporters may be assigned a specific beat or area of coverage.

Depending on the context, the term journalist may include various types of editors, editorial writers, columnists, and visual journalists, such as photojournalists (journalists who use the medium of photography).

Let’s process these terms separately from that of a blogger or hobbyist or amateur writer. I understand that in this new Internet age that many may chafe at suggesting that bloggers or hobbyist writers can’t be journalists and that is a debate worth having…in another Session.

I am a journalist and reporter by education and training. In college, I studied in a journalism school and graduated with a degree in journalism and mass communication, with a major in magazine writing. During school, we were required to take courses related to professional ethics and legal obligations and limitations. One of the subjects that we discussed involved a long running debate over whether the ultimate goal of journalism and reporting is to seek the truth and to publish it (as my college newspaper editor used to tell us) or to strive to be objective and show “both sides” of a story. These debates raise very difficult and crucial questions for individuals who are concerned with either presenting or receiving information and news. And these topics are certainly germane to the concept and practice of beer journalism.

I make my living as a writer (both in covering the beer industry and as an attorney). In my freelance writing, I wear many hats. Depending on the assignment and market, I work as a critic, journalist, or reporter. Regardless of my role, the information I provide in my articles, columns, or posts has to be true. That is the core principle. In my writing as a monthly columnist for BeerAdvocate, my job is to (hopefully) write thought provoking pieces, sometimes against conventional wisdom, about the craft beer industry. I often take controversial stands (keeping in mind the context that this is beer writing and not war reporting) and frequently criticize players, subjects, or things that many people celebrate. In the fourteen years I have been professionally writing about beer, I have had scores of people disagree with my positions or opinions. I am proud to never have had anyone question my facts. I work hard to spell the brewery’s name correctly (is it Brewery or Brewing Company?). I seek out information from the people involved, understanding that there is rarely only two sides to any story. I travel widely and frequently to capture the full picture of a brewery, brewer, or beer. I try not to be too steadfast in my opinions, recognizing that circumstances (and even my palate) change and evolve over time. I also always try to offer constructive criticism as opposed to just lobbing anonymous rhetorical bombs. I also take the subject seriously. I do not use the word ‘brew’ to refer to beer, only to an act.

The lines of journalism, reporting, and ethics, however, blur when it comes to the subject of blogging and writing in less professionally structured settings or as amateurs and hobbyists. And Wikipedia again comes to the rescue:

Journalism has developed a variety of ethics and standards. While objectivity and a lack of bias are of primary concern and importance, more liberal types of journalism, such as advocacy journalism and activism, intentionally adopt a non-objective viewpoint. This has become more prevalent with the advent of social media and blogs, as well as other platforms that are used to manipulate or sway social and political opinions and policies. These platforms often project extreme bias, as “sources” are not always held accountable or considered necessary in order to produce a written, televised or otherwise “published” end product.

In the early days of beer journalism, there was Michael Jackson. There was Fred Eckhardt. And there were a few others. They were symbols, loud voices shouting over and trying to make sense of an increasingly chaotic and emerging band of (what would eventually come to be called) craft brewers. The times were heady, all over the place, and a lot of fun. As craft brewing grew, a second generation of writers emerged, including Stan Hieronymus, Lisa Morrison, Lew Bryson, Stephen Beaumont, James Robertson, Alan Eames, Lucy Saunders, Ray Daniels, Randy Mosher, Jay Brooks, Will Anderson, Vince Cottone, and many, many others. Some of these individuals practiced journalism. Others wrote encyclopedic tomes of tasting notes or regional travel guides. Some were industry based writers, others professional writers, and the remaining were enthusiasts. These individuals helped broaden and deepen writing about American (and foreign) craft brewing.

Since their emergence, a few other generations of writers have developed, including myself. For those of us in these early generations, we frequently looked back to our more experienced peers for direction and to some extent thinking on beer, for better or worse. This provided some easy measure of knowledge (good), but led to some measure of homogeneity of thought (not so good), and to the recounting of many incorrect facts and even myths about beer (really not good).

In the era of the Internet, with the advent of blogging, beer website forums, and Twitter, few beer writers (whether they be professional or amateur, journalists or bloggers) seem to understand or appreciate these earlier generations of writers, where every last detail was not available at the flick of a finger. I intend this with no measure of curmudgeonly complaint. Every era begets this way of thinking, an ever recurring lament of those who come after you and yours. It’s just different, no better or worse.

In this new era of beer writing, with all of its advances in technology and information, we are still left with some very old and unanswered questions. And to my mind these questions strike at the core of Heather’s Session topic and to the future success of beer writing and to the industry it seeks to cover. These questions largely relate back to those raised by our guides, Jacob McKean and the elusive Gregg as interpreted by Heather: what is the role that beer writers should play in the culture and advancement of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers?

Despite all I have said and written on the subject in the past, I can only speak for myself and the principles that I attempt to follow in my writing. Whether as a columnist for BeerAdvocate Magazine or in writing a 3000 word article on trademark law and disputes in the craft beer industry as a journalist/reporter for All About Beer Magazine or on Twitter, I seek to be correct about my facts. I do this because I want my readers to be confident in the information that I provide to them and because I know my editors both expect this of me and will check them before publishing.

I have opinions and I often express them in my writing. If I’m writing a column for BeerAdvocate or a post for my website, I will report some facts and then base and draw my opinions from them. In some markets, such as the reporting piece I wrote recently for All About Beer, my opinions have no place. I then go to sources and ask their thoughts. There is of course no small measure of my own personal selectivity in choosing which voices to include. As there is never a mere set of only two sides to a story, such editing will always be required. It is called editorial decisionmaking. That is a subject, however, entirely separate from the issue of bias.

And this is where the real trouble resides in my opinion. With all of the above in mind, and regardless of whether you’re an amateur blogger or a professional journalist, one point remains true: it is crucial to understand the relationship between a writer or communicator and his subject. This is true for every participant in the process, whether an editor, writer, brewer, or reader. If everyone involved remains on equal footing in terms of this understanding, a lot of the headaches would be more easily resolved.

The solution here is an obvious one but one rarely employed: sunshine. Light. Disclosure. Putting your audience on notice of possible conflicts of interest, bias, or more importantly, a perceived possibility of such. The test is not subjective. It is not whether you believe you are biased for or against something. It is whether your readers, listeners, audience, or any other participant would want to know a particular detail about yourself, your involvement, or the story that might color or inform their view of your presentation of what are hopefully facts.

Almost six years ago, I wrote about the subject of the nature of the relationship between beer writers and the industry they cover, and the concerns raised thereby:

It is my belief that this lack of ethical guidelines has caused beer writing to lack professionalism. This state of affairs contributes to a general absence of respect for the trade of beer writing. And where beer writing is not respected, the subject of coverage, namely the business of brewing, suffers. For a long time, it seems as if writers and brewers didn’t quite know what to make of one another. Sometimes hesitant to interact, brewers expected positive coverage from the writers. In return, writers quietly expected special treatment, be it the occasional free beer, meal, or access to events. The relationship eventually grew quite cozy, with the two groups serving each other’s interests quite well. The problem with this incestuous relationship is that the consumers never figured into the equation.

For journalists, one professional organization has advised that “[j]ournalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.” A pretty amorphous pronouncement to be sure. To clarify, the code of the Society of Professional Journalists explains:

Journalists should:
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

In an earlier version of the North American Guild of Beer Writers ethical guidelines, it asked members to avoid conflicts of interest.

Examples of conflicts of interest include (but are not limited to) the following: a) Writers, while employed in a public relations or spokesperson capacity, also writing about clients, client’s products, client’s competitors, or sponsoring organizations, in an editorial capacity, without also disclosing current employment;

These issues frequently arise in modern beer writing, whether it be in the form of a beer writer taking undisclosed PR side gigs with breweries or having the president of the Brewers Association, an importer, and a brewer reviewing beers from other breweries in All About Beer Magazine. While these are obvious conflicts and it would be wise to replace them with less obviously conflicted parties, at a minimum disclosure of the obvious conflicts should be provided to the audience. Providing such information allows the consumer to contextualize the information he or she is being provided by the conflicted source.

That would be the ideal standard. In the real world, we usually end up with no acknowledgment of the conflict. That is a problem and until resolved will continue to depreciate the value that beer writers seek to offer. Plain and simple.

The same goes for freebies, whether in the form of a beer sample or a paid trip. It would be ideal if we lived in a world that so respected beer writing that publications and media outlets were willing to underwrite the expenses of reporters. That is largely not the world in which we operate so we are left with the only key to a solution that we have: disclosure. If you receive a beer sample and write about it, ‘fess up (“Sample provided by brewery.”) If a brewery, distributor, or importer flies you and a group of other writers to Belgium, pays for your travel and hotels, drives you from brewery to brewery and bar to bar, all the while plying you with beer (let alone multiple times in a few months), you damned better well make sure to disclose that to your readers. If we don’t achieve disclosure in these more serious, later examples—and we often don’t—then I’m not sure how we expect that to trickle down to less professional outlets.

In 2008, the late Bill Brand commented on a story I wrote on ethics in the beer writing community as it relates to disclosure and I think his words maintain their weight today on a wide swath of what I’ve tried to address here:

I started writing about beer in the late 1980s and watched other people who wrote about beer get free trips everywhere. It harkened (is there really such a word?) back to the days when journalists weren’t paid very well and everything was furnished by concerned companies.)
But my company, in those days the Oakland Tribune under editor Bob Maynard, had a strict no freebies policy. I also wrote for the New York Times and once had a story on whale watching killed because I took a free two hour whale watching trip. Didn’t want that to happen again. So I stayed rooted in Oakland, traveling only to the GABF always paying my own way. I turned down my share of offers. Then about 10 years ago, Interbrew offered me a trip to Belgium. I dithered and dithered and finally decided, what the hell, I’ve never been to Belgium and took ‘em up on the trip. I didn’t consult anyone at my company (Bob Maynard was dead and a mega-corporation owned the paper). When I got back — I wrote a big piece on a great beer dinner in Bruges. We published a note on the story that the dinner was part of a trip to Belgium paid for by Interbrew and the Belgian Tourist Board. Since then, I’ve taken a handful of free trips and each time when I write something, I simply say: Full Disclosure. This trip was underwritted by blah-blah. Yes, I feel a bit uncomfortable. Yes, it can put one in a compromising position and if you say it doesn’t, I say, hmmm. But when the alternative is not going, and it’s a really big deal, I’ll do it. And you know what, these days no editor has ever complained. About the New York Times, I dunno. Their pay was mostly in prestige and a bit short in the cash department, like most print outlets. Let’s face the facts. You’ve got to have an independent source of income and badly need a tax deduction, if you’re always going to pay your own way. In the newspaper world, with the net crashing down on us, the chances of getting a travel advance for a beer junket are remote, indeed. It’s a lousy situation and the danger for beer writers is we can become kind of house pets for the big breweries, etc. I don’t know the economics of the beer brewspapers and magazines, but it would be nice if they could pay more, wouldn’t it.

In terms of non-professional journalists, I think disclosure is an important thing as well. We are starting to see an increase in brand strategists and paid brand storytellers and although their content is often interesting and even compelling, the audience rarely understands the nature of the financial relationships and conflicts of interest underlying such presentations.

In terms of what I would like to see for the future it would have to be the expansion of thoughtful, fact based criticism of the craft beer industry. I don’t mean bitching about everything you don’t like. Instead, I enjoy reading works by thoughtful individuals who spend time contemplating how the industry can provide better flavors, better information, better customer experiences, to expand its reach and to generally be better. Despite what is often said, people in an around the craft beer industry do not always have to stand in lockstep agreement on every subject or otherwise hold their tongues when even mild disagreements arise. In my view, advancement and betterment come through thoughtful reflection, consideration, and debate, not through passivity, head nodding, and thoughtless uniformity.

For professional writers, we should certainly not acquiesce to becoming mere cheerleaders or fluffers for the industry we cover. We may be friends with some or many of the people we cover (this is a convivial industry to be sure) but sometimes hard truths are inevitable. We also shouldn’t strive to select only positive stories. There is no shortage of important (context again noted) issues facing craft beer and our responsibility is to our respective audiences, not to the people we write about.

For amateur writers, criticism is about expressing opinion that is based in some underlying basis of fact and experience. If you don’t like dark beers, don’t castigate every porter you come across as crap. That’s not criticism. You just don’t like the style. And that’s fine. If you hated baseball, you wouldn’t keep going to Mariners games and complaining about every pitch. That’s tedious madness. If you have an issue with a particular brewery or beer, get your facts straight and then present them in a thoughtful and constructive manner. Just saying something sucks sucks.

As to the final bits of the Session topic, I wrote a few years ago about the types of beer writing that I enjoy reading. And I’m happy to say we’re starting to see a decline in beer reviews as the medium, and an uptick in longer form writing and interviews. In terms of actual writers, I certainly respect a large stable of professionals and amateurs alike. In recent weeks, I have particularly enjoyed the thoughts of Jason Notte and my buddies Joe Stange and our host Heather (see, disclosure there).

I’m also looking forward to a new era of beer book and magazine writing. Longer form, more narrative in nature, and with elements of storytelling as opposed to the same encyclopedic tomes that writers have been regurgitating for the better part of thirty years. Can we agree to not write any more books with tasting notes or descriptions of beers? (As someone who has somewhat recently written one, I will take the pledge). It’s time to tell stories, to dig deep, to root out new information, to expose new voices, and to report it in fun and innovative ways. Only then will beer journalism help broaden the appeal of the subject about which we all care so deeply.

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