What’s up with the Xpress Food section?

I have read Mountain Xpress with interest on a regular basis for about two years. I always turn first to the "Letters" and "Food" sections. Considering myself a serious "foodie" as well as a frequent patron of Asheville eateries, I expect to find in your Food column reviews that are selective, discriminating and informative upon which I can base educated decisions. I cannot recall ever reading a critical, much less negative, restaurant review. Please explain this apparent bias in the Food section.

— Clara B. Jones
Asheville

Editor’s response:

Xpress printed critical restaurant reviews for years, and we found it was more problematic than constructive. The idea of one person as authority on subjective topics is somewhat outmoded, particularly when our goal is to generate constructive dialogue about our local community. In our effort to inform and stir the pot, as it were, we’ve shifted to a mix of food news and in-depth features, along with our beer column and collaborations with ASAP. Additionally, our website’s food section gives readers the option to share their thoughts on local restaurants and trends.

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33 thoughts on “What’s up with the Xpress Food section?

  1. Dramaturg

    “The idea of one person as authority on subjective topics is somewhat outmoded . . .”

    Uh,oh, this doesn’t bode well for the theatre reviews section.
    And that darn Sam Sifton hasn’t got the memo yet. Nor have Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

  2. Libby Sparks

    “The idea of one person as authority on subjective topics is somewhat outmoded”

    Hmm… yet other features like Cranke Hanke continue to be published weekly and are frequently the most discussed sections of the paper. I guess it’s a lot easier to publish one person’s authoritative take on a topic that is purely subjective when the subject being reviewed does not patronize the paper’s ad sections or live anywhere near Buncombe County, right?

    Let’s be honest: the real reason Xpress does not publish critical/honest restaurant and beer reviews is that the editors are too worried it will scare off advertisers, especially in a time when print journalism needs ad revenue more than ever to survive. It’s a totally understandable position to take. Sad, and unfortunate for your readers who crave something a little more serious, but understandable all the same. Just don’t feed us some line about how it’s not “constructive” and “outmoded” when other papers’ feature sections from all across the country continue to publish real food and drink reviews and thrive by doing so. It makes sense that a small paper is reluctant to publish critical reviews of local things in such a small town, but no one reads or cares about puff pieces, and as feature journalists, it’s your role to be honest and forthcoming with the readers about what is being reviewed. Otherwise, it serves little purpose to the common reader.

  3. Jeff Fobes

    Libby Sparks makes good points. But as a “publisher” in the 21st century, I’d like to point out to her that there are no “common readers” left. She, too, can publish readily on the Internet.

    It is true that it’s easier to critique nonlocal things like films, hence Hanke’s hegemonistic rule over the Xpress movie section.

    So it would be less than honest to say our hesitancy to critiquing local restaurants is solely about eschewing publication of “one person’s authoritative take.” But it’s also not true to conclude that we’re simply afraid of hurt our ad revenue. Machiavelli and I both agree that it is a factor.

    But, honestly, as honestly as I know how to be, the biggest reason we discontinued our prior practice of publishing one food critic’s views is our heartfelt desire to help our community find its way to excellence — in this case, restaurant excellence.

    Hanke will never mortally wound a film by his scathing reviews. But if you try to launch a restaurant in Asheville — be you amazing or mediocre — I don’t think one person should decide your fate by trashing your food. This isn’t New York City, with millions of clients and scores of publications and reviewers.

    Xpress tries to inform and do so honestly. You may have to read between the lines; you may have to infer; you may have to join the social media conversations on Twitter and the blogosphere. But you can get the information you need — though perhaps not by being a “common reader.”

    And having seen the passion and professionalism that Xpress’ reporters bring to their beats, includng Mackensie Lunsford to the food scene, I believe you’re getting remarkable media reporting via Xpress.

    If you want better, then the Internet awaits you. But if you do publish, watch for Xpress to add you to its Blogwire feed, since we applaud active members of the community joining the dialogue.

    Meanwhile, thanks for giving us a hard time. It should make us all the better.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Hanke will never mortally wound a film by his scathing reviews

    God knows, I’ve tried. I have, however, helped a few I think. Generally speaking, a critic can help get someone go to see a movie they might not otherwise see, but I’ve rarely seen a critic keep people from going to a movie they’re already interested in — despite what some movie fans tend to believe when something they like isn’t praised or even isn’t praised enough. I doubt very much I stopped a single person from going to Transformers.

  5. Libby Sparks

    Thanks for addressing my response, Jeff. I have a few extra thoughts.

    ” But as a “publisher” in the 21st century, I’d like to point out to her that there are no “common readers” left. She, too, can publish readily on the Internet.”

    While this may be true in a general sense, the thing to keep in mind is that the weight of some random blogger’s opinion has a fraction of the validity in the general public’s mind than that of an official publication such as the Mountain Xpress. At some point the public still draws the line between internet blather and professional journalism, and they appreciate the difference. So don’t sell yourself short, the voice of the Xpress and other papers like it still commands attention on a level not afforded to bloggers, even if you are someone who frequents blogs and social media. And so pawning off journalistic honesty and candidness onto the social blogosphere is a slippery slope and quite a cop-out, in my opinion, and brings into question why the need even exists for a review section in the Xpress, other than to point readers in the direction of where they can find actual opinions on these topics.

    You are a professional news paper that reports to our community, and people pay attention to what you write. I think you would have a lot more trust and a lot more interest in many of your local reviews if you were a bit more honest and straightforward, and with all due respect I believe you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater by claiming “this isn’t New York City.” Just because we live in a relatively small city shouldn’t give the local alt-weekly carte blanche to shirk its journalistic duties. I don’t think readers are looking for blood, but they do expect some degree of leveling with the audience.

    Here’s an idea: why not do some variation on the official review/second opinion angle that many other publications do? If the main review isn’t very favorable, maybe provide a counterpoint where another writer ordered something different and really liked what they got. Or vice versa? And then provide an open forum for agreeing or disagreeing. You would have TONS of responses.

    It’s not a newspapers job to worry about hurting someone’s feelings, or hurting their business. It’s admirable that you feel it’s a genuine way to build community by writing glowing reviews of everything local, but at some point the features become more like regurgitated press releases than they do resembling anything that makes it worth our time on an informative level.

  6. Libby Sparks

    Also, I’m finding it a bit difficult to understand how you’re helping a local community of restaurants “find its way to excellence” by offering very little constructive criticism in these reviews. The only way a restaurant or group of restaurants improve is by listening to negatives and how they respond to those experiences. That’s just common sense. Talking only about the positive qualities of anything is not going to provide a path toward anything but status quo and complacency.

  7. Libby Sparks

    Finally, I find it striking that a news editor would admit in a public forum that readers have to sometimes “read between the lines” or “infer” to get the real scoop from the articles being written in their paper. Is this where journalism, even Features journalism, is nowdays? Amazing.

  8. Trey

    Welcome to politically correct asheville.

    Bringing mediocrity to a whole new level.

    p.s. if you consider yourself a serious “foodie”(lame)… you’re in the wrong city.

  9. Dionysis

    Mr. Fobes’ points make sense, but another question is: why are posts from readers commenting on restaurants based upon their own personal experience not allowed? Or at least not allowed if they reflect a negative view? Last year, for example, I wrote two posts in response to a Mtn.Xpress piece on a (then) new restaurant, ‘Lou’s Grub Shack’ on Leiscester Ave. The experiences I had (and the posts) were objective, but less than glowing. Neither were published. In fact, the place closed down in less than a year. Does the same rationale apply to reader posts?

    Just curious.

  10. But, honestly, as honestly as I know how to be, the biggest reason we discontinued our prior practice of publishing one food critic’s views is our heartfelt desire to help our community find its way to excellence — in this case, restaurant excellence.

    If you want Asheville to obtain “restaurant excellence,” wouldn’t critical reviews be a part of achieving that?

    As a place of business, I have had my fair share of criticism throughout the years. Some I have blown off as comments from crazy people, but many others I have taken to heart and made changes to be a better business. Maybe a follow-up review could show good faith from a restaurant?

    It is true that it’s easier to critique nonlocal things like films, hence Hanke’s hegemonistic rule over the Xpress movie section.

    And how do local films fare?

  11. Ken Hanke

    And how do local films fare?

    A not entirely reasonable comparison, since national movies are booked for a week at least and restaurants theoretically keep on going, but local films tend to get a single screening.

  12. Dionysis

    “Meanwhile, thanks for giving us a hard time. It should make us all the better.”

    To echo what Orbit DVD wrote, if giving you a hard time should make you better, wouldn’t restaurant criticisms help the establisment get better?

    I hadn’t initially planned on asking another question, but since my first one is still awaiting an answer (as simple a question as it was), might was well throw out another one.

  13. bill smith

    I think we all know Fobes real point is that the restaurants are so mediocre, that none could hold up to actual scrutiny. Plus, criticism doesnt promote ad dollars. Somehow I suspect that is related.

  14. Rebecca Sulock

    Just to clarify: Jeff Fobes is the publisher, not the news editor. I’m the managing A&E editor, and I edit the food section. Mackensy Lunsford is Xpress’ food reporter. Together, and with a variety of input from the community, we make decisions about what and how to cover. With more than 600 restaurants in our area (according to our 2011 Eats and Drinks Guide), that’s a lot of news to report.

    We try to get as much as we can online, and use our limited print space wisely. Do I want to use that print space to offer one person’s take on how one meal at a restaurant may or may not have pleased them? I don’t, really. I want to use that space for food news (of which we have more each week than we can possibly fit in), openings and closings, specials, trends, our beer column, our collaboration with ASAP, in-depth features and humor. Does that serve our community better? I’d argue, yes. Would you decide to go or not go to a restaurant based on what we wrote about a particular dish? I think folks around here have more of a daring spirit. We’ll tell them what’s out there, and they can try it for themselves.

    I’m open to hearing ways people think we can do things better, as we’re a constant work in progress. I welcome ideas and suggestions to rsulock(at)mountainx.com. Specifics are terrific.

    As to online reader comments critiquing Asheville’s food and restaurants, we’re open to allowing that so long as it’s done in a respectful way, and the commenters are registered site users.

  15. Dionysis

    “As to online reader comments critiquing Asheville’s food and restaurants, we’re open to allowing that so long as it’s done in a respectful way, and the commenters are registered site users.”

    I guess this must be in response to my question. The implication is that the posts were not done “in a respectful way” or that I was not a “registered site user.” Nothing could be further from the truth. My unpublished comments were based upon four visits to the particular establishment, each time ordering a different item (and in the company of co-workers who ordered other items as well, which we all sampled from one another’s plates). There was no bad language, no slurs nor anything else inappropriate. And I’ve been a registered user for a number of years now. So, in point of fact, none of those dis-qualifiers apply.

    Now, what other reasons might there be?

  16. Rebecca Sulock

    Dionysis, I’m not familiar with the comment you submitted, so I wasn’t speaking specifically to that. Just a general idea about food comments.

  17. Dionysis

    “Dionysis, I’m not familiar with the comment you submitted, so I wasn’t speaking specifically to that. Just a general idea about food comments.”

    Thank you for the prompt reply; it is appreciated. However, that leaves my original question still a question. I guess it will remain so.

  18. Rebecca Sulock

    Dionysis, I looked up the items we’d written about Lou’s Grub Shack (honestly, I’ve never heard of that place), and they were published before my time. Before Mackensy’s time, as well. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but moving forward, I can answer questions more effectively. I hope. :)

  19. Rebecca Sulock

    I can say that our comment policies have changed in the past 18 months, so that might account for it.

  20. Libby Sparks

    If he is indeed the publisher, then it makes his earlier comments about the paper’s and journalism standards in general even more surprising.

  21. Dionysis

    “Dionysis, I looked up the items we’d written about Lou’s Grub Shack (honestly, I’ve never heard of that place), and they were published before my time. Before Mackensy’s time, as well. I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but moving forward, I can answer questions more effectively. I hope. :)”

    Thank you for taking the time to look into it. It’s not a big deal, but I have been puzzled about why those posts were not allowed since it occurred, given that the MtnXpress published a piece on that place about a month or so after it opened, and readers could post on the article…well, SOME readers, it seems. I still believe that my comments, based upon real experiences, were denied publication because they were mildly negative and the article itself (although it was a fairly short piece) was almost a PR, ‘check it out’ kind of article, making it seem as if it was gastronomical Nirvana. It wasn’t, which is why it went under so quickly.

    IMO, the decision to censor the posts had nothing to do with violating any guidelines (none were). The real reason is open to speculation.

    The matter is old hat, but I admit it caused me to look at the MtnXpress differently afterwards. Especially when an inquiry as to why it was not posted was unanswered at the time. In fact, it’s never been answered.

  22. bill smith

    [i]IMO, the decision to censor the posts had nothing to do with violating any guidelines (none were).[/i[

    The ‘guidelines’ are loosely defined to allow arbitrary enforcement.

    This is quite evident to many of us here.

  23. Dionysis

    “The ‘guidelines’ are loosely defined to allow arbitrary enforcement”

    That certainly seems to be the case, given this guideline (which was dated March, 2009 and is still operational):

    “MountainX.com reserves the right to remove any user-generated content for any reason”

    Of course, in the case I mentioned, the posts were never published, so there was nothing to remove to begin with. I can’t find any language dealing with refusal to post, but perhaps it’s covered by the ‘spirit’ of the quoted guideline above.

  24. uh-oh

    I remember losing my appetite every time I drove by the grub shack sign.

  25. Just a water and the check, please

    I like the food section these days. I remember back when there were more critical reviews, and every time there was one, the restaurant owner, all their family members, the managers, and the cooks would go bananas and tie up the letters-to-the-editor about it/online comments, almost without fail. Say what you will, but it seemed like it was creating a lot of bad blood, and personally as a reader, the weekly italicized explanations from the writer & editor trying to talk down some incensed rest. owner and their supporters on the Letters page got old.

    I don’t really care if there’s hardcore criticism or not, but I do like the presence of restaurant happenings/openings/closings/etc, and as a non-food-obsessed reader, find it generally more interesting than a blow-by-blow account of somebody eating in a restaurant.

    We do live in a small city, and MX has a big voice in Asheville, and one writer’s perception of their experience on opening night at a restaurant could really go a ways toward sinking a restaurant’s rep right out of the gate.

    And Dionysis has even more posts I’ve yet to read? That’s amazing!

  26. Dionysis

    “And Dionysis has even more posts I’ve yet to read? That’s amazing!”

    Sadly, they’re lost to the vagaries of time.

  27. Jon Elliston

    Having watched Xpress’ food coverage from its start some years ago (and pitched in with coordinating some of that coverage), I think it’s had real merits during each approach it tried out. What I like about the current approach is the sheer amount of reportage, and the devotion and dash of the main food writer, Mackensy Lunsford.

    A case in point would be any recent issue of the paper, but this week’s serves as an excellent one. It’s bursting with food news from many facets of our local food community. You’d be hard pressed to find another weekly devoting this much attention to detail, and in such a exuberant way, to a local food scene.

    Granted, there’s also a yearning for folks to have a forum to call out culinary catastrophes in town — but I think word about such situations is spreading faster than ever before, via eater-generated online reviews and comments that are flourishing.

  28. Dionysis

    “Dionysis, I found a couple of Mtn X articles that mention this Lou’s place”

    It was not the small piece from the first link; that mentions how bad it was. It may well have been the second link, though. I can’t really recall, but the piece was touting it as a newly opened restaurant.

    In any event, way too much about way too little. Thanks to all for spending time digging.

  29. entopticon

    I agree with the editors. This isn’t NYC. A bad review, particularly for a new restaurant, in the XPress could be devastating for many small businesses. I don’t think that really does anyone any good. I think John is exactly right, that the best thing that the XPress can do is to help our community become aware of all of the local food ventures out there. And John is absolutely right that the amount of attention the XPress is giving to the local food scene is unusual and very welcome.

    I think that is the best thing that they can do; to bring our attention to what is going on in our local food scene, so that we can try it out for ourselves and decide. The XPress is not the place small businesses that could be devastated by bad press. And as we all know, many of the best food establishments take a while to work out some of the kinks, because it’s not easy. If I have a rough experience with a young restaurant, I always make a point of trying it again a few months later, and more often than not, they’ve improved for the better.

    It makes much more sense for the Xpress to celebrate our community than to tear it down.

  30. The Trolls Troll

    But, honestly, as honestly as I know how to be, the biggest reason we discontinued our prior practice of publishing one food critic’s views is our heartfelt desire to help our community find its way to excellence — in this case, restaurant excellence.

    I agree with what others here have pointed out regarding the total absurdity of this statement, and would only add that I don’t believe it’s a newspaper’s job to actively promote the community that it covers. I think achievements must be highlighted, of course, but overt cheerleading goes against objectivity. If I want “rah rah Asheville” stories, I’ll pick up a pamphlet at the convention and visitor’s bureau.

  31. Libby Sparks

    Very good points, Aleck Smart.

    Also, I would like to remind everyone that not all of us have the disposable incomes to pick and choose at will from the smörgåsbord of restaurants this town has to offer. All this reporting on food happenings and new restaurants is great, but some fair, objective reporting from a knowledgeable writer (or staff of writers) as to the actual quality of these establishments could potentially go a long way in helping those of us who can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars a month sampling everything culinary Asheville has to offer make a more informed decision. To just say “give it a try” is often times an expensive role of the dice many of us aren’t willing to take.

    Again, it is not the role of journalism of any kind to be an advocate for a “scene”. I hold to the belief that all of this talk about “building a community” is just the paper’s official, public explanation of keeping advertisers happy.

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