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Food departments

A screen capture from the Washington Post web site

When a newspaper is prospering and newsroom budgets are growing, that newspaper can have itself a food department. When revenue is sliding and newsroom budgets are being cut, the food department is the first to go.

If the Washington Post had a notable food department ten years ago, it never caught my attention. In the last few years of my newspaper career (at the San Francisco Chronicle), there were two outstanding newspaper food departments in the U.S.: the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times in those days poached a writer or two from the Chronicle. (To have your staff poached by the New York Times is a high compliment to a secondary newspaper.) If the Chronicle still has a food department today, I’m sure it’s tiny. Mostly the Chronicle now writes about restaurants. (Secondary and tertiary newspapers these days cover restaurants better than they cover city hall.)

A newspaper food department requires spending some capital. You have to provide a well-equipped test kitchen. You need a special studio for food photography. You need some sort of dining room for tastings and sharing and an assortment of photogenic serving vessels for photography. On the expense side, you’ll be buying all sorts of expensive groceries every week. You need a staff with special training and food-world credentials. I always found the food department to be the happiest department at the paper. I loved to drop in on them and see what they were cooking.

The Washington Post, of course, and the New York Times are now rolling in money. Life has been hell at every other newspaper in the country, but fortunately this country has two strong newspapers left. Even if I didn’t know that the staffs and budgets are growing at the Times and the Post, the work of their food departments would reveal that they’re rich.

Another thing I notice about the Washington Post’s food department is that they are doing superb food photography, as good as the New York Times. It’s a safe bet that, when the Post expanded its food department, they aimed to beat the New York Times. It doesn’t matter to me who is winning. They both are doing beautiful work.

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