I read a post this morning by Dianne Jacob on Will Write for Food about “blogger blackmail.” Her post prompts to me wonder about bloggers and ask, “What’s your motivation?”

Jacob is a former editor-in-chief at various media companies and a full-time writing coach, author, and freelance editor. She has a clearly stated blog policy about product reviews, affiliate programs, sponsorship, embedded links, and guest posts, and display advertising. She’s up front with her readership about her income sources and mentions of products or companies. That’s an important point that we’ll circle back to later.

Before I continue, I share my views as someone that has been a publisher (of an online magazine from 2005-2011), online ad salesman, staff editor and writer, freelance writer, and blogger. I have direct experience with the exchange of compensation for writing/services. Disclosure: The only money I make from my personal blogs/sites is through book sales. I am never paid for posts on my personal sites.

Blackmail?
While the title sounds a bit over-stated, Jacob’s post explains that blogger blackmail has developed into a trend, when a food blogger demands payment in kind for blog posts, including free meals at nice restaurants. This sort of behavior likely happens with other subject matter (household appliances, clothing, baby items, etc.) on all manner of blogs. For this discussion, I’ll focus on food blogging since it relates most to my professional and personal experience.

In her post, Jacob cites an example where a hobby blogger who writes London restaurant write-ups emailed a bakery and suggested she be “invited to review” their products in exchange for a blog post. Here is the London blogger’s original post. Jacob breaks down what went awry between the bakery and the blogger in her opinion.

In short, the blogger didn’t establish what she wanted (free product) in exchange for a review. The bakery didn’t understand the terms expected by the blogger. The blogger based the value – £100 of product (more than $150) – on her time writing a post, but did not make that clear either. Finally, the blogger detailed what went wrong on her blog from her point of view, which opened her up to social media ridicule.

Hobbyist vs. Professional
Jacob refers to this London blogger as a hobby blogger. In a previous post, she explores the characteristics of hobby food bloggers. Namely, someone that writes in their spare time and doesn’t necessarily make a living from the blog and someone that more often than not isn’t a professional writer. She qualifies that some professional food bloggers are business-minded and think of themselves as entrepreneurs.

Jacob makes two more key points.

Food bloggers do not threaten the jobs of journalists. Today, most food bloggers who desire income start with sponsored posts on their own blogs. This strategy does not affect freelance writers who get paid to write.

 

Newspapers and magazines are unlikely to publish food bloggers. Any writer who thinks bloggers can overtake them in writing for publication is high. Most stories are very formulaic and mostly uninterested in personal stories.

So, let’s return to London food blogger. She established in her blog post that she typically writes a review in exchange for a meal, drink and/or services. She states that a restaurant has never paid her to review them, but she has received compensation from third-parties to review a restaurant.

The London blogger doesn’t apparently depend on such “compensation” for a living. Her blogging is more than a time-consuming hobby. She places a value on her services and, therefore, is conducting a business transaction.

As Jacob pointed out, the blogger wasn’t clear about her intention or expectation for free product in exchange for a review. That’s poor communication from a business standpoint. When she found out that the bakery wouldn’t provide free product, all she had to do was simply walk away.

The London blogger writes in her post:  “I have a right to value what I produce at a certain level, and will politely negotiate that.”

When negotiations broke down with the bakery because of unclear terms, her reaction was to buy one macaron and one marshmallow, taste them and then she “angry-instagrammed a couple of pictures, noting their flaws.”

Her behavior reeks of expectation that borders on entitlement. At the very least, it’s poor business.

What’s Your Motivation?
I don’t have a problem with a blogger getting paid in cash, product or services in exchange for the value of what they provide with caveats. If you can get compensation, good for you. That said, if you’re publishing a blog primarily as a money-making venture, be up front about it. Treat it like a business and not for personal leverage/gain. And good luck with your entrepreneurial aspirations. Blogs that make money are usually a result of value generated from good content. Strong content always matters, whether you make money or not.

Years ago, I interned (Free! For the experience! It was worth it.) at a custom publishing company in Boston. A mentor explained that a publisher is like a three-legged stool. Editorial, advertisers and audience each represent one leg of the stool. If a leg is broken or missing, then the publishing business model doesn’t work as well.

A blogger ultimately doesn’t have to answer to either the audience or advertisers, if any. Hopefully, they build a strong rapport with both if the aim is to attract a following and earn money.

Following a traditional publishing model, you produce great content (with integrity) that attracts an audience. If the content is of value (entertainment, informative, shares secrets, etc.), then the audience will likely grow. Then it is easier to attract advertisers, sponsored posts, etc. In theory. The reality is that it is 1) more difficult than bloggers realize to produce consistent, quality content, 2) attract and retain a sizeable audience, and 3) earn compensation.

Methods of making money from online publishing, whether blogs, videos, podcasts, etc., have evolved in myriad ways that don’t adhere to this old three-legged stool model, but the fundamentals are still sound.

Bloggers, hobby or professional, can earn major amounts of income from their efforts. I suspect that integrity is still a key ingredient to their success.

A blogger should have integrity about how they behave online and in person. How they represent themselves should first matter to them as a person. That integrity colors the posts ideally produced for their audience and the business they are representing, whether it is in exchange for product/services or not.

Like Jacob’s example, it is helpful to state a policy on the blog that details how and when compensation is involved. That maintains a contract, a sense of integrity, among all parties including the audience. A blogger shouldn’t guarantee a positive review or threaten a negative one because of the relationship with the subject of the post. Also, a blogger ought to have a verifiable audience that is of value to potential businesses that may be featured on the blog. That makes sense to me if the blogger negotiates (expects?) compensation.

In the London blogger’s case, I don’t know what the size of her audience is. She doesn’t establish this. She does put a value on the amount of time spent on the various roles involved with producing a blog post with photography. Ultimately, that value is negotiable (or not) between the blogger and business, if the terms are clear and stated up front. Either party can walk away if negotiations break down. Crying foul because you didn’t get your way on your blog is a poor way to represent yourself with readers and other future businesses that may not see the value of your “reviews.”

The notion that a blogger would insinuate or outright threaten a business with a negative review unless they receive free product or services is [ fill in adjective of choice here]. Clearly, it’s not a professional way to behave or conduct business.

Cast No Stones
Well, what about me? Perhaps I should get off my high horse after this lengthy rant and explain how my conduct as a writer fits in this discussion.

First and foremost, I have never acted like this London blogger that poorly negotiated or outright expected free goods in exchange for a “review” on her blog. That’s crass.

As a 15-year professional in publishing, I conduct myself with integrity as a writer whether I’m paid by a publication or writing for my personal sites. Yes, I have eaten meals/dishes and consumed drinks that have been comped by the business at their discretion, never at my request. Restaurants are part of the hospitality industry. While it isn’t a good business model to give away everything for free, a chef, general manager or even a server might offer something extra out of sheer kindness and generosity. Lagniappe is meant to be appreciated but not expected. I never expect such treatment. As a good customer, I still try to tip waitstaff and bartenders fairly even in those instances or on subsequent visits, recognizing that someone still served me.

Realistically in today’s publishing environment, publications do not have the budget to pay for every meal or other experience when they want to publish a review. That’s partially why far fewer local reviews and staff reviewers/critics exist for restaurants, film, arts, etc. As a result, it is more common to see a syndicated movie review because it is economically cheaper (not necessarily better) than paying a local reviewer. However, a publisher can’t buy a cheap, nationally syndicated reviewer’s take on a local restaurant or arts performance. So we have fewer, or more poorly written and less informative, capsule reviews today. Also, few publishers want to piss off their advertisers.

That’s unfortunate because professional reviews that can offer constructive criticism are invaluable to chefs, artists, filmmakers, business owners, etc. In the Age of Self-indulgent Yelp reviews, Amazon click-a-rating and terrible blogging, reviews just aren’t worth much to people any more than Best Of awards have true lasting value and impact. But I digress.

Generally, freelancers face a gray area when it comes to the ethics of writing about a business where free food or drink is involved. For the most part, I don’t write food/restaurant reviews or criticism for my freelance clients. Instead, I report to inform and occasionally entertain. My professional writing is less about like/dislike and more about what’s worth knowing.

As a full-time freelance writer/photographer, I get paid a flat rate for an assignment that oftens include photography. I don’t get compensated for money I spend on food or drink that I consume as part of my research. Most of the time, that’s an out-of-pocket expense that gets written off for tax purposes. It adds up over the course of a year when you’re an active writer. [Ah, the dreamy life of a food writer! It’s a profession that I treat as such.] As a result, I am judicious about where and when I spend my money (without reimbursement) on a personal and professional basis. Year-round, my food and drink budget is spent locally 99% of the time.

Sometimes a restaurant covers the cost of a dish, hosts a media cattle call (meet, greet, feed) or a PR firm provides free media access to report on an event. I have no compunctions about this exchange and relationship. Most restaurants/PR firms/media understand that it is the cost of doing business for the sake of introduction of the business, a menu roll-out, cocktail, and so forth. The notion of a local business trying to regularly buy positive press from professional media or hobby bloggers is a laughable notion and far-fetched business plan. [It still happens.] On the flip side, the idea of a blogger demanding freebies for a post is also ridiculous unless you have the pompous sway and bankable brand-name savvy of Donald Trump.

To clarify, there isn’t an overt expectation from the business for a positive review nor an implied (or outright) guarantee from me for the same. I hold myself responsible to a higher standard that is still subjective (as most writing tends to be) but not beholden to whomever covered the bill on occasion. Plenty of reporting happens without any money involved too. Some people, like the London blogger, have different standards, values and expectations.

At this point, some people may be aghast that there is no black-and-white, an ethical line to never cross. My response is that it’s a matter of practicality. In a world where few people subscribe to publications and advertising struggles to pay the bills, a publisher simply doesn’t have the deep pockets to pay for reviews of meals, cooking ware, construction tools, baby clothes, you name it, in its pages. Publishers, ad sales people and editors find different, sometimes unethical – if not clear to readers – ways around this to produce content (pay-to-play, advertiser as columnist, sponsored content).

Here’s another key takeaway. I believe it is feasible for a magazine and its reviewers to review something without outright purchasing it (automobiles, cameras) and do so with integrity. Or, in my case, I think it is possible for a skilled writer to report a story without letting the cost of a drink or a sample of an appetizer get in the way. For me, the focus is on writing about the subject matter as a service to readers. It is not a means to an end, a purposeful, explicit exchange of written word for a free lunch.

I’ll note that The Kansas City Star, a former freelance client when I wrote the “Last Bite” column in the now defunct Star Magazine, has a strict code of ethics. It was easy to observe when I wrote that column. Even recently, I have observed staff writers and freelancers that abide by that code. For all intents and purposes, it establishes a modicum of integrity. It’s nice to have handy.

Other publications and clients that I have worked with don’t have an ethics code definitively outlined. Without going into a completely different tangent, many publications work within a loose standard of editorial and advertising separation. I’ve seen it as a staff editor, freelance writer and consumer of local/national media. It’s usually easy to spot. Audiences are hip to the blurred lines.

Given the pay I earn and time expended as a freelancer, I work within these loose boundaries and relationships to write and report. I maintain a level of integrity and self-respect for how I go about my work without feeling like I’m bought or reduced to demanding free food or services from anyone. This code carries over to my personal websites, an arena where I don’t make money from the people and businesses I cover. As far as my work on books like KC Ale Trail, heck yes, you’re welcome to buy me a beer but I’m still going to write what I want to write.