Why I won’t write for HuffPo

The Huffington Post is a parasitic website, reposting tidbits from other news outlets and blogs (they are not the same), without adding anything to the conversation.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post ran a story about a survey of what journalism graduates make in their first year of work these days: about $30,000.

This is a sad comment on the state of journalism, which has become devalued, but it’s also ironic that it appeared in HuffPo, because Arianna Huffington has done a great deal to encourage the devaluation of professional journalism.

For starters, she doesn’t pay her writers.

You may wonder why someone who is so rich, and who just increased her wealth immensely by selling HuffPo to AOL, might refuse to pay the people who do the essential work that maintains her website: writing. Huffington, who often bemoans the political disempowerment of the middle class, is doing everything she can to disempower journalists who are of the middle class, and who have a history of doing the kind of reporting that lets the rest of our democracy understand what is happening, politically. Without good reporting, nobody is putting any checks on the rampant polarization of the lower and upper classes in this country.

The Huffington Post is a parasitic website, reposting tidbits from other news outlets and blogs (they are not the same), without adding anything to the conversation. The original posts on HuffPo are mainly written by people who want to get a story up on the site for the publicity. Everyone is trying to build their platform, and the HuffPo is the place to do it. So, if you’re a shrink who wants more patients and recognition, you post a story about the ten signs that your daughter or your dog is depressed.  If you’re a bon vivant who wants to get a free meal from a fancy restaurant, just post a “review” on HuffPo. Travel junket? Act like an expert, and write about how the hotel that paid your way is the top hotel on the island, with the best food.

There is no such thing as “objective” journalism, but there are standards in journalism, and there are none on the Huffington Post.

Sure, the trend has been toward free content, and we have yet to come up with sustainable models for providing Internet content that people will pay for. We have trained people to expect journalism for free. Some sites, at least, do what they can to counter the trend; when I write for the Daily Beast, at least I get a check big enough to cover some portion of my rent. In these days, when career journalists like me are making less money than they did in, well, the 1980s, that’s not perfect, but it’s at least something. It’s a nod to the fact that reporting and writing are skills, and that in order to get quality, you have to pay for it.

HuffPo recently launched a women’s site, dedicated to the secular spiritual and self-improvement stories that we’re all familiar with. The New York Observer reports that Huffington is paying Marlo Thomas—yes, that girl—a million dollars to be the face of the site. All Arianna’s money is being put toward encouraging  celebrity culture. What the hell has Marlo Thomas done since she published “Free to Be You and Me?” Not much writing, that’s for sure.

What if you gave that million dollars to real journalists? Maybe they could do something more than recycle press releases. They could do some reporting about women’s health, environmental and financial issues that affect women, ways that women are still struggling for some parity after all these years. Maybe they could write something worth reading.

Arianna, degrading journalism means degrading our democracy. Reducing journalists to unpaid content providers lowers everyone’s standards. That’s completely at odds with the political views you espouse, but not, perhaps, the financial ones. Unless you walk the walk your talk is just talk.

I urge all professional writers to boycott the Huffington Post. And everyone else to insist on and pay for quality journalism.

The Conde Nast elevator

I walked into Armani, greeted the commessa, pointed to a lovely cream-colored jacket, and asked her if I could try it on.

“No,” she said.

This is a story told at an open mic last week for San Francisco’s Porchlight storytelling series. The theme was “fashion.”

I used to write for Vogue. Since I was a freelancer on the West Coast writing about health and medicine, I didn’t have to worry very often about being fashionable. The only thing I had to dress up was my voice, calling people on the phone. “This is Laura Fraser with Vooooogue,” I would say. For some reason, I thought “Vogue” had to have two syllables to sound really voguish.

There I’d be, in my sweat pants and a T-shirt, with stringy hair, making calls from the kitchen table. My boyfriend at the time would hear me–“Voooogue”–and say, “If they could only see you now.”

Every once in awhile I would have to go to New York City to meet with editors, and then I did have to worry about fashion. I panicked each time I went about what to wear. I’m from Colorado. Suburban Colorado. This was the early 90s and my style could’ve been called “Cowgirl Punk,” and the cowgirl part was unironic.

Each time I went to New York, I tried hard to wear the right thing, and inevitably got it wrong. I’d buy a navy Ann Taylor suit with a wrap skirt and look like someone’s corporate secretary. I got a yellow floral babydoll dress with fishnets and Doc Martens and look like I just stepped off Haight Street, which I had.

So I decided to play it safe on one trip and just wear black. I wore loose black palazzo pants with an elastic waist, a black sweater, and a black Gap T-shirt, just like Sharon Stone wore at the Oscars. I met my editor at the Royalton, a swanky restaurant where Conde Nast types ate lunch. The host seated us way in the back, at a table where the kitchen door bumps into your seat if you lean back too far. I could just make out Anna Wintour in the distance, but only because of her sunglasses. A waiter came to take our order, recognized my editor, and apologized, offering to reseat us. He glanced at me by way of explanation for his faux pas.

My editor said we were fine where we were, looked at what I was wearing, and then kindly told me, “Maybe you should get something a little more structured.”

The next time I was in Italy, I didn’t mess around. I went straight to Armani. I was going to buy a suit I could look great in at Vogue for the next ten years, even if it cost me a month’s rent. I walked into Armani, greeted the commessa, pointed to a lovely cream-colored jacket, and asked her if I could try it on.

“No,” she said.

Come no?” I asked her. Why not? “Io scrivo per Vogue.” I write for Vogue, I told her. In Italian, “Vogue” actually does have two syllables.

She shrugged. “Mi dispiace,” she said. Sorry.

She must’ve realized I couldn’t afford it. Or else I was too fat and they didn’t have my size. “Per che no?”

She sighed. “Signora,” she said. “Lei ha una vita bellina ed un culo un po—esagerato. Una giacca corta sarebbe un disastro per Lei.

For all my years of reading Vogue this was actually the first good fashion advice I’d ever heard. “Madam,” she’d said. “You have a nice little waist and a somewhat… exaggerated bum. A short jacket on you would be a total disaster.”

Frustrated, I asked her if there was anything in the store that would work on me.

“Of course,” she said, and pulled out a lovely long-waisted jacket in a creamy green light wool. I put it on, and I was transformed. I was long and lean and chic. I was Anna Wintour-worthy.

The next time I went to New York, it was winter, and no time to wear a spring suit. I told my editor I could only have coffee downtown. The next time I went to the Conde Nast building, a couple of years later, I wore my Armani suit, walking with purpose, feeling sophisticated, and a little Italian.

I got into the elevator, the only one in the world with a weight limit of 132 pounds. I pressed the button for Vogue. Towering next to me were two genetic freaks who looked like they stepped out of a Ralph Lauren ad. They glanced at me, and then shared a meaningful look with each other. I was sure they were wishing they, too, were wearing Armani suits.

They got off the elevator below me, at Self or Glamour or Bride’s. As they got out, I heard one say to the other, “Shoulder pads?” and then they both cracked up.

Gourmet readers want a real gourmet magazine, not junk food.

I do not want forty more recipes for cheesecake. That’s what the Internet is for.

The Times ran a story today about the demise of Gourmet magazine and how its readers aren’t flocking to Bon Appetit or other cooking magazines as predicted. I’m not surprised that loyal readers, who have followed the magazine and the brand since 1941, aren’t switching. Gourmet readers began reading during World War II, and developed the habit of saving back issues and recipes, filing them away as treasures and resources, like loyal readers of National Geographic. When Conde Nast bought the magazine in 1983, those readers stayed on, and assumed that their loyalty would be rewarded.

No: the booby prize after all those years is a subscription to Bon Appetit. Not a bad magazine, but not Gourmet, and the readers know it. In this age when building a brand is everything, I can’t understand why a magazine company would just throw away one of its best. It seems to be emblematic of all the bad moves the magazine industry has made in recent years, pumping up circulation at the cost of its loyal readers. The magazine industry has been trying to train its readers not to be loyal–to get Gourmet this year for $6.95, and when that expires, to switch to Bon Appetit. This kind of an approach isn’t sustainable, and makes for mass-market magazines that have no personality.

I had the privilege to write for Gourmet a few times, and the way the magazine treats its writers, with old-school respect, is one of the reasons it was able to attract the best writers in the country, and not so well-known ones who would put huge effort and soul into their articles to see them published in the pages of Gourmet. Gourmet cared enough about its readers to send writers and photographers to other countries to search out the best restaurants and artisanal foods.

I’m not a chef or someone who knows (or cares) about the politics within the restaurant industry; I’m a writer who is passionate about what food has to say about culture. Gourmet gave me the opportunity to travel to Peru, to learn why that country’s cuisine is suddenly taking off, fusing a number of disparate traditions. I was able to go to the  Aeolian islands, in search of my favorite dish in the world, pasta with fennel and sardines, and to understand how such a great cuisine developed on such dry, hardy islands.

The editors at Gourmet were always meticulous, particularly in making sure writers saw changes to their stories and were okay with them. If this seems like the least respect an editor can offer a bylined writer, it is, and yet it is hardly the standard in an industry that is increasingly dumbing-down and condensing any story that has a point of view, a voice, an in-depth look. I was outraged to have lunch with a Gourmet editor who told me that when they shut the magazine, they’d been given no warning–no chance to trim budgets, to take another approach. Off with their heads.

So, no, after Gourmet, Bon Appetit won’t do. I want a narrative and gorgeous pictures–what magazines do best, and what magazine companies, in their off-base desire to compete with new media with circulation numbers, not quality, are killing off–not just an intro and some recipes for Festive Summer Brunches. I want food writing to take me to somewhere I love, somewhere I can dream about, even if it’s my own not-so-splendid dining room. I do not want forty more recipes for cheesecake. That’s what the Internet is for.

So I mourn Gourmet’s passing, but think it could be an opportunity for someone who would buy it and keep creating the magazine that its readers love. Instead of pumping up the circulation and relying so much on Cartier watch ads, make readers PAY for what the magazine is worth. I’d pay $100 a year to get Gourmet back. So would many of its readers–enough to create a wonderful, if little, magazine.