Is Ruth Reichl Selling Out at Gilt Taste?

Jun 282011

Earlier this year, former Gourmet Editor-in-Chief Ruth Reichl began her consulting gig (rumored to be worth $250,000 annually) at Gilt Taste, a high end web food store that’s paying her to advise on food writing on its website.

Gilt Taste is a new kind of media for Reichl, one that blurs the line between advertising and editorial. That’s a sea change from her days at Gourmet, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. To my surprise, she welcomed the switch.

“The notion of the wall between advertising and editorial,” she begins in an interview with Eater, “If you’re dependent on sales and you only have things you are really proud of, there’s no need for that wall and there’s no reason to be embarrassed by saying a product is great and this is why it’s great.”

Really? My eyes widened. So she’s assigning advertorial now, where a company pays to get an enthusiastic article that looks and smells like regular journalism? And her big name freelancers are going for this? The former magazine editor in me got ready to protest.

No, no, and no. It’s so much tamer than that. Some of the stories have links to products Gilt Taste sells. That’s it. Links.

(Here are two examples. For a recipe by New York Times regular freelancer Melissa Clark on steak and potatoes, the words “boneless ribeye steaks” are hot, and they link to a catalog item for $127.95 for four 12-ounce steaks. On another web page, a video shows how to cook dry-aged ribeyes, with copy beneath it about having a dinner party, followed by a recipe with another link to a steak for sale.)

Big deal. A link to a product seems quaint. I’ve been doing it right here on my blog for over a year, when I link to books at Amazon, where I receive a tiny referral fee. Okay, it’s not my own store. That would be a conflict of interest. But Gilt Taste isn’t Reichl’s store either.

Now, I could be sarcastic about these luxury food products, which she compares to being less of a splurge than a Chanel dress. But I’m going to control myself. I just paged through the last issue of Gourmet, featuring splashy ads by Cadillac, credit cards, Rolex, and Cartier. She couldn’t care less about those advertisers. She cares about food.

“You end up surrounding your fabulous editorial with ads for things that you hate,” she admits in the Eater interview. “There is a firewall, and that means that you don’t get to say a product shouldn’t be sold in the magazine, as opposed to here, where we are all involved with each other. We never have something we are embarrassed about. It feels more honest to me.”

What do you think? Does the editorial in Gilt Taste seem honest to you? Is there room for ethical writing on a commercial website? Can you think of other examples?

Update: Ruth Reichl wrote to tell me “the money stuff is all laughably wrong. I’m certainly not being paid that much.”

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(Thanks to Laura Taxel for sending me the Eater article.)

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  40 Responses to “Is Ruth Reichl Selling Out at Gilt Taste?”

  1. I guess the question I have is this: Are those writers being paid fairly, especially since those products are command such a precious piece of the financial pie. My second question is this: Who is editing those articles? How carefully are they fact checked? Are they even fact checked? And, who retains ownership of those articles? Gilt or the writer? All that being said, I recall reading Gilts warranty or guarantee to it’s readers right when the site launched…I wasn’t terribly impressed. The policy seemed rather vague and ambiguous…I didn’t get the feeling that Gilt would be on my side if something, such as oysters or meat, arrived spoiled or improperly chilled. Of course, that’s just my impression. I haven’t ordered anything and put that policy to the test.
    Melissa Trainer

    • Ooh, excellent questions, Melissa. I would like to think that Reichl is exerting her considerable power to get the writers paid fairly, but I don’t know. Also don’t know the size of the staff, but I assume that with Frances Lam came on board, he would apply the same professionalism as was evident at Slate.

      • Melissa,

        Having written for Gilt Taste I can tell you it is EXACTLY like writing for Gourmet, Food & Wine, etc. Francis Lam was my editor, and as you know he is no slouch. Everything was vetted and fact-checked. Gilt Taste gets first rights to the articles. If I want to reprint them after they’ve run on their site, I can.

        And for the record, I wrote a piece on the mysteries of mushroom hunting, so I never mentioned any products or services in the piece. Apparently Gilt Taste sells wild mushrooms, so that is the connection. But then I’d put a link to an online source of wild mushrooms too on my site if I am writing about them.

        I’d have to agree with Dianne and Ruth on this one. No big deal, no advertorial — at least in my experience.


  2. I have no problem with Ruth Reichl (or the rest of the incredibly talented staff) writing for the site, and don’t see it as selling out. What bums me out is the ridiculously high prices of the items being sold. I am all for supporting artisanal foods and the people who produce them, but I’d never buy anything at those crazy prices. I wish Gilt Taste luck, but wonder if there’s enough of a market for what they are selling?!

    • Yeah, the prices are pretty nuts. Since I’m not going around trying to decide between a Chanel dress and a few steaks, I know the site’s not targeting me. The upper classes, however, are thriving in the US. Since they’re still buying yachts, jewelry, fancy cars, country club memberships, etc., surely they can afford a few luxury food items.

  3. When she says, “We never have something we are embarrassed about,” I can’t help thinking, maybe so far she doesn’t, but what if she does in the future? How will she handle that?

    It seems unrealistic to think that she won’t, at one point or another, be put in a situation where the Gilt people push to have some item sold on the site that she doesn’t approve of (say, for ethical or environmental reasons, or because she feels the quality doesn’t justify the price), and it’s doubtful that she will win that argument every time.

    Unless it’s big enough of a disagreement that she’ll choose to quit, she’ll have to go along with it, and the line between what she sincerely endorses, and what she begrudgingly endorses, will blur.

    This has nothing to do with her, especially as she seems to have stronger values and be more forthright than the average person, but the entire setup does cast a vague shadow of doubt on the content that’s produced under such conditions.

    (I’ll note that I have the exact same reservations when I see an article on beauty products in a magazine, for instance, and notice that one of the brands is also an advertiser, sometimes with an ad right opposite the article.)

    • I have been in that situation as a top magazine editor, and I’m sure she has too. I’ve been asked to temper a product review because the company is an advertiser, I’ve written stories that have never been published, and I’ve been asked to write stories about long-time advertisers for no good reason. They’re paying her a lot of money and I assume she has enough clout to do the right thing.

  4. First..Ruth has to make a living. She’s smart and on track with what is going on in the media. It doesn’t bother me that she is consulting with Gilt.

    What I’m not sure she’s in touch with is what “impoverished people” would buy if they could splurge. It would not be anything from Gilt. I bet they’d choose to pay their electric bill before buying oysters…or cherries.

    Great piece Dianne.

    It reminded me of the uneasy feeling I had at the doctor’s office last week… an advertisement in O Magazine for some fad diet deal. It seemed very odd to me….and I thought…”Oprah sold out….wonder if she’d take advertisements for plastic surgery too?” now I’m confused but I am thinking!

    • Definitely impoverished people are not her audience. But she has had Barry Estabrook write about that topic (tomato pickers) in Gourmet, and she tested the waters with Gilt by having him write a political story, which they approved. So it seems to be going well.

      Re awful ads in the magazine, most of the time you’re grateful to have any ad, because it means revenue. Also most of the time editorial has no control over which ads appear in the magazine.

  5. I work in the field as a cookbook editor and keep on top of food media as much as I can. I’ve tried to wrap my head around Gilt and it just isn’t working for me. The recipes are very appealing, but I feel like the links to the products–just to the right of the recipes imply that your dish should be or will be its best with *those* ingredients. It’s sort of like they’ve taken the ‘back of the box’ recipe concept and turned it inside out to appeal to the wealthy.
    As for the ‘stories,’ there’s some good stuff there, but for now it looks like they’re throwing everything against the wall and waiting to see what will stick. What’s the site’s point of view? Do people who eat nachos at Benny’s shop on Gilt? Beyond Reichl’s judging story, is Food in Television a regular segment? Is ‘Romance’ a regular segment. What about Eats, Shoots, Leaves? I enjoy Francis Lam’s writing–he’s so smart about food and absolutely hilarious, but there’s a lack of identity and direction here–the same as what I saw with the Salon food page.

  6. Lori expresses some of my feelings about Gilt: it’s a mishmash, without clear direction or editorial voice. I haven’t seen any writing, thus far, to make me wade through the “stuff for sale” at outrageous prices in pursuit of the non-sales copy.

    • It’s new and these things are still being worked out. She’s hired excellent writers who create Gourmet-like copy, so we’ll see where it goes.

  7. Dianne: you raise some good questions.
    Personally, I think that the law of the market will re-assest the landscape… so IF someone (like Guilt) is lucky enough to find paying customers for their products, best of luck to them! and if someone as smart as Ruth is lucky enough to get paid for her consulting, good for her! Lastly, I think that money does move things around and it’s ok for people to be paid for their talent… actually, they should be paid for their talent, in weight!
    That said, I can say I am not in Guilt’s target audience: I do not like that I HAVE to include a certain product in a recipe and I do not like sites that are designed around selling me stuff… I MUCH rather go to blogs that do it for the love of food and writing, and for the pure passion!!!
    It is a capitalist society but it is also a democracy…fortunately. WE choose.

    • Yes we do, Amelia. You are absolutely right. Many blogs have ads, including mine. But I’m not about to flog anything more than books in my copy.

      I am not their target either but I will go for the writing and the stories. Most of the stories do not have any links at all, so if they have to write about steak from time to time, I’m okay with that.

  8. Reichl has to make a living? She’s already rich, married to someone who makes a good living. So, now she’s hustling $30 steaks. Greed.

    • The feminist in me balks at the suggestion that, because she’s married to someone who makes a good living, earning her own money would amount to greed…

    • Okay Ms. Feisty. Actually I like that about you.

      Last time I checked, women are allowed to work even if they’re rich or have rich husbands. It might have to do with a sense of accomplishment and purpose too.

  9. I really have to give this some more thought. I tend to go along with Winnie’s position and cringe at those high sticker prices. When I write a recipe and blog about it, I want it to appeal to all people who have varied cooking skills and definitely assume folks have a food budget.

  10. I did not say she is dependent on a man, BUT she does have a substantial COMBINED income. She rose to the pinnacle of food writing and has been well-paid for years.

    My question is: What would MFK Fisher do?

    • She certainly would not have started a newsletter with advertising. You are much more creative.

      • Are you against advertising? I don’t get your point.

        I come from 16 years at the Chron,newspaper where there was a wall. I have a big-time freelance writer friend in NY, who quit womens’ mags, because editorial sucked up to the advertisers. The product Had to be in your copy. What’s the diff between that and what Reichl is doing?

        • Nothing. I’m just saying that MFK Fisher didn’t have to worry about advertising. It’s a new world, and we’re publishers, not just writers.

  11. Fascinating topic, which your readers have extended with thought-provoking commentary. I always read your stuff and think I know what my position is until I read everyone else’s. Then I take a step back and often re-assess.

    I’m not sure the issue is that Gilt’s products are high-end and expensive, though they are. Their price point, to me, is almost irrelevant to the discussion. Isn’t it more this: will people look for good writing by clicking over to a shopping site? And do people on a shopping site even care about good writing?

    • That is a very good point, Cheryl. I agree that the price is not the issue, since they have targeted their audience carefully. It seems odd to read writing of that quality and volume on a retail site. I’m used to high quality marketing copy for sites like Dean and Deluca and Williams Sonoma, but not features.

  12. another great though-provoking post dianne. i’m actually still thinking about this one. i am jumping from one side to the other and i agree with everything that has been said here.

    at the end of the day, it will be the market and audience, which will determine if this is a viable idea. my first gut reaction is to think how bourgeois she continues to project herself (just read her twitter feed), but many others can say that same thing about me when i shop at whole foods. it is all a matter of perspective.

    my blog is also part of a network of ads that i don’t control. many times you will see ads on my blog that really do not represent me at all. i admit that, but in my defense, i also do not directly endorse anything i don’t believe in. so far, she does the same.

    so i am really not offering any new insight on the matter, but i will follow the thread of comments to see what others have to add. very interesting.

    • Hey Aran, I think this is the first time you’ve commented. Welcome.

      Yes, I agree that it will come down to whether the target audience supports the site. If not, it will be just the same as when the advertisers did not support Gourmet. Reichl may not have much control over that. On the other hand, she is not an employee, and she has lots of offers, so it may not matter as much.

      I don’t control the ads that appear on my BlogHer ad either, but most of the time they don’t bother me much.

  13. First time commenter! I do PR in house for an online gourmet food store and I write a food blog for them so I can relate and I find this discussion very interesting. I have dreams of being a food writer and writing for a company food blog has given me the chance to practice, practice, practice! I enjoy the challenge of incorporating the products into the posts in a way that’s not too “sales-y” and in the long run it has made me a more creative as a writer. Is it 100% what I want to write about all the time? No… but I love food so just being able to talk about food all day makes me love my job, and that passion comes through in my writing, which makes people keep reading and engaging.

    I don’t get why people get so offended by high prices or recommending products in blog posts. I’m not taking your wallet out of your pocket and making you buy it, and there are enough other people buying the products to keep the business going, so someone must be in the market for the type of products I’m selling.

    Like you said, in the magazine world you are thankful to have advertisers- I’m thankful to have a job writing about food, and the fact that I write for a company that sells gourmet food doesn’t diminish my passion for food and writing.

    • Welcome Amanda. Thanks for commenting. I think you are already a food writer. No reason to dream about it. There are lots of different kinds, including marketers. That’s something I don’t discuss enough on this blog, and one of the few ways to make a decent income as a writer. No reason to have to defend yourself, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe you dream of being a cookbook author or some other kind of writer, and this job is helping to prepare you.

      Recommending products within a blog post has a different set of issues than recommending products on a commercial website, where it’s expected. In blog posts the writer must disclose if he or she received the item, trip or service for free. Otherwise readers can’t be sure of their motivation. Commercial websites don’t have that problem. It’s pretty clear that they are selling goods for a profit.

  14. MFK lived simply in Sonoma and didn’t want or need the second home in East Hampton and all the other trappings of the NY elite.
    So, the question is it honest, passionate food writing or hucksterism?
    That doesn’t mean in blogs you can’t endorse a product, restaurant, etc, but you are in control of that choice.

    • You make me laugh, GraceAnn. Thanks for continuing to comment. I’d say that so far, Reichl is just assigning stories that interest her, most of the time. Let’s see how long that will last.

  15. Beyond questions of ethics, removal of the “wall” makes for boring journalism. Sadly, I think that e-books will be doing the same thing quite soon. The reader will be able to buy the meal the characters are eating — or Jonathan Franzen’s glasses — or whatever.

    • I think the wall is still up — mostly– despite what she says. She’s not assigning advertorial. Most of the copy seems based on whatever she likes.

      What a concept about e-books. I’m sure you are correct. Several words in a sentence will be hot, leading to purchases. Maybe that’s what will get our economy moving again, since 70 percent of it is based on consumer spending!

  16. It seems there is a lot discussion and many points of view here. The fact still remains that Ruth is doing what she is doing. Are we so outraged because we are NOT the one who was asked to do it? As far as I can tell, you choose to read it or not. You choose to buy or not. So what if I can’t afford half the stuff they advertise? Maybe I read it to see what the rich and famous are buying or reading. Or maybe I just enjoy reading it the way I enjoy reading the Comic section in the dailies. Or the Fashion pages in the Times. Doesn’t mean I believe everything I read. Doesn’t mean I buy everything I see. It’s just entertainment — and that my friends, is what a lot of this mobile technology is all about. Oh, and also it exists so that I am not ALONE – heaven forbid I should have a few minutes without consulting someone to tell me what I should want to buy! Great, here we are back at the beginning of the discussion. Is Ruth just selling us stuff after all, or at least hoping to sell us “stuff?”

    • Exactly. Our job is to entertain and inform. I hope most of it is useful too. I don’t think Ruth is selling us stuff, any more than the rest of us write food pieces selling recipes or experiences. We’re all salespeople in this way. We want to convince people to try what we’re passionate about, or if not try it, to have a vicarious thrill when someone else does.

  17. I could write a book about the Gilt taste launch.
    We were approached to be one of the original vendors. I kept thinking, how does garmento discounter ( translate in anyway to artisan food retailer? It just didn’t make sense. When Ruth signed on, I thought, what the hell. Let’s try it. The more we worked with them the more we felt we weren’t a good fit. Ruth talks about the energy of the people she met and how they enchanted her. We didn’t have the same experience. We understood the site to be a high end food marketplace. No one ever once told us about the editorial side! i was shocked when the site launched to see all the articles. When I saw the other merchandise, i felt like we’d dodged a bullet. How many varieties of pre-made popcorn does a person need? How hard is it to call a good butcher and order steaks? I was hoping it would be a site for serious cooks. It isn’t and in the end we learned we do best when we get to tell our own story.
    I think it’s great to look for new economic models to pay good writers. I think the jury is still out with Gilt Taste.

    • Thanks for this insider scoop on what it was like to be approached for advertising, Steve. I confess that, in the 1990s, I ordered pre-made popcorn in a can, in 3 flavors, as a birthday present for my husband once or twice. But it wasn’t artisan or super expensive, and that company had nothing to do with serious cooks. While I too am puzzled by the Gilt Taste business model, I am grateful for a place that pays writers well online. It’s pretty rare.

      • Some of the vendors, like Connie Green’s Wine Forest, are great. But $210 steaks and flavored popcorn ruins the credibility of the site for me. It’s hard to trust them with anything if they think “designer popcorn” is a good idea.

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