Word of Mouth

What would you pay for restaurant advice? Critic's paywall raises questions about journalism's revenue structure

I wholeheartedly believe in the free press, so I was initially scornful when I heard via The Guardian that Fay Maschler, a seasoned UK restaurant critic, was starting Page One, a website of reviews that would require readers to pay £100 a year for access.

Isn't it the job of established critics, after all, to share insight with the world? To keep people from eating at terrible places? To encourage those people to eat at good places? To publicly push restaurateurs to do better?

But after tossing the story around with our Cafe Society editor, Lori Midson, I'm not so sure I have a problem with Maschler's venture. As print moves online, the whole industry is pondering the revenue question as the world gets used to free information. Not even ten years ago, we all subscribed to a mélange of publications we deemed credible, willing to pay, say, $50 a year for the printed words of experts. Now, though, reading the morning newspaper comes in the form of pulling up the mobile app of our favorite source on the way to work -- and we're rarely charged for it. Publications, in the meantime, are relying on advertisers to pay their bills -- and cutting costs, sometimes by firing staff journalists for writers who are willing to work for much less (and sometimes for free) in order to nab a coveted byline. But occasionally, that means losing consistency and credibility that only a dedicated staff writer can provide.

What's more, the internet makes it possible to compartmentalize our interests, subscribing to feeds, blogs and Twitter personalities that talk about our hobbies and subjects that are close to our own hearts; we no longer have to weed through a bunch of information on theater, for instance, if we just want the low-down on music.

As the author of the Guardian article on Maschler pointed out, this means that we gather information in an entirely different way. When it comes to restaurants, the article's author notes, we're more likely to type the name of the restaurant into Google and sift through all the reviews, from Yelp to the local paper, to determine what's credible and whether we want to eat there.

And with those points in mind, Maschler's idea makes some sense. Given that she's spent the better part of her life reviewing restaurants, she can rightfully claim that she's got more expertise on the subject than most, and, thus, her opinion is worth more than most. So she's putting a price on it, catering to the people who have a special interest in restaurants by charging them for access to her immense, and intimate, knowledge on the subject. You'd probably pay for stock advice when investing your hard-earned cash. You'd have no problem forking over some dough for legal counsel if you needed it. So should restaurant advice really be much different? Especially if you're choosing a restaurant for a special occasion?

To many of you, the answer is, undoubtedly, no, you wouldn't pay for restaurant reviews, and I can't blame you. Others of you might, if you trusted the critic enough and didn't have to pay so much. You probably fall into that category if you're willing to shell out for the Michelin Guide or Zagat, which also make a business in reviewing restaurants. Remember, though, that just a few years ago, you would have had to subscribe to a publication to get Maschler's insight. To put it in context, a year-long subscription to the New York Times would run you $304, and you have to sift through the other news to get the restaurant columns. At about half the price and at least twice the reviews (at least in the first year, when you'd get 52 from the Times and 100 from Maschler's site), Page One's sticker doesn't seem quite so high.

Regardless, I admire Maschler for this: As the print industry realigns and figures itself out online, she's taking a bold step in trying a new model. And only with these types of ventures will we be able to answer the question of how to organize and prioritize information in the age of the internet.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk