As his hour in front of the packed McCormick 101 wound down, Pete Wells seemed visibly tired, if not a bit disgruntled. Faced with a litany of unwanted questions about his work as a food critic—and a few minutes of bloviating by an overconfident Pennsylvania chef—Wells tried to maintain his positive demeanor but eventually slipped, griping that beneath the glorious veneer of a critic’s life, the job consisted mostly of making, confirming, and cancelling reservations. Though his foodie audience’s line of questioning suggested they hadn’t noticed, Wells had not come to Princeton to talk about food criticism, or even food at all. Rather, the man who has just replaced Sam Sifton as the New York Times’ restaurant reviewer, having previously served as that paper’s Dining editor for five years, came to discuss the triumphs and travails of an editing job at the Gray Lady during the digital age.
Wells, who bears a striking resemblance to the English actor Tim Curry (if Curry had the paunch of a man who knows and loves his food), delivered a lecture entitled “The Future of Food Writing” last Wednesday at McCormick, sponsored by the University Press Club. He opened by recounting his first days at the Dining Section in 2006, specifically the advice he received from a senior colleague that his duty as editor was to “set the conversation.” At the Times, the focus on controlling the conversation pervaded the paper as a strange “whole science” in which senior staff would set aside hours solely for crafting the next day’s front page, and more effort went into debating whether a story would appear above or below the fold than updating the news on its then-young website.
But much has changed in five years, Wells noted. He acknowledged, with a sense of satisfaction, that the paper’s direction is now increasingly reflective of its readers’ desires, rather than those of the literati at its helm. Wells’ unusual and humorous vehicle for demonstrating this transformation was the evolution of the Dining Section’s most important yearly product—the Thanksgiving issue.
“Thanksgiving began five years ago,” Wells joked as he introduced the November 2006 incarnation of this most stressful part of a food editor’s job. The edition offered editor- and writer-selected recipes, advertised the Turkey Day tips found within on its front page, and featured only two links to the Times’ website. By 2009, when cooking enthusiast Sifton started working for the section, the flagship of Dining’s Thanksgiving issue was its online help desk, where Sifton answered readers’ questions in real time on Wednesday and Thursday morning. Not surprisingly, the section now made a point of referring readers to the web, not the annals of its print copy.
The final overhaul, though, came in 2011, after Sifton had departed. Together with the paper’s Interactive News Department and his staff, Wells built an online interface for readers to post their Thanksgiving-related questions in early November. These queries were then subject to a “vote up” system, through which the Dining Section was able to determine the most common concerns, and respond to these with online videos, articles, and blogs—and finally, in print. The progression had changed: for the first time, the section had developed first on the Internet and then made its way to paper. As he spoke, Wells seemed neither shocked or dismayed by this development, and was, in fact, happy to recognize that the issue’s success lay not in his own work or that of senior editors, but rather in his synergic relationship with the Times’ web producer.
Though he noted in his lecture that the current evolution of journalism is not without its pitfalls, Wells’ embrace of it is both unusual and welcome coming from such a senior journalist. Unlike his colleagues, there’s little sense of caution in Wells; what he conveyed to his audience at McCormick was optimism and excitement. Perhaps it’s a generational thing—Wells’ combination of thick, dark hair and graying beard reveal him to be a 40-something, too young to have had his career influenced by Woodward and Bernstein, whose work perhaps inspired the current crop of leaders at the country’s major publications to overestimate the power in their hands. If that’s the case, Wells might be ahead of his time, a young standout who signaled the rise of a new, populist, receptive class of journalists and the golden age they’d bring. If not, Wells’ positive approach to change will hopefully spread, allowing publications to better their product and get the best of new journalism before it gets the best of them.
The irony, of course, that Wells failed to recognize last Wednesday is that for all of his talk about allowing his audience to set the conversation and listening to previously unheard voices, his hour at Princeton represented exactly the opposite. The audience wanted to hear about food and food criticism; Wells, instead, set a different topic of conversation. When students and community members asked him about that which they’d come to hear, he became frustrated and snappy. A difficult road lies ahead for Wells and his colleagues—even the greatest proponents of journalism’s evolution haven’t quite figured out how to keep up with the times.