Getting my focus back.

The Australian food bloggers’ conference (which I’ve also written about over at SBS) seems to have had the effect of lighting a gigantic fire under the collective arses of Australia’s food bloggers. I feel like I’m back on the blogging bandwagon and have a decent reason to post again. The conference gave me real chance to assess why I do this.

My own focus has been away from Last Appetite over the past year, as you’ll probably notice from the volume of posts. This is not a mea culpa. I’m still writing, albeit 600 words a week for SBS. I chalked up my hundredth post for them a few weeks ago, which means that I’ve written the equivalent of a novel on SBS’ dime. Last Appetite fell by the wayside because I put most of my quality work elsewhere. I work hard at it and they pay me.

My focus has also changed over the last two years in Australia. Where in Cambodia, I’d wake up in the morning and point my camera at whatever happened to ride past my house, I’ve stopped doing so in Australia and this is to the detriment of writing blog posts. I’ve started to care more about the quality of my images instead of the value of a story even though I know that the words alone can carry it. This is because of a concern with how many people read my blog posts. Images sell food online and very few people want to read a thousand word post like this one. Those few people however, are the ones that I respect and want as readers; the people who are demanding, critical and taste the rising bile every time that they see a Donna Hay recipe book.

The weirdness of living back in the First World has started to wear off. I still get that strange sensation of disconnection in the supermarket and feel overwhelmed by the pointless choices but it doesn’t happen on every visit. I can even buy milk without reading the label of every variety and make choices using brand alone, like regular people must do. I spend much more of my time tending to my garden and cooking at home than interacting with the outside world. I began to think that my inner suburban pastoral life had no blog value in terms of cash or audience.

When I started blogging, I didn’t care if anyone read my work apart from a small group of people that I know in person. The idea that anything that I wrote had any monetary value was not a consideration that I made. Over the past two years, I got waylaid by making money with my blogs but have since realised that starting blogs or websites with low quality content in high value industries is much more lucrative than good writing about food. The fall of Gourmet magazine is testament to this.

As another example, this site which I own and use to test Google Ads is one page long, has virtually no content, but earns more than my few years of work at Phnomenon. If you click the ads, I’ll get somewhere in the vicinity of one to five dollars a click. Yes, it’s a travesty but a lucrative one. In a few years, I’ll be able to sell it for a few thousand dollars. I would not be able to make the same cold-hearted decision about a food blog that I’ve written because the sites are worth more to me than I could imagine a sane person paying.

For making money, quality content online is of little benefit. It’ll help you get a job providing content for someone else and be respected by your peers but won’t necessarily pull in a valuable enough audience to make advertising a viable option (yet). By viable, I mean making a minimum wage. Currently, the most valuable audiences online are those which are about to make a high value purchase online. This is why newspapers are spiralling the online drain – the valuable crowd is somewhere else.

So I’m going to stop giving a fuck about making money or building a larger audience on Last Appetite and get my focus back to where it once was: covering food stories in a way that nobody else writes about for the small group of people that I care about. I’m making good money elsewhere, online and in my day job, and my friends don’t want to see ads and don’t click them in any event.

Also, related to the conference, I’ve decided to go postal on any food bloggers accepting free shit from public relations folk.

I don’t mind if you attend press events or restaurant launches – the line between journalist and blogger has ceased to be meaningful and attending such events comes with the territory. But you don’t need to write about it. The bloggers whom I value most are the ones that set their own agenda.

As soon as you start talking about the awesomeness of the goodie bag or whore out your blog for a meal or an overpriced bottle of pomegranate extract, then when I link to you, you get a nofollow tag, forever. If you’re on my list of Australian food blogs, I’ll also mark that you have accepted cash or other incentives in exchange for comment in the past. If I wanted to read someone’s reworking of a press release, I’d buy a newspaper because at least that keeps a young journalist employed.

38 Comments Getting my focus back.

  1. Zoe

    Phil, I think you are one of the finest food writers in this country, head and shoulders above the employed and non-employed food media. I’m really pleased to hear that more of the kind of your writing I love will be finding it’s way here. Yay.

  2. ruth

    i follow a couple of food blogs and they’re all in google reader. but you know, there are just some blogs that i skip, and just some that i look at for the photos.

    just wanted to let you know that i appreciate your frankness, and really, there’s so little of it out there nowadays. :)

  3. Simon Food Favourites

    nice to hear you won’t be putting ads on your blog. refreshing. I like your comment about it. i look forward to reading you go ‘postal’ about any food bloggers accepting free shit from public relations folk. you’ll love the Tharen’s visit in kings cross i still need to post but of course you won’t be reading about it i’m sure anyway. do you think there’s any value with bloggers writing about freebies they receive or do you think it’s an invitation to only write something with rose coloured glasses. whether i receive a free meal or pay for it I’ll still provide constructive criticism so i think it’s an insight for readers and the restaurants/supplier a like. if i don’t like something i will never say i do. likewise if i’ve enjoyed something i will praise it. i think i understand what you’re getting at though. do you think it’s perhaps hypocritical to have one blog making money with google ads and another blog saying how against it is having ads?

  4. neil

    Let’s see if I’ve got this straight.

    If I buy something, like it, blog it, doubleplusgood.

    If I’m given something. like it, blog it, doubleplusbad.

    Seems like some good old fashioned no follow censorship. I know some journalists who believe that everyone has the right to say what they think, regardless. Not you?

    Would you have blacklisted me for reviewing the SBS dvd they gave me at the conference for instance?

    I can see you’re passionate about the subject but urge you to be cautious with censorship, it’s a long slippery slope.

  5. Tresna

    I really like (and respect) that you have been able to define where your personal line exists in relation to using the web to make money vs. as an outlet to write about your food experiences. It’s easy to get worked up about the quality of an image or the structure of a sentence because we think it might impact on earning power in some way and I think this only serves the purpose of stifling creativity. I hope that by defining what you want to get from your efforts here that you can focus more on writing what pleases you and your chosen audience. I for one would be quite happy to read about the suburban pastoral life!

  6. Pingback: We came. We saw. We listened. We ate. We Blogged. « Eat. Drink. Blog. ( The Australian food and drink bloggers' conference)

  7. barbara

    Interesting post. I see I’ve got the $ sign alongside my blog name. Yes I’ve accepted freebies and written about them…truthfully…I have always included pros and cons. Even the pomegranate juice, which I really liked, I said I’d never buy it as it wasn’t local. I have no problem accepting cook books and I have a few I have never gotten around to writing about. I didn’t think twice about accepting the Tetsuya invite. Back in 2005, when I lived in New Zealand, my husband and I flew to Sydney for a few days specifically to celebrate the end of my chemo with a visit to Tetsuyas. The man is my hero, hell, there was no way I’d turn down a free night with him.

    I blog purely for the fun of it. It’s a hobby and something I began when I was too ill to leave the house. I don’t get hung up on who reads or bothers to leave a comment, but I appreciate those that do read and comment. Last year after a short break from blogging I did go through a brief stage when I did question my focus.

    I don’t run adds and I don’t accept money. I like to think I’ve written responsibly on any freebies I’ve received.

    I don’t think I’ve read The Last Appetite before but I do remember reading Phnomenon in the past. I’ve added you to my reader and will be interested in reading your food stories.

  8. Stickifingers

    Having been a long time reader of your prose I look forward to a return to the old style of post. What drew me in at the start was the observation and wonderment of things that may seem, small or incidental, the joy of experimenting in the kitchen and the plain kooky.

    In reading Blogs, most people like a range of things. I don’t mind ads, pretty images or hearing about freebies but I don’t want that to be all I read. I’m increasingly aware of a degree of sycophancy between some food bloggers and their culinary heroes but once spotted, I move on. It’s not my cup of tea but others love it.

    It’s easy to judge others but let’s face it, there’s room for everyone here. And with greater choice we can cluster with those with whom we have more synergy. As the Aussie foodbloggers scene congealed around #EatDrinkBlog so will it clarify and divide into different editorial styles and interests. Foodblogs offer a veritable smorgasbord.

  9. Tammi

    Nice post, Phil. Good to see you returning to Last Appetite with the delicious fervour of your best food writing. I’m with Zoe (and we have discussed this) – (IMHO) you are one of the most interesting and thoughtful food writers we have in Australia and I look forward to more of that sort of work from you. :-)

    On the commercial and aesthetic points you’ve made, as you know from our conversations we’re in pretty wild agreement about what we value. However, I guess I would rather not play arbiter on what’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the same way you’re prepared to do. Sure, I’d love to live in a world where everybody thinks substance is more importance than surface, but in the meantime, I guess I’ll do my best to be open to the diverse ways of the ‘food world’ (while sekritly always valorising taste and community over prettiness and status). It’s kinda nice though to have some like you out there to propose going postal. ;-) (Especially given your crazily intricate imbrication in commercial pursuits – you’re a complicated man, Phil Lees…)

    Keep raising the bar, man. ;-)

  10. another outspoken female

    I was leaping up and down with excitement reading this but then again given the direction of my talk at the conference, that would come as no surprise. I’m happy to ignore the sycophantic Donna Hay wannabes gushing over their freebies as life is to short for me to actually invest time reading them. I’d much prefer to digest a thought provoking post about the varied aspects of food and eating, a bit of politics and an original recipe. With or without a photo.

    Hope the rush of blood to the head continues to bring forth many more great posts from you Phil.

  11. penny aka jeroxie

    Great post. My blog is going through the teenager phase. It might be time for me to go away and have a think about the next phase.

    I am sure we all appreciate your honesty but like what sticki said – Foodblogs offer a veritable smorgasbord.

  12. Reemski

    Hmm, I agree with Tresna.

    I also feel the conference gave me me mojo back and reminded me of why I blogged in the first place. I think if you read my two posts since the conference it’s obvious, but that’s just me!

    I kinda feel yucky that you’ve put the dollar sign next to my blog. Can you please give us some further clarification on what you consider “Cash for Comment”?

    Only because I feel like I’ve always taken a considerable amount of care to be scathingly honest about my experiences. I don’t accept 99.9% of what I’m sent, whether invites to events or product, and if I do it’s because I have a genuine interest or I already use the product. I’m not like others who say they don’t comment negatively. If I feel it’s justified, I will say what I think…

  13. Ms Baklover

    I think of food blogs as magazines. Some, like Super Food Ideas, are good for a quick skim through, ignoring the advertorials. Others, like Gastronomica, are saved up to be savoured, preferably in bed with a glass of wine.

    I, for one, have enjoyed your hyperlocal Footscray pieces. Perhaps you will do more.

  14. Billy

    Wow, what an inspiring post – I think I’ve gotten a little caught up in the maelstrom of Melbourne foodbloggers recently myself, and have drifted away from my original intentions in setting up my food blog. Indeed, I’ve put a nuffnang adspace on there, which I’ll keep because I like the people who work at the company, and for the fact blogger provides me no traffic statistics; Buddha knows I don’t get any revenue from it!

    But yes. Nay, Hell yes! It’s time to take stock of why I decided to raise my voice in the first place, which was not to become yet another buffed and burnished shny food blog, full of gastronomic porn, but to document my own food journey.

    Thank you, once again, Phil Lees. You are a man of unending inspiration.

  15. Skye

    Well done. I’m convinced that integrity is essential to good writing, of any sort. I’m looking forward to reading more of yours.

  16. Anh

    I appreciate your honesty and point of view.

    I think what people do with their blog is their business. The fact that you put a no-follow-link for commercialized blogs in your opinion are entirely ok as well. It’s your blog, and it’s your view.

    I personally don’t mind blog promotion. But hey, I have a brain, too. Just like I’m skeptical about advertising, I don’t buy the whole blog reviews either. I trust very few reviewers (bloggers or not) anyway.

  17. Phil Lees

    Wow. I should fish for praise more often.

    I’m not censoring anyone. If that was the case, I’d remove all reference to the offending party from my blog and then maybe report the paid links to Google for good measure. To the human reader, the experience of the website is the same as it was yesterday. There is more information rather than less.

    What I am doing is offering a very minor disincentive to write posts in exchange for goods or services. WordPress (the blogging platform) already adds a nofollow to links in comments, so it is hardly a radical measure to add it to another page that doesn’t pass much pagerank.

    This is not about setting up a blacklist. I’m completely aware that other people accept gifts from marketers for a range of reasons and may only accept products that they already use and love; or are only convinced to write about a product launch because a dreamy chef whom they want to make sweet, sweet love to is in attendance. If I loved money and only accept one out of every hundred bribes that I’m offered, does that make me corrupt? I’m taking an absolute view on this. You may not.

    The converse of this is that if you do sponsored posts and have no issue with them at all – and PR folk want to get in touch with you – the dollar mark next to your name on my list is going to help you to get more free things. It is much easier for people in PR jobs to only target people who are receptive to freebies than to spam the entire list. If you want to get more free things, the best way to do it is advertise that you accept them and offer a delivery address.

    As I mentioned, my favorite bloggers set their own agendas. As soon as you accept cash, goods or services to write about any topic, you are no longer in complete control of that agenda. I’m not in complete control of the agenda of my SBS blog (or any other paid work that I do) but that’s the price I pay for getting paid.

    I certainly haven’t set this up to become the self-appointed ethics police for Australian bloggers – I don’t scrupulously read every blog on the list and pass judgment on whether a post is paid or not. Nor am I interested in outing anybody in a cash-for-comments type affair because Mediawatch are better at that than me. In the end, your wider audience decides the sum total of your credibility as a writer, not any single individual.

  18. Jo @ secondhelping

    Wow! This post and subsequent comments have really stimulated a lot of thought and opinion. Having met many of you recently, in no way does this surprise me. In fact it is one of the key things I like about blogging, and I welcome the breadth and depth of perspective and thought that stem from pieces such as this.

    I like reading 1000 word posts, and look forward to more from you Phil.

    I also like exquisite food photography and enjoy the blogs that focus on that.

    Do I like reviews of freebies? If it is well written, photographed or relevant to me then probably yes. If not, I will choose to ignore.

    Its evident that currently many of us are really considering the question, “why do we blog”. I know I am.

    My take? As long as we, as individuals, know our own answer to this question, can identify with it and be true to it, the blogosphere will continue to develop and present the cornucopia of styles and ideas that live within all of us.

    And that makes it a richer world for all.

  19. Simon Food Favourites

    so phil, just to clarify, if any blog posts google or nuffnang ads on their blog (which i don’t) then does that mean they get a $ symbol next to their blog? and for anyone that attended the Eat Drink Blog conference and received any free samples or meals as part of the event from the sponsors like St Ali, Prentice Wine, Red Hill Brewery and Daylesford and Hepburn Springs Mineral Springs Co and blogged about it, do they also get a nice shiny $ symbol next to their blog (would that include you?), and if any food bloggers go and enjoy a free pizza in the next 2 weeks at and blog about it do they also get a $ symbol next to their blog??? just not sure how far it goes. your intentions might have been not to set up a blacklist but actually the reality is i think you have ;-) personally i’m thinking the $ symbol is a bit strong and to me makes it look like those blogs have sold out, can be bought and their credibility is questionable which isn’t the case. i think food bloggers are a lot more honest about their opinions than say the SMH Good Living or Good Food Guide which seems to paint most places they publish about in a nice light.

  20. barbara

    :)) No, I don’t want to make sweet love to Tetsuya, any more than he would want to do the same to me. But the opportunity to learn from him was my motivation.

  21. stickyfingers

    Simon raises an interesting point about the sponsorship of #EatDrinkBlog.

    After all – good intentions set aside – on a business front the conference would have been considered a Social Media driven PR plug for the Seven Seeds Group/St.Ali – for whom Ed does PR – and for other sponsors such as The Essential Ingredient. Oh and not forgetting SBS, for whom Ed also works.

    At the risk of offending the attendees, if the inference is correct, those who ate/drank, took goodie bags at the event, should all receive your nofollow tag, including yourself Phil. Or do you consider yourself exempt as an employee of SBS?

    As most politicians are aware, preaching a higher moral ground can be a convoluted undertaking, unless you are willing to be totally scrupulous and transparent about all of your activities.

  22. Phil Lees

    Advertise all you like insofar as there is a clear division between advertising and editorial content. My list just makes clear that some bloggers have written content in exchange for cash or other incentives. On the list I’ve given no reason to shun them, just stated fact. I think that the dollar symbol is appropriate: if you have written in direct exchange for cash or incentives, then quite clearly, you can be and have been bought.

    As for the conference, some wrote about the sponsors, others didn’t. I was paid to write about the event for SBS and it certainly doesn’t exempt me. I didn’t take a goodie bag. I did eat and drink aplenty. I possibly ate another person’s sandwich. I didn’t mention anything at all about the sponsors in my post for SBS. I did tweet this noting my relationship to each party. “Patronage, FTW” is hardly a ringing endorsement but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there was undue influence in my treatment of the event and how this impacts on my credibility. As I mentioned in the post, attending press events comes with the territory, deciding if you’ll endorse them for sponsors is up to you. Maybe I need to color code the dollar symbols in shades of grey.

    I’d love to see posts on other blogs questioning my ethics and credibility or even promoting taking cash for comment: maybe this is the new ethics of food blogging and the old rules no longer apply.

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  25. lisa

    I don’t mind bloggers taking free stuff – it’s when they blog about it without disclosing that it was free that bothers me. This is rife in dead tree media as well.

    I don’t think bloggers need to turn down all freebies, opportunities and review copies that come their way, but it would be ethical if they were honest about where the freebies came from, and important that they don’t let the ‘free’ aspect cloud their usual value judgements. Anyone discerning can spot when a blogger is constantly posting in a positive/uncritical anyway, and that’s a turnoff for me regardless of whether they are blogging about freebies or not.

    “The bloggers whom I value most are the ones that set their own agenda” – I agree. So much.

  26. Simon Food Favourites

    i like lisa’s comment and feel i sit on the same fence, hopefully. i’ll always disclose if i receive a sample of something. but i hope to maintain a critical eye over it and if i think it could be improved i’d want to say so. if i didn’t like it then i’d say likewise. phil, thanks for your extra comments in clarifying your position on the matter. it’s amazing how things like this can sprout strong comments. i’m getting my own set of strong comments about my post about blog advertising which has obviously touched a few bloggers hearts to respond ;-)

  27. thedollarsignman

    All I can see now if you simply branded the prolific food bloggers in Australia with your holy ($) stamps and wondering whether you are really that concern about this matter, perhaps you should put more effort into it and at least do it properly just to prove your point. First of all, half of the food bloggers in Australia are missing from the list, and I noticed a few without a ($) but a few actually never accept freebies neither events are being branded.

    It’s your blog, you can do whatever you want, but if you really want to make a point, then at least put some effort into it.

  28. Bob

    “For making money, quality content online is of little benefit. It’ll help you get a job providing content for someone else and be respected by your peers but won’t necessarily pull in a valuable enough audience to make advertising a viable option (yet)”

    So you used this site to help gain a job at SBS, which you link to and thus provide “hits” to an advert loaded revenue raising (for you and them) page. Nice.

    Now that you can afford to pay for this sites upkeep, which isn’t usually an inconsequential amount, you decide to rat out others that may have ads on theirs etc. Nice.

    Tell me, when you attend SBS sited articles (or even comment on them for the site), are you given tickets/invites by them? That’s cash for comments by proxy. Nice.

    Here’s a cooking saying for you, “The pot calling the kettle black”.

  29. Phil Lees

    Dollarman – Feel free to point out missing blogs from the list. Email them through. Next time I attempt this, I’ll use the Philippine Peso symbol (₱). It’s like the letter “P” is wearing a silly hat.

    Bob – I pay for everything that I attend for SBS (apart from events that they run or own) and I don’t write about any of them here – which is the same as for any publication that I work for. Freelancing does not come with the fat expense account.

    I do link back to my own work. Is advertising that I work for someone cash for comments by proxy? Maybe it is. I should take them off my resume before ACMA catches up with me. I’m completely open that people pay me to write on their sites or magazines or newspapers, but they can never pay me to write on my own site.

    And as I’ve said, I’ve got no problems with anyone running ads. My problem is when advertising and editorial are indistinguishable.

    The upkeep of this site is $8 a month. It really hurts the hip pocket, but I’ll get through.

  30. Ed

    I think Stickifingers should check the accuracy of what she says before defaming me.

    I do not do PR for anybody, nor have I ever done PR for anybody in Australia.

    The food bloggers conference was not going to happen because we had no way of collecting money. I simply approached some companies that I was able to approach because I knew them as a food writer as i thought our interests could be mutually beneficial.

    Because of the contributions of these companies i wanted to ensure they were mentioned as they all investing significantly to make it happen.

    I received no money for pulling together the conference and lost two weeks of work for which I’m not paid to the point that I had a severe cash flow problem and was left with 440 in my pocket at one point. Further more, I actually paid money out of my own pocket to make it happen.

    SBS paid about $2600 towards the photo exhibition and i was reimbursed for the portions of this that I financed.

    I do no work on marketing projects for SBS. However, I do write independent editorial for the website for which I am paid and it was through this that I was able to make contact with the marketing department and make something happen that would otherwise not have happened.

    As for St Ali, I have been paid twice to do video blogs, something which I think I probably should not have done. Butt I certainly do not work with them on marketing.

    For the record, I have been paid by Daylesford & Hepburn Sprigs mineral Water Co, Portello Rossi and Match Bar and Grill to help out on social media.

    I do resent the implication on Stickifingers comment and think it is driven by bad blood because she wanted her advertising clients Myer, Clive Peeters and other mass market brands to be sponsors.

    Phil, I’m in the same boat as you and I’m rethinking my direction although I will keep some advertising I’m not blogging about any free events.

    You should perhaps also put a $ sign by my name as I have been invited to free meals and even been flown to Sydney for the Food festival and been to Melbourne Food festival events for free.

  31. Matt

    I’d personally appreciate a rating system for who accepts the most freebies, and then just like in the restaurant review guides they’d have a $$$ next to their link when the majority of their content is driven from freebies, then $$ for the next most, and $ for an occasional dabbler.

    I am slightly disappointed not to have a $ next to my name, but it’s really only through being a cynical bastard that noone wants to send freebies to.

    How would things like Good Food and Wine show tickets work ? Media launches that we get invited to ? I think as blogging develops and bloggers reposition themselves into quasi media outlets of their own standing, the nature of the relationship with marketers and PR people will invariably change.

  32. Ed

    I need another $ aginst my name as I not only accepted tickets to the Good Food and Wine Show for myself and Adriane but elbowed us onto a NZ pinot tasting session.

  33. Dwayne Hoy

    So one cannot “set their own agenda” while still accepting promotional items? I would have thought that the very fact that a blogger has been transparent in their motivation behind comments or reviews should be enough to satisfy readers. Why is it okay to write an honest review about an item I have purchased but not okay to write one about something that was given to me? As long as it is honest and transparent, absolutely nothing at all.

    It’s great that you have taken such a stance yourself, I find it very admirable even though I don’t totally agree. Though to push such a stance on others through “no follows” and a blog list is simply an attempt to force your ethical stance unfairly on other bloggers, which is not admirable.

  34. Pingback: Syrup and Tang — Can the honest reputation of foodblogs survive the PR-foodblogger relationship?

  35. Anneke

    Thanks Phil. I’ve been keeping a running non-published post where I write out my thoughts on what my blog is about and what audience matters to me. I get a lot of advice from my family and friends on the kinds of articles that they want to see, but since I’ve started writing more professionally I have limited time for my blog. I want to keep myself passionate about my blog. Writing about what I really care about keeps me writing at all. It’s great to be reminded that others need to refocus sporadically too.


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