I’m very much aware that when it comes to being a beer writer I’m a new kid on the block. I’ve been around the industry itself for many, many years and have been posting on social media and blogging about it for quite a few years. But it’s only recently that it’s become my job, as it were. So these are my thoughts on this sector of our industry, and in my typical fashion, the holistic aspects that affect it.
Notice firstly that I say beer writer, not journalist. That’s because I believe that there are different aspects to writing about beer, and I think that we as drinkers and readers should be aware of these, so here they are as I see them.
The easiest way to think of this is your live broadcast, where some junior newsperson is sent to cover something as exciting as a Tiddlywinks tournament, or a Women’s Institute baking competition, or a storm hitting the coast and washing cars out to sea. I’ve actually been to all three of these and the only one I have no wish to ever repeat was the storm. But it’s reporting, it’s telling people what’s happening, usually from first hand experience. Think Bridget Jones and Groundhog Day for examples of how we’re supposed to think of them.
Pelican Brief, All The Presidents Men, and other ‘serious’ films, serious people having serious meetings in dark and shady places, breaking stories of scandal. It’s not all like that. But it does involve the research, the time, and a story in the public interest that needs telling and often time relevant. In our industry this has been breaking stories about sexual and racial abuse perpetrated by some breweries. Their treatment of their staff, and sometimes their customers has rightly seen scorn drawn upon them, but without the work done by a few individuals who attracted scorn upon themselves by fans of the breweries in question we wouldn’t even be aware of it. It even got to the point where Channel 4 did a full documentary on BrewDog. Although I’ve not seen much in the way of a follow up from these, it would be interesting to see how each brewery has changed, if they have.
Similar to Investigative Journalism, but not as serious. There have been some great articles written recently that fall into this category. They’re not time limited but timeless. A history of a beer style or a community, the people and places involved, and written in a way that makes us want to be part of it, or at least go and visit.
I suppose this is more where I fit in. A lot of pieces I write are informative, they help to explain something that may be technical or specific. They don’t have to be stuffy (and I really hope my writing isn’t), but they should try and help spread knowledge.
Coined in 2008 this slightly derogative phrase means basically taking a press release and republishing it. Or maybe even reposting something from social media. Not just the pre-written article, but the specially selected and often made up quotes. And this is seen as the problem we have in the industry at the moment.
But it’s not something new, influenced reporting has been happening for at least as long as I’ve been around the industry, and almost certainly for as long as the journalism industry has been around.
I wanted to be a beer writer many years ago. But I got disillusioned by the articles I was reading. I knew the people and the background to the stories, but I had a completely different experience and view to what was being written by respected journalists. How could that be? Obviously I was missing something, so I carried on as a cellarman, and eventually as a brewer. But during those intervening years I learned what I was missing, or rather what I wasn’t missing. And that was different views.
As writers we can’t know everything that’s going on in the beer world, it’s massive. So we tend to rely on press releases to tell us what’s happening. We can’t spend all our time hunting around for stories, because we’d never get anything written and therefore never get paid. But there’s a trade off. A press release tells one side of the story, and it’s the side of the people putting out the release. They’re a bit like a press conference with no questions from the audience, the sort favoured by certain political groups. And if we only hear one side, we only know one side.
What I was missing was only having that single side. A beer writer I respected at the time had been spending a lot of time at the larger regional breweries, having tours of their facilities, being put up in their inns, fed at their restaurants and watered at their bars. All with them in attendance. There was no malice in it, they were being sociable and happy to share their knowledge and views. But the problem was, those were the only views that this particular writer was hearing, because they were only spending time with these larger brewers, because they were the ones that could afford to give him the weekends away at tours and events. The microbreweries and the freehouses of the time couldn’t afford to do so, so their voices weren’t heard. Again, this wasn’t a deliberate snub by the writer, it’s just that they were always busy elsewhere.
Quite a few years later the world moved on and that particular writer got ridiculed for their views by the new craft beer industry. A massive wake up call for them, which they thankfully heeded and have gone back to listening to all, and championing what they believe is better for the industry as a whole, not just what one area believes is better. That was just one beer writer that I know of, and who I once again respect highly.
The situation of unintended churnalism is only getting worse though unfortunately. Our society now is much faster, in the rush to compete with social media there’s less time to check facts, to get further information, to get the other side before the publishing deadline. There’s also the shorter attention spans, news in seconds, next story, we’ve already forgotten that one. Investigative, Story Telling and Educational forms of reporting and writing don’t usually suffer from this, although everything does to an extent, but reporting suffers horrendously. The recommended length for a press release is 300 to 400 words; the recommended length for a news story is 250 to 500 words. With such a small space to get a story into, and so much in the press release, it’s not a surprise that it’s very much as it comes. And then after that there’s the ‘small’ issue of what you’re allowed to say. The owners of the platform get to decide the attitude and the affiliation of what gets published. So even if you can get the time to get further information, to see if a press release is all it seems, if it doesn’t fit the voice of the platform, it’s not getting published. And that voice is often decided by the major sponsors or advertisers. If advertisers pull their funding, the entire platform collapses and no-one gets paid. And a major advertiser is never going to be happy with an article that shows them in a bad light, so these platforms run a serious risk of being nothing more than propaganda for a few corporations, masquerading as the ‘voice of the industry’
But what are we as writers and journalists to do? I think the first thing we need is a realisation and an understanding of how we stand. Of what our industry is like, and of what people expect. But I also think that our readers need to know this too. We need for people to understand that at times pieces are rushed to a deadline, and we ourselves need to have something in place to address that in the future. To write follow up pieces to breaking stories. But will people read the follow ups? Or will the attention span problem mean that folk have moved on and no longer care?
But the other side of us all understanding what’s happening in our industry, of what we’re all doing and what we all face to try and pay the bills each month, is that we should hopefully respect each other more. Knowing what we’re all up against, understanding our problems, empathising with each other. I think that’s the first step to a better writing community.
But perhaps we need a set of guidelines for ourselves. They might already exist, I don’t know, I’m self taught and new to this. But here’s how I see them:
- Don’t Lie.
I think this is very important. We may get things wrong, but if we don’t deliberately do so then I think we can hold our heads up.
- Don’t believe everything you’re told.
If we get a press release that sounds a bit fanciful, then maybe it’s better to double check some things before republishing it. A few extra minutes to do a quick online search, or a quick call to someone we know who knows about the subject could save reputation.
- Respect each other.
If we’re adhering to the first two we can hold our heads high, but we must also believe that our contemporaries are too. If we believe that we are doing good, we should also believe that others are too.
- Keep An Open Mind.
You don’t know everything. Even if it’s something you’ve researched before, more information may have come to light, new research may have been done, things change. Remember, at one time people thought the Earth was flat, that the Sun orbited around the Earth, or that rye had any place in beer.
- Don’t Be A Dick.
This one should go without saying. Not just for beer writers, but for life.
- Apologise when you get it wrong.
Like ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ this applies to life in general too.
I think if we all do this, be aware that we’ve got a tough industry, that we all want to be better, and that we all try our best, then I think that we can all hold our heads high and continue covering some of the awesome things that we do.