Chicago Tribune's Food Editor Says Hasta La Vista
Is this the end for Chicago food media?
Ariel Cheung the food editor of the Chicago Tribune just announced today that she’s leaving her role to start a new job as editorial director at City Bureau. In an email, she wrote, “It’s a bittersweet moment, but it was simply time for change.” She added, “…while my job will be less devoted to food and travel, there certainly might be opportunities in the future where our paths will cross again…”.
You might recall I last wrote about Cheung with questions I had about ethical considerations regarding a free food request she made on behalf of an organization she led. With that in mind, I think a lot of people think this news might bring me some form of joy or schadenfreude.
It’s actually the opposite.
One of the reasons I decided to write about Ariel in that context is because she mattered and I really admired her and thought it was interesting how ethics are difficult even for the best of us. I also appreciated that she took the time to respond to me. A lot of journalists expect their sources to be open books, but clam up when the tables turn. Cheung did not and she has a lot of integrity.
Cheung was the top editor at what used to be THE food and drink news destination in Chicago. Prior to her work at Tribune, she was a dogged shoeleather-scraping writer for DNAinfo, and also germane to this newsletter a reviewer for Modern Luxury (disclosure: I too was a reviewer for Modern Luxury for many years).
Longtime readers know I don’t write traditional reviews, and one of the things I loved about Ariel is that she didn’t always either. She had a point of view and a style that stood out to me relative to the many folks who have reviewed in Chicago. I hold Maggie Hennessy of Time Out in this regard too.
I don’t know it was her stewardship, but I’ve also really appreciated that both Nick Kindelsperger and Louisa Chu have also worked hard and pursued their own voices, tackling social issues, infusing their personalities and their families and thoughts in unique ways that are much different from their predecessor Phil Vettel.
I hope Cheung leaving doesn’t impact the personal voices Nick and Louisa are cultivating. I hope this doesn’t mean the Tribune is on the precipice of killing food coverage altogether. As the former and last Chicago Sun-Times restaurant reviewer I know what it’s like when they pull the rug away.
As the former Tribune Redeye restaurant reviewer, I know too much. I saw how the Tribune continued to pay its talented writers less and less, how they tried to stick to old ham-handed paternal management to reign in their creative talent. If the Tribune had been smart, they would have killed the old broadside and turned the operation over to the more creative and innovative Redeye team.
It is hard not to read into a move like this though and see it as another inflection point for rich local food coverage. Ten years ago, Tribune Food Editor was a job you just did not leave. Former Tribune Food Editor Carol Mighton Haddix worked at the Trib for 33 years and held the role for decades before handing the spot over to Joe Gray who was the editor for another ten years before hedge fund buyouts drove him away.
The writing certainly has been on the wall, with Trib going from a robust full weekly section regarded as the best in the business to a few articles a week produced by a skeleton staff. Though I’m glad that they did it, I’ve always been amazed that the hedge fund which has had contentious negotiations with their writers’ union actually named and retained two full time food critics in Chu and Kindelsperger.
Will that continue with Cheung heading for greener pastures?
I suppose a lot of people are like “so what” we have Instagram and Yelp. This is true, but as you know those places are rife with abuse and pay for play. While ethical lapses weren’t absent from traditional journalism, the Tribune is one of the last places that pays for its writers to dine out and to dine out multiple times. You knew that a review from the Tribune generally wasn’t a pay for play operation.
The quality of a restaurant scene is directly correlative to the quality and quantity of its coverage. As much as I have really tried to believe that quality always earns a voice, I realize this is not true. The world is now content-saturated and people have responded by scuttling off to their comfortable familiar niches.
If no one, especially sources with more general readership like a major daily, is out there shouting your story, it’s tough to be heard. I also recognize people will tell me that these places haven’t been as impactful as they used to be. I agree, but they still have impact.
That New York and Los Angeles continue to thrive as do their food scenes is also related. You might say, oh well, we still have The Infatuation and Eater! This is true, but the former is owned by J.P. Morgan Chase of New York and the latter by Vox Media of Washington, DC.
I think Adrian Kane and John Ringor of Infatuation Chicago are funny and irreverent. I think Ashok Selvam of Eater Chicago is one of the last true fact-checking/interviewing/FOIA-requesting food journalists in Chicago. But, their corporate managers are based on the coasts, and they do not care about our third coast as much as John, Adrian, Ashok, and I do.
That Chicago’s food voices have been decimated and that we have fallen off the map as one of the best food cities in the world, and that our own homegrown talent has moved and opened in places like Nashville and Los Angeles, is not a coincidence. Even though it’s impossible not to see it as more, hopefully, this is just a personal decision for Cheung and not a symptom of more awful things to come in Chicago food media
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