Real Estate and Food Reporting Is a Missed Opportunity
Celebrity-owned $25,000 glass-door fridges; hotel owners “writing off San Francisco” as the market drops; homeowners shelling out “tens of thousand dollars to outfit their properties with cold plunges;” and finally, buildings with stroller valets.
Welcome to the journalism of privilege, which can at times replace reporting on ordinary people’s experiences of essential human needs (and pleasures) like food and shelter. For decades, this sort of material has been both amusing and the source of ad dollars for the publications that ran them. But this sort of fare is also a potential lost opportunity: these sorts of pieces could contain more complex details or critical perspectives, but often do not.
“When you look at the way that real estate news is cast in mainstream papers, it’s as if it’s for investors,” says Miriam Axel-Lute who runs a nonprofit devoted to media about community development and housing, Shelterforce. The Wall Street Journal’s Real Estate section, for example, is filled with headlines like “Entity Tied to Pampered Chef Founder Pays $26.875 Million for Nantucket Home” or a multimillion dollar “dacha” in “rural Indiana”.
What’s left out are not only stories about housing insecurity but also affordable housing in general. “Real estate is not just large owners and developers,” says Axel-Lute. “It’s also refinancing, foreclosures, modest homeowners, anyone who has a home or wants a home,” she says.
This same problem can afflict food journalism as well. Mark Bittman, the former New York Times’ food columnist who now runs the food publication The Bittman Project, tells me he has been “tooting the horn ” about the problem with food coverage for years. A pattern of luxurious food coverage, for instance, includes costly recipes involving specialized or expensive ingredients and reviews of high-end restaurants and profiles of famous chefs. Food writers note to me that what is often minimized or passes unmentioned: the restaurant workers themselves; the un-compostable plastic that encases almost all take-out meals; the unaffordability of certain recipes (saffron! pounds of fish!); or even regularly noting that the cost of fine dining, especially in inflationary times, is often out of reach of many of us.
Bittman notes though that some food publications have expanded their view of the world for the better in the last five years– writing about what we eat has been democratized by sites like Eater, which includes write ups of more commonplace restaurants, and Civil Eats, which describes itself as a “daily news source for critical thought about the American food system.” (For Real Estate coverage, there are also meat-and-potato housing sites like New York’s local Brick Underground where a sample headline reads “An affordable housing lottery launches for 282 apartments in Far Rockaway”.)
Yet such intersectional coverage remains the exception. Matthew Wheeland, the managing editor of the nonprofit Civil Eats, says his publication runs “pieces of the conversation that are not happening in bigger well-funded publications”: food and farm workers, or, say, a cookbook for disabled cooks, and the broader food system. Readers still need to know, says Wheeland, that there are “decisions you can make” about what you eat so it’s “more in line with your values and beliefs in the kitchen.”
Food journalism emerged out of the consumerist 1950s, when it was mostly one gender doing the cooking. It often lived in women’s pages and women’s magazines. And when it existed in newspapers it was connected to advertising. The Minneapolis Star’s (now StarTribune) Taste section, for example, started in 1969. A short history of Taste notes that “grocery ads made Taste irresistible (there were plenty of coupons on those pages) …”
But the interest in catering to wealthy readers as well as to readers’ fantasies about themselves and others’ lives has a cost. “Ninety nine percent of restaurants don’t get covered,” long-time food critic Robert Sietsema, an editor and critic for Eater, tells me. It can seem that readers are being encouraged to yearn, from the outside, for extreme excess, as if they were Cousin Greg from“Succession.” Partly in response, Sietsema has made it his life’s work to review restaurants that cater to less opulent customers and are, say, mom-and-pop owned.
There remains, however, a sharp line between the mildly increased coverage of ethnic eats in the mainstream media and stories that include the restaurant workers who make the food. “The restaurant workers are rarely interviewed,” says Sietsema. “They certainly aren’t eating the foie gras lollipops that are being served where they work.”
Part of this is related to a silo-ing of labor coverage overall, a different but related issue. The rising number of accidents due to delivery people peddling faster and faster to meet demand is one example of such an intersectional story. But pieces on these sorts of topics can be considered “special interest,” a niche where labor coverage can be relegated to according Sarah Jaffe, an independent labor reporter and author of Work Won’t Love You Back, puts it.In real estate coverage, similarly, it’s unusual to read about the construction workers who build the luxury condos advertised.
There are ways, however, to ease the stark divide between lifestyle writing and any of these topics’ deeper (and darker) meanings. Part of it is to change how these matters are covered. Axel-Lute believes that if traditional real estate reporters learned to look at their topics in another way—from the perspective of those with housing insecurity, for example, it would ease the overclass or boosterish tone of reporting.
Bittman and his colleagues have recently discussed putting links into their recipes, leading to sites that explained the political, health, and animal justice context of some of the ingredients. What if a chicken recipe explained why pasture-raised chicken was better for both the animal, the diner and the planet, and yet also acknowledged also that such meat might be too costly for the ordinary home cook? Or a glazed broccoli recipe that also laid out why broccoli is best if it’s farmed in a multi crop situation with minimal chemicals? In other words, it’s not necessarily boring or a downer to have environmental information woven into a recipe. Or to read about other people’s very modest homes or communal housing experiments rather than being inundated with accounts of one percent brownstones and country dwellings with ridiculously pricey glass walls and kitchen backsplashes.
To best achieve this braiding of educational awareness and fun might mean we have to hire different kinds of reporters to cover these stories. At the media organization I direct, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, we have assigned two first-person reported accounts. One was of one journalist’s eviction and the other of another’s then-looming eviction: we co-published the first with a real estate publication Curbed and the second with The Guardian. We also assigned an essayist who had worked as a personal chef to write up a recipe for cooking healthy food on a tight budget.
Our profession though can take these sorts of admittedly small-bore methods of diversifying this sort of coverage further. I believe that if we do, we would also be appealing more inclusively to audiences. We can cover the joyous and quotidian stuff of life, telling stories that truly engage, while at the same time recognizing pleasure’s underbelly.
Alissa Quart is the executive director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a journalism nonprofit devoted to covering inequality. The author of five nonfiction books (including Bootstrapped (2023) and two poetry collections, she has also contributed to The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.
Co-published with Columbia Journalism Review.