MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA — Food journalism is reaching a zenith of popularity and cool. Scores of people tune in to watch Anthony Bourdain search the world for something to eat. The New York Times’s food critic leaves his post and readers across the country speculate over replacements. But the tide of foodie attention has also brought us endless comment chains on Yelp!, countless half-hearted blogs, and other things that lead to nervous talk of the weakening of true food criticism. For some, the fall of Gourmet’s print magazine in 2009 was just the beginning of the end.
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But you wouldn’t know it to talk with James Norton, editor of The Heavy Table. Based in Minneapolis but covering the Upper Midwest, Norton’s online magazine offers up restaurant reviews, interviews, and aggregated recipes with a Midwestern flair every weekday. Accompanied by salivation-worthy photographs, the Heavy Table’s pieces are well-reported by Norton and a handful of paid contributing writers, each dedicated to the mission of documenting the unique food culture of Minnesota and beyond.
Readers will find a regular round up of restaurant openings and closings as well as a comprehensive list of the day’s top stories from around the food media world. Some of Heavy Table’s biggest stories include a piece on the politics of raw milk and a video on how to make your own Jucy Lucy (a local burger concoction that puts the cheese inside the burger instead of on top).
Norton managed to get a number of talented freelancers on board quickly. “There are a lot of people who are talented writers and editors who feel underutilized and frustrated,” explains Norton. Though the Twin Cities boast two daily papers, an alternative weekly, and several notable monthly magazines and news websites, times are still tough for area jousnalists and food writer’s alike. City Pages, the local Village Voice Media weekly, laid off its full-time food writer in September.
Not so long ago, in early 2009, Norton himself was a weekly food writer laid off by City Pages. A former Middle East desk editor for the Christian Science Monitor, Norton moved to New York City and then to St. Paul while working as a researcher for Al Franken’s radio show. Norton had thought of his work for Franken as “a chance to tell the truth [that’s] going to completely disrupt or destroy my journalism career.” Then Franken decided to run for the Senate in 2008, and Norton had to move on. “Lo and behold,” he says, “it basically did destroy my career.”
But Norton was, as seems typical for him, unshaken. “I think I’m at some level very self-confident. I work very hard and I’m good at what I do and if the market can’t find a use for me, I’ll find a use for me,” he says. He launched Heavy Table shortly after his ill-fated stop at City Pages.
To get started, Norton put $3,000 of his own money into the project. The site doesn’t have a dedicated sales person, but has had success with advertisers, who lined up quickly after the site’s launch. Norton was able to lure advertisers through detailed data gathered through regular audience surveys. Local liquor stores, a cookware company called Nordic Ware, and others found a group of financially stable, food-obsessed readers waiting for them. The site charges a CPM rate of $20. The price is a little above average, according to Norton, but he negotiates down for small, local businesses; longer-term buys also receive a discount.
Heavy Table’s contributing writers still have their day jobs and Norton has a twice-weekly column on CHOW.com to sustain him, in addition to royalties from several books.
With 60,000 unique monthly visitors, the Heavy Table has room to grow. Norton hopes to get that number to 100,000, which would match his past success with Flak, an online magazine he started in college, which received 100,000 monthly uniques at its peak.
Norton also hopes to add some investigative and policy pieces to the site’s repertoire, but to make that happen he needs more than just contributing writers. His plan involves hiring a salesperson and, with the added revenue, employing a writer full-time as opposed to working with the roughly $60 per story budget he has now.
In the lean and often disspiriting startup world, Norton has an uncharacteristic swagger. “It’s been really easy to distinguish ourselves” he says of his competition. “I kind of wish it wasn’t so easy. I wish more people were doing what we’re doing and we had to fight a little harder.”
While Norton waits for the competition to organize, he’ll be working on his next book, tentatively titled The Food of Lake Superior.
The Heavy Table Data
Name: The Heavy Table
City: Minneapolis (covers the upper Midwest)
Principal Staff: James Norton, editor and publisher; Aaron Landry, producer.
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