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Editor Kane Webb on Why Louisville Magazine Nixed Restaurant Reviews

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Last week Kane Webb celebrated his second anniversary as Louisville Magazine's editor. Previous to relocating here, Webb was executive editor of Arkansas Life magazine, a monthly regional. And prior to that, he was a newspaper columnist, editorial writer and features writer.

Earlier this year, the 63-year-old publication with a circulation of 24,000 was redesigned: most notably for Eater's purposes, gone were traditional restaurant reviews. Before the relaunch, the magazine ran about one review a month, mostly written by freelancers. Here, Webb explains why Louisville Magazine scrapped them, how it's now covering restaurants and media coverage of the culinary scene in general.

Disclosure: This Eater Louisville Editor has contributed to Louisville Magazine and also works for Louisville.com, which is co-owned by Louisville Magazine's publisher, Dan Crutcher. Neither Crutcher, Webb nor I attended St. X together though.

You launched a redesigned Louisville Magazine earlier this year. What changes did you make to how the publication covered the local restaurant scene?

We launched our redesign in January with changes in look and content—even size. The magazine is slightly largely, width-wise, which makes it seem more square. (Much easier for designs and more space for writers.) In looking at the restaurant scene here, we wanted to get away from the typical review for a few reasons: for one, we're a monthly and by the time we get around to reviewing a new restaurant, it's been reviewed by the Courier-Journal, LEO Weekly, any number of blogs and websites and, it seems, half the city has eaten there already. So, given our production schedule, we're naturally behind the curve.

Secondly, there are so many many place to get an opinion about a restaurant, I didn't quite see what we were adding to the chorus. I believe strongly in giving readers something they may not get elsewhere, so we decided to ditch the review and try some different things -- q-and-a's with the chef or owner, which is what we've done so far; maybe some behind-the-scenes process stories of the chef at work; a chef's journal; food bits that might highlight a certain dish or drink? We're still evolving that section and, except for the idea that, for now, we've drifted from the typical review, we're experimenting.

But the overall philosophy with how we hope to cover the restaurant scene moving forward is from a cultural as well as a culinary one with our goal providing the reader with something different, entertaining and informative.

Obviously with reviews, the focus is on recent openings. What's Louisville Magazine's criteria for selecting a restaurant to cover?

I think we certainly lean toward what's new or relatively new, which really doesn't limit our options in this town. Louisville is really a remarkable restaurant city, as you know. But also we're looking for good backstories, either with the owner or the chef or even the locale (for example, I think the building that houses Manny and Merle has a great backstory). As with any stories we do, the overriding concern is simple: is it of interest to the reader?

How important are restaurant reviews to a vibrant culinary scene?

I think they are important, and I think there are plenty of folks who do them in this city and do them well. And it's not as if the magazine is getting away from having opinions on food and restaurants. We offer them all the time in a variety of ways. To cite two examples: we held a wine-tasting with experts on local wines; we had a feature in which we (the staff) each had $10 to spend on bar food and went looking for the best bar food. Last year, we held a "fantasy restaurant draft" that was a 1-to-50 listing of restaurants as "drafted" by our panel, including you. Purely subjective. Lots of fun. And, I think, a service to the reader. Just because we may not have a piece in every issue that says Review doesn't mean that we're not going to review food and dining.

Have any readers complained about Louisville Magazine no longer running reviews?

Not really. I think they know we're still going to cover food and restaurants in-depth, and I think it may speak to the fact that there are already so many reviews out there that one gone missing isn't a big deal.

Louisville Magazine has a slew of other city or regional monthly magazines lying around its offices. Any examples come to mind of publications that are kicking ass with their restaurant and nightlife coverage?

New York magazine does it better than anybody, and, yes, it still does reviews. (Of course it's a weekly.) But what New York does best is approach restaurants and food as both a cultural story (like the piece it did on the chef at Mission Chinese [Danny Bowien]) and as a service to the readers (see almost any issue). Texas Monthly just came out with its biennial barbecue issue, which might be my favorite food-related issue of any magazine anywhere. BBQ is serious business in those parts, which Texas Monthly astutely realizes. The magazine even hired a barbecue editor recently. Garden and Gun has the best food photography around. Among city magazines, I think Cincinnati's recent issue on sandwiches was a fantastic combination of design, photography and service writing that actually told you something and didn't sound as if it were stripped from a chamber of commerce guide.

In your two years here, what's surprised you the most about Louisville's restaurant scene? What about its media scene?

It's so vibrant, eclectic and ever-growing. Last year in EATS, our annual food-and-dining guide which is coming out again soon, we had a feature about all the local restaurants that had opened over the last two or three years. I think the count was more than 60. Locally owned! And very few close. I guess this goes hand-in-hand with something else I've found about Louisvillians -- We LOVE to eat out.

About EATS—earlier you mentioned that publishing a monthly magazine led to challenges about being current with restaurant reviews. EATS is an annual special edition. How long of a shelf life do you really expect it to have though (that is, how long do you shoot for it to be current)? Also, last year's edition contained 318 listings and 38 menus. Do you worry that sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon and apps like Menus and Hours are shrinking EATS' readership? If so, how are you adjusting?

Good question. We approach EATS with the understanding that it will be on the shelves and, I hope, on readers' coffee tables for a year, so the information we provide in it can't be perishable. What makes EATS most valuable to the reader is the comprehensive dining listings, which include all the basics—location, contact numbers, hours of operation, type of cuisine, a brief write-up—so that you have every restaurant in town in one handy publication. (During the year, we run parts of the dining guide in the monthly issue, but only in EATS is it published in its entirety.) So I think having that handy and in one publication is a big deal to folks.

Editorially, we also have to be aware that the issue will be around a while, so we try to think in terms of stories and features that have a shelf life. Last year we did a piece on all the new restaurants that have popped up really since the Big Recession hit, which makes it all the more amazing. We knew that story had legs because the trend had sustained itself over several years. We also did a story on "lost restaurants" —greats that are no longer around but live fondly in local memories.

Do I think that sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon are shrinking Eats' readership? Not really. At least not based on reader enthusiasm for that publication. One thing an EATS has over, say, Yelp is that readers know they're getting advice, guidance, information from a credible source. We're a proven commodity, and we still do old-fashioned reporting—checking our facts, making the calls, getting the details right, trying to be mercilessly fair in what we have to say about any restaurant's food on any given night. Like anybody else, when I go out of town, I often check Yelp and Urbanspoon for quick reviews of restaurants—but I take those critiques with a truckload of salt. So many seem to be written by people with axes to grind or just anonymous posters who like to shout. I don't know these folks. Should I trust them? I like to think readers of EATS can trust us.

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[Photo: Courtesy Facebook/Kane Webb]