Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Holding down the grocery budget

I just returned from the grocery store. Prices, especially for basics such as eggs, milk and bread, are rising rapidly. What are your tips and strategies for saving money at the supermarket?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Critics' Notes: Small Plates and Service

In Seattle, where I work as a restaurant critic, as well as the whole length of the West Coast, small-plates dining has outlasted both faddishness and trend fatigue to become a permanent change in the way we dine out. Most of the new restaurants I’ve reviewed this year no longer divide their menus into starters and entrees. Now it’s “pizzette, crudi, and big plates,” or something even more ethereal like “tossed, crisped, and sparked” (still can’t figure that one out). Most of this year’s new bistros omitted divisions altogether, democratically listing $7 dishes between $16 ones for no clear reason. Ask the server how to put together a meal, and 95 percent of the time, the answer is “However you like.”

As an ADD eater who’s tired of making my way through a 20-ounce pork chop sitting on a liter of mashed potatoes, I am all for the small-plates cultural shift. My problem is that, by and large, service has still not caught up with it.

Restaurateurs and diners both like to talk about how small-plates dining is more casual. But when you tally up the check at the end of the meal, it’s not much cheaper -- and in my experience, it requires servers to be more, not less, attentive to their tables.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been seated at tiny tables (to fit the tiny plates, of course), only to have all eight of the dishes I’ve ordered show up at once, so that everything cools to lukewarm before I’ve had a chance to make my way through half the plates. I’ve begrudgingly learned to dine in 3-D, where my friends and I hold a couple of plates aloft while we pick at the rest, glaring at the party next to us in the hopes they’ll leave so we can pull a Manifest Destiny on their table.

The strongest waiters and cooks will take my order, then automatically arrange the items on it: light to heavy, raw to cooked. There may no longer be such a thing as an appetizer or an entree, but if I’m going to be paying the same prices for a meal of small plates, I expect it to be a multi-course one. Plus, the best way to sell diners more wine (and bump up the tip) is to help us move from white to red or bright to rich as the meal progresses, not just dump a bunch of different flavors on the table and let us figure out what we want to drink with it.

That old rhythm -- serve a course, wait a few minutes, check back to see how the course is, return to clear plates, wait a few minutes, serve the next course -- is gone, so servers need to learn a new one. Good waiters at small-plates restaurants pay attention to how quickly we’re eating, staggering the arrival of new plates so that we’re never overburdened, and check frequently to see whether new share plates or clean cutlery are needed. And the rarest, and best, waiters start their good service at the time we order, helping us pick out just the right number of dishes and finding a good balance of cold, hot, delicate, and hearty.

-- Jonathan Kauffman

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just Because You Can Do Multimedia, Doesn't Mean You Have To Do Multimedia

Amid the desperation of the crumbling industry, too many newsrooms are acting like doing multimedia journalism is their best lifeboat.

That may have been true if that effort had begun 10 or 15 years ago, but it's unlikely to prove true now.

That hasn't stopped them from buying a ton of equipment and throwing it at people who have neither the talent, the interest or the aptitude for using it.

For the sake of argument, let's say none of those three things are true. Perhaps there's a budding video or audio journalist inside you that's burning to get out. You've gotten your feet wet and you want to push your skills farther.

Just a second there, cowpokes.

While there's lots to be said for just getting out and doing stuff - and you should, absolutely - doing so without a plan doesn't accomplish much. And it could detract from your main audience in print, which may become frustrated by an inability to access your new multimedia reports or by their lack of interest. Not every reader wants to become a viewer or a blog or podcast subscriber.

The bottom line: Every multimedia story needs to be matched to the medium that works best for that story.

Some stories have great visuals but no action. Those can be best told with a photo gallery or perhaps a Soundslides presentation that matches audio with photos.

Others have characters and sources with authentic and unique voices but no action. That story may best be told through audio storytelling or a podcast interview.

Or none of those attributes and require more storytelling than video or audio can capture. In that case, print can still be king.

Or you could combine elements of all three on a blog, if you do one. Blogs are outstanding for cherrypicking the best attributes and bringing them together under one multimedia umbrella.

For an example, here's a video I did last weekend about the cooking going on at the infield of the Budweiser Shootout NASCAR race.

I chose to do video for all the reasons I stated - great characters, action, sound and unique voices - stuff I couldn't adequately capture in print. I had a still camera at my disposal and did shoot a photo gallery. I also had a Marantz audio recorder at my disposal, but I thought the background noise would be too great to record anything audible - plus, it would miss all that great racecar action.

In coming weeks, I'll be posting in here some links to resources that can help you decide what works best, and which help you hone skills in some of those disciplines.

To start out, here are a few solid links to posts that talk about how to make your blog better.

The first is from Sree Sreenivasan, a professor at Columbia Journalism School who has started a radio blog.

In a post about Facebook for Journalists, his tips include:

Provide unique material.

See what's already out there and provide content that satisfies a need not being met already.

Create a series that could be useful to a specific audience.

He suggests for a medical blog a series like "If I have (enter illness this here), then I should do (enter recommendations here)."

Create weekly posts filling in the blank with different topics.

After several posts, you'll likely have a robust resource that could climb higher in the Google's page rankings.

Post frequently.

When users come to your blog and find something new, they'll find there's a reason to keep checking back for more.

Then over at Idiot Duct Tape, I found this guide: "You Can Be a Good Example or a Horrible Warning - How NOT to be a Successful Blogger"

Some of his mistakes included:

I don’t have a niche.

I suffer from Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder (N.A.D.D.) in a bad way. I rarely write on the same subject for more than a week at a time. Readers would much rather subscribe to a source of information that updates infrequently on one subject instead of someone posting frequently about things they aren’t interested in. You can’t be all things to all people.

I don’t “do” news.

For some reason the tech blogging community falls into three categories: people who create news, people who comment on news, and people who write how-to guides and lists. They all pull slightly different audiences. Thanks to N.A.D.D., I do all three. When I do comment on news I typically write after the news has broken because I was focused on something else at the time it was breaking.

I don’t have a strong enough voice.

I am ok at the technical aspects of writing, but I do not have a strong voice. Some people can take the most ordinary of subjects and turn it into something wonderful. I’m a better editor than I am a writer.

I don’t use humour often enough.

One of the things I love most about my life is having a great sense of humour and surrounding myself with very funny people. This doesn’t come across in my writing.

- Jeff Houck

Monday, February 4, 2008 Entertainment Revamp

One site you'll want to keep an eye on in coming months is's new entertainment guide. You can see the beta version of the site by clicking here.

There's lots of food stuff embedded on the site, including my new favorite: Dude, where's my wine bar.

I don't see a lot of community building on the site yet, other than a Featured User thumbnail section and a solicitation for people to send in photos. But it does encourage readers to voice their opinions about restaurants and bars and also to rank their favorite restaurants.

- Jeff Houck