5 Questions with The New Food Economy: Digging Deep on the Complex Forces That Shape How and What We Eat

Sometimes in the process of news gathering or carrying out coverage, a defining moment happens to a news agency or blog. Welcome to our new Beyond Bylines series: Five questions about the big stories you’re covering.

The New Food Economy

Investigations are making a comeback.

With confidence shrinking in public institutions, journalists appear to be doubling down on investigative efforts.

Major newspapers are bringing back investigative units to mine for new stories. Complex tales of everyday corruption are surfacing in people’s living rooms, in the form of docuseries like Dirty Money and Rotten.

A slew of independent news sites are cropping up, too — spotlighting undertold stories to promote a more informed citizenry, while also spurring reform.

Enter The New Food Economy.

The award-winning nonprofit newsroom focuses on the underreported stories of our food system, covering the complex forces shaping how and what we eat.

Topics range from foodborne illness in prisons and agricultural workers’ surprising rates of suicide to the coming of genetically engineered fish. “Think of food as the central character in a larger story about money, power, politics, or culture,” it says, on the site.

The New Food Economy’s founder and publisher, Jeffrey Kittay, and editor Kate Cox have been with the publication since its start in 2015. They gave us a glimpse into their incisive brand of food journalism.

1. Tell us about The New Food Economy. What initiated the creation of the site?

Kittay: While I was working for a set of newspapers in Maine, I took notice of how many people there were working in the “farm-to-table” movement — producers, processors, restaurants and retailers — who were facing formidable challenges in trying to shape a more conscientious food system. It did not take long to see that covering these ambitions in all their facets (not only entrepreneurial, but cultural, environmental, political and as a public health issue) comprised a national, and rather complex, “beat” that was underreported, and demanded writers and editors devoted to this specialization.

2. Your site strikes a very conversational tone. How do you balance between using a more casual voice with the hard news you’re reporting?

Cox: We write the news in voice. And we do it for two reasons: One, because humans report these stories. And making the presence of the reporter known (glancingly, of course) allows us to better reflect the ethical conundrums, deep questions, and uncertainties that every eater faces when deciding how and what to eat. Second, we cover an often opaque and very perplexing supply chain. Helping our readers connect the dots between those parts of the system they can’t see and the parts they encounter in their everyday lives is sometimes best done with a sense of humor and a pizza-and-a-six-pack tone of voice.

3. What challenges do you face as a nonprofit journalism startup that’s different than the typical newsroom?

Kittay: In our particular case, we have been fortunate to have a single donor support the operation side of our enterprise—one who continues to be patient enough to keep us going as we develop our newsroom. We have started raising funds from readers and are approaching donor organizations that either support independent journalism or food literacy. Challenges there are, to be sure, but in some ways they are not more daunting than starting a for-profit media enterprise in these parlous days. And the nonprofit business model forces us to be sure that we are connecting with our readers enough for them to be willing to directly invest in us.

4. Investigative journalism usually comes with huge risks. What advice do you have for new journalists embarking on this type of reporting? What steps do you take you protect yourself?

Cox: Investigative journalism in some ways requires the same things of our newsroom that daily reporting does — on a much longer timetable. It requires that we start with a question we really want to answer and then that we abandon all attachment to outcomes. From there, the same basic framework applies to all the reporting we do: develop source relationships, report what you see and hear, check your facts, check your facts, and check your facts. Then, edit, edit, and edit. Repeat.

5. Of all your stories so far, which one do you think most critical for your audience to read?

Cox: If you want a roadmap for how to begin thinking about the food system as though you are an actual stakeholder (because we all are!), a good start would be a story we published, “Clean label’s dirty little secret // How the biggest trend in processed food exploits confusion about what ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ really mean,” by Nadia Berenstein. If this story had a sub-sub-headline, it would be “You are what you eat and food marketers know you believe that. Look deeper.” It’s a great example of what we do best: Invite our readers to peek inside a world they think they know, and get very, very curious.

Does your newsroom or blog have a great story to tell? Email us at [email protected] and tell us why we should ask you five questions next.  

Anna Jasinski is senior manager of audience relations at PR Newswire and a former magazine journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @annamjasinski

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