Journalist vs Publicist

To provide context - I was once in the publishing industry. Along the way I was a columnist for the New York Times. To this day I am passionate about media, publishing and perhaps most of all the roles, goals and ethics of journalism.

Perhaps that alone can explain my incredible frustration with media coverage of craft coffee in particular and coffee in general.
And perhaps that explains why I'm less irritated by a ridiculous and non-factual article in some Airline magazine than I am by a far less wrong-headed one in something like the Times.

To explain, I'll use the current fly in my personal ointment - the recent article by Oliver Strand in the NY Times, "New York is Finally Taking it's Coffee Seriously."

I'll get to some specific details in a second, but I'm going to start with the two major meta issues I have.

Meta issue #1 -- the equivalency issue. The article clusters coffee bars in NYC into two groups (Top 10, Top 30). The reality is that the range within the Top 10 is enormous and it does everyone a disservice to treat the best coffee in the city with the 10th best.

Let's be honest.... there is not a single city in the US and perhaps in the world that has 10 truly great coffee bars in it.

Most people would argue that Portland has the best coffee in the US right now (and I would agree). But there are not 10 great coffee bars in Portland - and the difference between even the single best and the fifth best is dramatic.

And New York is not where Portland is.

Meta Issue #2 - the scale issue. If you then look at the top 30 list, there are places on there that just simply should not be listed or suggested. There are places that are simply bad.

There is not a city in the US that has 30 coffee bars that serve drinkable coffee.

When your article is following a premise that is about the increase in quality coffee - you need to only talk about places that serve quality coffee.

Basically - this article does a disservice to the coffee bars that actually are trying to do something special and that actually are serving great coffee. And it does a disservice to consumers by miseducating them.

Here is the thing....
Yes - I'm holding Oliver and the NYTimes to a higher standard than I would (for example) GQ or the American Airlines in-flight magazine.
But that's totally fair.
The NYTimes has built-in trust. It's the tallest pulpit to preach from.
It has power.
And with power comes responsibility.
The responsibility to be more than just a cheerleader. More than just a publicist.
The responsibility to do the right thing and the hard thing.
When people trust you - you have no other choice.

If this article had been "Top 10 Coffee Bars in NYC - and 3 that serve truly great coffee" then I'd be happy.
I'd be happier still if it were "Top 3 Coffee Bars in NYC - and 3 Most Over-rated".

I expect more.

PS. Some detail comments...

For years New Yorkers had to look to places like Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, Ore., or Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco for this kind of quality.

Again... an equivalency issue. These two are not the same and no-one (other than those who work at Blue Bottle) would make the argument that they are. Stumptown is in fact synonymous with quality. Blue Bottle is synonymous with customer experience.

The elaborate designs in the cappuccino’s foam at Third Rail Coffee in the West Village aren’t just to show off, but are a sign that the barista properly steamed the milk so that it holds its form.

The "designs" are actually not in the "foam" but actually in the crema.

These shops use only beans that have been roasted in the past 10 days (though some say two weeks is fine), so the flavors are still lively.

The scale issue again. At least some of the coffee companies on the list are looking at a less than one week time-frame (with a few that except espresso blends). Others are looking at two weeks. That's a 100% difference. The difference in flavor experience from a well brewed CoE coffee 2 days post roast and one that is 14 days post roast is quite literally of an order of magnitude.

Baristas at the best places in town, like Bluebird Coffee Shop or Joe, tamp down between 19 and 21 grams. Often the espresso is even more concentrated because it’s pulled “short,” with less water, so that the final volume is a thick 1.5 to 2 ounces.

A higher dose does not equal better espresso. Dose is largely dependent on the specific coffee you're using and the style you're shooting for. A "short" shot is also not inherently better - it again depends on the coffee you're using and the style (personal taste) you shoot for. Also - a 2oz double is not "short".


tonx said...

Odd that Oliver mentions the pretty much unseen, untested, and likely irrelevant Bunn Trifecta in the piece and also in his glossary. He is sort of throwing the whole kitchen sink of hype into this piece.

It is encouraging that many places in NYC are aiming higher, but it is dangerous when consumers see this level of hype and match it to what remains very often a lackluster or poor coffee experience.

Ryan said...

The mainstream media rarely gets it right, but at least Oliver seems genuinely engaged in the coffee culture. NYT has a much broader reach than Sprudge, and yet they cover geeky coffee trends in more detail than I expect.

That said, this article was a letdown. I guess this is Oliver's appeal to the masses, sort of a NYC Coffee 101, but the accuracy of the content was sketchy. I feel like he's trying way too hard to be inclusive in his list of "Best" places.

What does this mean: "Want a double espresso? You’ll have to buy two singles."

Is he calling a 21g triple ristretto a "single" because of the volume?

onocoffee said...

I think it's difficult, at best, for a writer outside our world of coffee to get details 100% accurate all of the time. While some of his details are off, I enjoy the fact that Oliver Strand has been writing quite a bit about coffee and the NYC coffee scene lately. It's a tremendous difference from just a year ago when the mainstream media all but ignored what we do. And now that the Nation's Paper of Record is actually writing about our nice of the industry, I think that's a good thing.

Also, I couldn't find this Top Ten list you're talking about in the "New York Is Finally Taking Its Coffee Seriously" article.

What really rankles my chain is the lack of media coverage within our own industry. Corruption, cronyism runs amok in our industry yet there's no media to uncover the dirt. Ben Szobody once wrote a piece critical of the SERBC but ran scared after being threatened. The one objective and critical voice in our industry run off. That's a sad state of affairs.

To my mind, that's the "media problem" we should be angry about.

Hey Mikey said...

"Most people would argue that Portland has the best coffee in the US right now (and I would agree). But there are not 10 great coffee bars in Portland - and the difference between even the single best and the fifth best is dramatic."

I would agree... and disagree...

I think a number of the coffee bars in Portland operate at the same level of craft, artfulness, and dedication to quality.

To name a few...

Spella Caffe
Red E Cafe
Albina Press
Stumptown (The Annex)
Ristretto Roasters
Fresh Pot
Coffeehouse NW

Come to Portland for the coffee. It tastes even better in the deep mid-winter. Forget rain, it bleeds gray.

chris said...


I know PDX coffee pretty well. After all.... I used to work at Stumptown.

Your list has the same equivalency issue that I mention. The coffee bars on that list (IMHO) represent quite a wide range of quality, craft and coffee.

I'm all for local boosterism (be it for NYC, PDX or anywhere that doesn't suck). But we need to understand that pushing coffee forward isn't just about celebrating and supporting those who are doing Good - it's also about NOT celebrating (or punishing) those who are not doing Good. Otherwise it's just meaningless.

jasonscheltus said...

Actually foam patterns is a pretty accurate description of what's going on. These are milk foam patterns in a mix of coffee and milk - not crema.

"Maybe" if you're going to "use" so many quotation marks in your "argument", you should get it "right".

(i'm just teasing, feel free to delete my comment!!)

chris said...


I'm no expert in fluids or surface tension - and am not a scientist at all. So I cannot speak from specific knowledge of the subject. But I'd love to know what you base your statement on as it contradicts the common perception of what latte art is (see Schomer, see Rao).