When I was at the East London Advertiser, I tried to persuade the bosses at Archant that we should be running restaurant reviews. Hardly a revolutionary idea as local newspapers had been doing this for decades, the idea being that reporters claim back the expense of a meal in return for writing a review.
Archant’s bosses declined the request by insisting it was an expense they could not afford. I thought they missed an easy marketing trick: restaurants, particularly the smaller, non-chain owned ones, love those reviews and often frame the cutting on a wall inside or on the door to boast to passing trade. I argued that would get our brand to a wider audience. But the argument was over-ruled by short term cost management.
On Tower Hamlets Council’s East End Life, they don’t have those problems and they run a restaurant review every week. They are mostly written by the paper’s staff and council press officers who spend about £50 every week and claim the cash back from the taxpayer. (Intriguingly, we don’t know who the authors are because all reviews are written under silly pseudonyms such as Munchin’ Minnie or Pot-Bellied Pig; why their identities need to be protected I don’t know, but if I were a councillor I’d be trying to ensure genuine bylines were used – I suspect there would be fewer volunteers for the freebies as a result… .)
We used to complain regularly about these reviews at the ELA, as did Tory councillors Tim Archer and Peter Golds; more recently, Local Government Minister Grant Shapps has voiced his own criticism. However, Tower Hamlets Council continued to press on with the practice, claiming – disingenuously, in my view – that the review brought in external advertising to that page.
I suspect there is a demand for reviews of local restaurants and by failing to serve its readers properly, the ELA is shooting itself in the foot – and also from a strategic point of view. If it carried them, it could cite that as another area where East End Life is competing in its space.
However, there is a gap in the market and East End Life can argue (albeit weakly) that it is performing a public service. But the review in the current issue is taking the mickey. On p29, under the headline “Firm ribs, boozy Ribena and the best ‘slaw ever”, a council officer hiding as Pot-Bellied Pig reviews the cocktails and food at the chain restaurant Giraffe in Spitalfields Market.
Surely this is just an example of a council officer enjoying a perk at our expense. If those reviews are to be run in East End Life, shouldn’t they be reserved for genuinely local restaurants?