Stephanie Strom, who many people regard as the most influential food business writer in the U.S., recently left The New York Times, a company she worked at for three decades.
While organic food was certainly not the only area that she covered, Stephanie was a definite advocate for organic and her pieces changed the future of some very fortunate brands.
Given her unique perspective of being inside The New York Times and everything she has seen in her years writing about the industry, I knew that Organic Insider readers would benefit from her insight.
Why did you decide to step down after 30 years from The New York Times?
Well, it had been 30 years, and I felt like I needed to give myself some runway to do other things, whether that is long-form journalism or writing a book. The pace at a daily newspaper is such that you feed the beast 24/7. There is no spare time to follow these other pursuits.
I had been a beat reporter for most of the 30 years at The New York Times and never wanted to be an editor. Food was my beat — my 5th major beat at the paper — and they would have let me continue doing this, but I decided it was time.
When you were pitched stories from organic food companies, what did people do well and not do well?
Too many pitches came in along the lines of “valiant organic entrepreneurs are growing 300% year-over-year, and they started their business because of their health, other people’s health and the environment.” The New York Times wants one story like that. They are not going to re-write that story over and over again.
In organic, people are very passionate, and there is a tendency to think that the minutiae are a story for The New York Times. While I may find the minutiae interesting, the paper won’t write a news story about it. Quite often, people are too close to the situation to understand what is a real story.
One good example of this is the organic animal welfare standards being held up at the USDA right now. This is something that would end up in the context of a larger story.
What should companies know when pitching the media?
It is important to remember that every publication will approach stories differently. We are not all the same.
Plus, companies or PR people need to know that they are not the only ones pitching the reporter that day. I would get 15, 25 or 30 pitches each day, and getting a response is often the luck of the draw.
The dynamics of the industry have greatly changed. Not only has the amount of traditional media shrunk, but there are more PR people than ever and fewer reporters covering food than ever. There were some days when I said to myself, “I could be writing six stories today.” But I just didn’t have the time to do them.
For me, very few of the organic food stories that I did were pitched to me. They came about because I had lunch or a phone conversation with someone or I heard something in the course of talking with a person.
No one pitched me on the hydroponics story. I was on the phone with someone who told me about the controversy taking place at the National Organic Standards Board. I made some calls and did my research.
However, there were certainly some that did get pitched to me, such as the Responsibly Grown program at Whole Foods.
In regards to product pitches, unless it was very unusual, the editors at The New York Times would not let me do them.
Also, I was charged with covering the food system, not just organic. The paper had to decide how many conventional food stories and organic food stories it would do. The New York Times does not want to appear to be writing only about organics.
When you were writing stories about organic or GMOs, did you face editorial pressure to cover something in a certain way or with a certain bias?
No. I never faced any internal pressure at The New York Times to do something in a certain way.
To be honest, my editors had to deal with a lot of external pressure when it came to the fallout from these stories.
Within The New York Times, did the position of GMOs and pesticides change over the years?
In 2013, I wrote a piece about how some farmers were moving over to conventional ag after using crops grown with glyphosate, out of concern for the soil. It’s a good illustration of how not just thinking at the Times, but thinking in the country at large had shifted.
When I did that story, there was a sense among editors that it was too much inside baseball, that our readers didn’t really care about soil, that I was too much in the weeds. The story went through a lot of editing, and I fought hard for it.
Just three years later, the NYT’s Danny Hakim was given a ton of time to do in-depth reporting on glyphosate’s use and impact on the world for his story. And now Carey Gillam is out with a whole book on glyphosate and being asked to testify before European regulatory agencies on the subject.
Needless to say, a shift has taken place at The New York Times within the last five years or so.
What are the biggest challenges that the organic industry is facing right now?
The biggest challenge that the industry faces right now is that the vast majority of consumers do not really understand what organic means. Many of them may think it is better for their families, but they don’t know why. It is a bigger issue now than it has ever been.
Also, the extraordinary success of the industry is putting pressure on organic production, and supply of organic is becoming a serious issue. The industry has to get out in front of these things and explain them, but it is expensive.
Lastly, as more of conventional agriculture adopts organic practices, consumers may be asking themselves: what is the difference and why am I paying more for organic?
Organic pushed for improved animal welfare standards, but other standards are more rigorous. It took other certifications to push organic to improve.
The industry needs to ask itself whether it wants to be pushed or it wants to lead.
What do you think of the Organic Trade Association?
The OTA has done a good job of research and marketing organics.
From a PR perspective, how can the organic industry improve?
First, the industry has not done a good job of telling the story of organics and climate change. This understanding of what farming differently can do for the environment does not get told very well.
Second, the industry must challenge the idea that it is always more expensive. And if it is more expensive, then explain why.
In parting, anything else you’d like to share?
I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for those toiling in the organic area because it isn’t easy to do. I know that.
But it is good to do, and I respect them for the principles they adhere to in their work.
Over the years, I always felt secure knowing that organic would be well represented within the confines of The New York Times with Stephanie covering the food industry. She understands organic food politics and the key players in the industry as well as anyone, and we were incredibly lucky to have her there.
Stephanie’s voice at the Times will be dearly missed, and I’m looking forward to seeing her next endeavor.
Have a great day!
Max Goldberg, Founder
The USDA has reported that organic farmland grew 15% to 5 million acres in 2016. Meanwhile, overall sales of U.S. organic agricultural products jumped by 23%.
Whole Foods has ended its practice of allowing brand representatives to promote their products in the store or to check that they are being displayed correctly. A big blow to local vendors.
Beginning in 2018, the French government will cut subsidies to organic farms but will continue to help fund farmers converting to organic.
While vegans may not be on board with this, researchers from Aarhus University have concluded that buying organic milk is the gateway for buying everything organic.
Along with voting against the European Commission’s proposal to extend the license for glyphosate, France is set to phase out the toxic herbicide in its own country over the next five years.
Ignoring the will of the people, the Oregon Court of Appeals has decided to keep blocking a voter-approved initiative that bans GMO-crops in Josephine County. Tragic, to say the least.
Monsanto's dicamba is so problematic that even Trump's EPA is contemplating taking action.
An inside look at Cultivate Ventures, the venture arm of Hain Celestial.
Hilary's, a star in the organic plant-based world, has closed on a round of financing from VG Growth Partners.
Founded in 2013, start-up bedsheet company Boll & Branch is the fastest growing consumer of organic cotton in the world.
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* This morning, the Organic Farming Research Foundation reported that The Organic Agriculture Research Act (H.R. 2436) gained crucial bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, with 21 new representatives having co-sponsored the proposed legislation.
* The bill would renew and provide $50 million in funding for the USDA’s flagship organic research program, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).
* Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety, will be hosting a webinar next Wednesday, October 4th at 2pm EST called GMO Update from Warriors of the Movement. You can register for the webinar here.
* Unfortunately, the slots to publicly comment at this fall’s National Organic Standards Board meeting in Jacksonville have already filled up. If you’d like to get on the waitlist, please contact: Michelle.Arsenault@ams.usda.gov
* In San Francisco, a Chez Panisse alum has opened up the world’s first organic chicken nugget tasting room. With the USDA having just announced that the demand for organic chickens is exploding, the timing looks impeccable.