Photography influences the way I see things and the way I live my life. I started by looking at my mother's book collection and succumbed to the power of portraits and landscapes. The New York Times Lens photojournalism blog has become a favorite online site, as it opens new worlds and so puts life in a larger context.
Four years ago, my husband and I moved from the Washington DC area to the Berkshires in rural western Massachusetts, near NY and CT. We were ready to immerse ourselves in the country and to live a much simpler life, while still maintaining our separate careers from a Great Barrington location. We were looking for a region where food is cherished – both in production and consumption. The local restaurants and farmers work and live well together here as a community, and our backyard garden is a constant source of pleasure and good food. We find ourselves in the midst of a unique region of farmers and food artisans.
For many years, I've worked for PBS and NPR stations, both full-time jobs and on special assignments, and have been fortunate to experience the evolution of new technologies through the eyes of public broadcasting. But, there has been a shift, recently, in the source of the voices we listen to and where we are drawn to return. Today, waves of interesting content are coming from a multitude of sources, and this creates a fertile media environment.
This site intends to address two interests:
1) To profile the unique community of people involved in producing good food in the Berkshire region. I am inspired by Sim van der Ryn, a Dutch architect who states:
"The heart of ecological design is not efficiency or sustainability. It is the embodiment of animating spirit,
the soul of the living world, as embodied in each of us waiting to be reborn and expressed in what we design."
The INTERVIEW portraits of individuals on this site are intended to reflect an energy generated by that "animating spirit."
2) The aggregation of local, national and international content presented online is becoming a force in the marketplace. People are looking deeper to find out more about where their food comes from. This site is one person's perspective on interesting people and places in the northeast. There is much to learn and savor.
With her website Berkshire Food Journal, Caroline Alexander is exploring the traditions and contemporary innovations in the region’s agricultural economy and food system, while also cultivating strategies and entrepreneurial opportunities in the emerging landscape of online media.
She sees Berkshire Food Journal as one example of the ability of new media to cover a specialized subject in depth.
“Today there is huge potential to reach people in ways that go beyond traditional media outlets,” said Alexander, whose professional background is in administration and development for public broadcasting. “You no longer have to be affiliated with a broadcast station to create and distribute quality content with high production values. With the Internet and affordable production technology, it’s now possible for individuals to create stories and deliver them directly to an audience, both on a local level and beyond.”
Berkshire Food Journal includes multimedia profiles of farmers, chefs, vendors and others involved in food production, preparation and marketing in Berkshire County and nearby sections of adjacent states. It also includes original written articles, related stories from other sources and links to relevant websites and resources.
Alexander, who lives in Great Barrington, said her goal is to explore our relationship to food in a larger context that also touches on other subjects such as economics, the environment, the connections within communities and other topics.
“Food is connected to many different aspects of life, and it touches on many issues,” she said. “The website focuses on food, but it’s not a recipe site or a restaurant guide. Rather than being about dishes, it’s about people. My goal is to present the breadth of what people are doing to produce quality food locally, including farmers and artisans and the chefs and vendors and organizations who bring it to the public.”
She also sees the subject of food as a vehicle for portraying the qualities of the Berkshires as a region.
“This region is especially active in the movement to develop vibrant local food systems,” she said. “There is an incredible agricultural community here, and many other people and organizations who are working to bring quality local food to the public. I hope that by piecing together these stories, Berkshire Food Journal is also creating a larger portrait of the community and the people who live and work here.”
The core of the site is a library of audio-visual presentations that average between three and five minutes in length, and can be watched directly on the site. She conducts interviews and then edits them into first-person narratives in the subject’s own words accompanied by photographs she takes.
She has produced about 15 stories over the past year, including profiles of farms in Berkshire County and Columbia County in New York, such as Indian Line Farm and Equinox Farm, among others. There are also profiles of the cheese-making operations of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York state, the Berkshire Mountain Bakery, and an interview with Davide Manzo, the chef/owner of Trattoria Rustica restaurant in Pittsfield.
Other content ranges from a presentation on canning fruit by Lauren Gottlieb of Mezze Restaurant group (which was part of the Preserving the Bounty series of workshops sponsored last autumn by Berkshire Grown) to a written article on fresh local eggs by Judith Lerner. The website also includes a section about the environment and natural world.
Alexander said she is currently producing new stories and she will be adding content on an ongoing basis.
She noted that the site’s emphasis is on feature stories rather than news or other content with a short shelf life. “I see our role as supporting the daily news that people get from other sources by providing the back story,” she said.
New Orleans native
Alexander grew up in New Orleans. “That’s probably why I’m so interested in good food,” she said with a chuckle.
She subsequently moved to Alaska, where she worked in administration and development at a public broadcasting station. “That really gave me an appreciation of the importance of public broadcasting, because it was a primary link to the outside world for the people who lived in remote areas of the state,” she said.
She then joined a public broadcast station in New Jersey, and also worked at the station’s office in Washington, DC.
She and her husband, Dennis Kostyk, who works as a media consultant, moved to Berkshire County from the Washington area four years ago. She said they wanted to live in a rural area, and her husband was familiar with the Berkshires because he grew up in nearby Cohoes, NY.
After moving here, she worked as a media consultant on a freelance basis.
She launched Berkshire Food Journal last summer. The concept appealed to her because it combined her professional background in the business side of media with her interests in photography, the production of editorial content and in food.
She said she has built the venture gradually, and initially kept the website on a low profile, while she focused on learning the technical aspects of web design and production, creating the content, and developing a business plan. She has recently begun stepping up her promotional efforts.
“This was new to me, and I struggled with the technology of building a multimedia website at first,” she said. “I also wanted to build up an archive of stories.”
While the Internet and related technologies have opened up the options for delivery and access to information, the explosion of online alternatives has been a double-edged sword for the business of media and the profession of journalism. Translating these opportunities for wider exposure into business revenues and professional income has been a difficult and elusive challenge for established media outlets, new online ventures and for individuals.
Alexander sees Berkshire Food Journal partially as a laboratory for business strategies that will financially support independent producers, writers and other content providers.
“I want to explore the commercial potential for sites like this,” she said. “In that sense, I see this as a prototype. As I go along I’m testing new business models and strategies to see what works.”
She added that her own priority is to combine the substance and level of quality associated with public broadcasting with the financial flexibility of commercial enterprises.
“I am particularly interested in ways to integrate quality content with the revenue streams that are necessary to support it,” she explained. “The content on public broadcasting is great, but there are limitations because of its non-commercial restrictions. Online media is an opportunity to integrate high standards for content with new models for revenue.”
On a basic level, she is targeting two sources of income – both based on advertising.
One involves direct advertising on the website, such as banner ads on pages.
The other involves attracting sponsorships of individual feature stories by banks and other businesses and institutions. This involves brief, low-key identification of sponsors that would appear in the presentations, similar to the underwriting announcements seen before and after programs on public broadcasting.
While she considers the Berkshire Food Journal website as the primary outlet for her content and advertising, she also believes that distribution of its stories on other sites is another potential means to generate income.
“Because the website has a specific focus and is locally oriented, it has the potential to attract an audience of people in this region, especially those who are interested in food and agriculture,” she said. “At the same time, local stories that address larger issues can also appeal to people anywhere, and can be exported.”
Many websites aggregate content from a variety of sources, through links or embedded media. Although the originators of content generally do not receive reimbursement for this. Alexander said this draws viewers who see sponsorship identification on stories. “A business that wants broad exposure can benefit from that,” she said. “This type of networking also attracts more visitors to the website.”
She acknowledged that finding a profitable niche in the crowded world of modern media is a challenge, but she is confident that new-media ventures like Berkshire Food Journal can succeed with the right combination of subject matter, editorial quality and marketing.
“In today’s world, people are overwhelmed by different sources of information, and for individuals the trick is finding the content you are interested in.,” she said. “For content providers, I believe the key is maintaining a focus, finding a match with audiences and maintaining high standards.”