Interview: Amanda C. Miller on Food Journalism

Interview: Amanda C. Miller on Food Journalism

"It becomes hard to listen to voices that really only like hearing their own."

As Executive Director of the Association of Food Journalists (AFJ), Amanda C. Miller identifies learning opportunities that help media professionals do their work better. Before moving to North Carolina, she worked for the City of New York and the Smithsonian Institution. In 2011, Miller launched Dock to Door, a seafood distribution company founded to connect North Carolina fishermen with inland markets and promote sustainability through underutilized species. Miller and her husband are active, licensed foster parents in North Carolina.

We spoke with Amanda about the huge changes affecting food journalism, the pros and cons of social media, and the importance of traditions new and old.

How did your passion for food come about, and how did you decide to make it a career?

I've always been an eater. I've always been one of those people who wanted to eat everything all the time to the point where I'm in pain (laughs). I initially resisted the idea of pursuing a career in this world because when I was younger I didn't really understand what the options were.

I thought about applying to food studies programs at several schools, but I ended up going into the arts administration program at Columbia, because that was a natural progression that would allow me to work in the arts, which is another passion of mine, while also getting healthcare. I chose to work in the arts because it seemed like there was more of a clear path. I didn't really know what a career in food looked like. I just knew I didn't want to work in a restaurant, and I thought that was all that was out there. I learned later that a career in food can mean a lot of different things.

But I still focused on food. I started my graduate program in 2002, and at the time the idea of food being an important part of American culture wasn't fully embraced. That didn't fit into the visual or performing arts, so where would food as culture fit into my degree program? I had to forge that myself. Making the case for food as culture in America in 2002 was kind of cuckoo. Obviously, it's always been recognized that way in European traditions. UNESCO has recognized it for some time, but specifically in America at that time, it was not widely embraced.

Tell us about AFJ. What do you do?

We're a professional organization dedicated to preserving and perpetuating responsible food journalism across media platforms. One of the ways we differentiate ourselves from some of the other professional organizations out there that have a culinary focus is that our code of ethics is core to who we are. Especially, I think, in an era where we're so overwhelmed with culinary social media influencers. It's important for us to maintain integrity, and have a baseline understanding of ethics and reliability in our work and the people who join our organization.

Does your organization accept influencers? If so, do you have guidelines?

We have a code of ethics that's on our website, and it covers five core principles. We also have a section that speaks to how those five core principles are put to work and what that means in reality, in terms of anonymity, in terms of comped meals, and travel, industry relationships, restaurant reviews, and procedures with restaurant reviews, and that sort of thing. So, anyone who writes about food is welcome to apply, but they need to follow those core principles to be part of our organization.

So, you're not going to accept influencers who get comped meals and don't disclose that, etc.

Right. We promote ethics that are in opposition to those practices. One of the main ways that we do that is through the awards we host each year. We host a writing competition, the AFJ awards. It's been around for almost 40 years. It's the longest running food journalism awards program in the country. We're promoting responsible and ethical food journalism through that channel. We also offer learning opportunities that are open to the public through our webinar series called Soundbites.

You also have a conference.

The conference has been a signature program of ours for several decades. We're taking a break from the conference in 2019. It’s time to assess what works well for our membership because the world of media has changed so dramatically in the last five years. Most of our members aren't on staff at a paper somewhere. They don't have a home institution that is paying for them to go to these three-, four-, or five-day conferences anymore. In a time where we have so many freelancers who honestly may not be able to afford a $2,000 conference, we want to be aware of how we can best serve our audience, and what works for them best financially and professionally.

We're taking a break in '19, and we're going to be moving toward more regional events because these conversations still need to happen. I think specifically in a world like journalism where people get so into their little writing holes, we do think it's important to bring people together, to have conversations, because you learn so much from listening to other people, and from bouncing ideas off each other. We don't want to do away with the idea of a conference altogether. This year we're going to be focusing more on events that happen regionally so we can bring people together in a way that's more financially reasonable for the economy they're working in.

How has social media changed food journalism?

I don't think you can have a conversation about food or food journalism without addressing social media. I liken it to a potato chip. Instagram and Twitter are like a potato chip. One is fine. A handful is fine. It's good to have a presence on social media, and it's good to participate in social media because it spreads ideas.

I think especially for people who might have been disenfranchised or left out of conversations previously, social media has been great. Social media can have that awesome effect of bringing conversations to the table that haven't been heard before. I think you see that with people like Korsha Wilson who is a really great food writer and has a fantastic podcast through Heritage Radio Network. She's based in New York. She uses social media, Twitter specifically, to really address some important issues of race, and class, and ethnicity in relation to food, through her Twitter account.

What's a trend in the food world that you wish would go away?

One thing I'm glad to see phasing out is the idea of hyper-fine dining. I'm glad that that's going out of style. Of course, I wouldn't wish any restaurant to fail. They employ so many people across a variety of levels, including immigrant populations. I just think that the democratization of restaurants, where you're not confined to a dress code or your access isn't limited because of your finances, is a great thing. I love the fact that we're celebrating tiny restaurants in strip malls in the middle of nowhere that represent a cuisine we've maybe never heard of. I love that.

If you give career advice, what's some career advice you find yourself giving over and over?

The best advice I've ever received is, of course, from my mother who knows everything. She taught me that the only things in life worth having are things that people can't take away from you. In my family, we're moving away from gifts and presents that are tangible things and moving more towards investing in each other through travel experiences, and education, etc. I find myself repeating that a lot. Invest in education, invest in travel, invest in experiences that inform your view of the world.


Since publication of this interview, the Association of Food Journalists has shuttered after 34 years, succumbing to pressures felt across the journalim industry. Their Code of Ethics was one of their major contributions to their field. Here it is: