Mary Bilyeu – Food Editor, The Blade
Mary Bilyeu would rather be eating a meal than giving this interview. Or rather, she’d prefer to give an interview over a shared meal and good conversation. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows The Blade‘s new food editor as of February 2014.
“People bond over food, whether in real life or in print or in cyberspace,” she said. “It is a universal topic, one that is deeply felt; and that’s what makes it important.”
Though she didn’t come from a journalism or food background, Bilyeu has proven in a short time what good old-fashioned gumption can accomplish. “I think I’m less an example to an aspiring journalist and more an example to follow your passion, whatever it may be,” she said.
While working at a synagogue, Bilyeu began to write hyper-local stories for The Ann Arbor News (formerly AnnArbor.com) and other outlets to find her voice, eventually earning a regular position at the Washtenaw Jewish News and founding her own food blog, Food Floozie. These myriad adventures in writing led her to The Blade.
For her furthered adventures, Bilyeu has no shortage of ideas and also a fertile ground to till; she has found Toledo to be quite the food location.
“I came to Toledo thinking that it was comfortably comfortable with comfort food; and many people told me that it’s a ‘comfort food kind of town.’ But I’m finding that there’s an entire range, from more adventurous eaters who want avant-garde molecular gastronomy or edible insects to those who tell me about fabulous recipes they’ve served featuring sauerkraut, French dressing and cream of mushroom soup . . . combined.”
Strange culinary combinations aside, Bilyeu feels that Toledo’s citizenry has welcomed her with open arms, and she has found the station of local food editor to be akin to minor celebrity. She follows the tough act of contributing columnist Mary Alice Powell, who was previously The Blade’s food editor for more than 40 years.
“Toledo seems distinctly different because the food editor seems to have a very special role here, undoubtedly thanks to Mary Alice. The Food Page is clearly, deeply important to people, and they feel some ownership. Inevitably, people ask, ‘You’re our new food editor, aren’t you?’ rather than asking if I’m ‘the food editor.’ And I’m glad that they feel I’m approachable. If I’m not writing with Toledoans’ interests and needs at heart, then I’m not doing my job properly. It’s not for me to pontificate, but for us to learn about all the various aspects of food – nutrition, fun, health, bonding, politics, competitions, comfort, whatever – together.”
The virtue of togetherness that Bilyeu espouses translates to her plans for coverage and her views of food journalism as a whole. Though she does not have professional food training or a family history of food love, she seems to find all the food love she needs (and then some) within herself, though its origins are a mystery to her. “I’m not quite sure how I became this person – the Hebrew word is ‘bashert,’ which is translated as something close to ‘destiny,’” she explained.
Part of that destiny includes Bilyeu’s extensive plans for The Blade’s beloved food page. “Already, we’ve asked readers to send in lighter, healthier recipes for our ‘Dinner Tonight’ feature offering easy recipes,” she said. “I used to do a ‘Frugal Friday’ feature for The Ann Arbor News and for my blog, seeking dining adventures in Ann Arbor for $5 or less per person. I’d like to do a variation on that in Toledo, but not quite the same shtick.”
She added, “I want to feature farmers’ market vendors, because I always love going to the markets when they’re less crowded, to have a chance to chat and learn about the farmers’ produce, their items, their families, their livelihood, their passion.”
In addition to these features, Bilyeu also yearns to build upon her own food knowledge and offer that to The Blade’s readers. Whether learning about wine and craft beers, addressing Toledo’s “food deserts” and hunger issues, and also spotlighting holidays other than typical Judeo-Christian fare. “I don’t want to just feature recipes – it’s the food page, after all, which encompasses a tremendous variety of topics,” she said.
Bilyeu’s broad view of food coverage speaks to her opinions on the nature of food journalism and its significance, which she said is often greater than many will admit.
“While I grant that I don’t write about topics with the sort of global impact that crises in Sudan or in Ukraine have, I write about topics that impact people’s daily lives. I write about recipes they may serve for dinner that night, ones that even a picky child might like,” she said.
Though she is quick to extol the virtues of the classic “newspaper in hand” experience, Bilyeu also admits the inevitability of digital media encroaching upon this, though not without concern. She experienced the pioneering efforts in digital news firsthand while writing for AnnArbor.com.
“This is all still in transition, although it’s inevitable that the future is online and, particularly, on a hand-held device. That small screen even further limits what a reader will see, click on, read, know. It’s much easier to stay within one’s comfort zone, only reinforcing one’s world view. It’s fragmenting. But how does a news site get attention – being first rather than being thorough? Being loud and obnoxious and antagonistic? Developing a relationship with readers and building trust? Things are immediate now, and I think part of that is great, news junkie that I am, and part of it is really a disconcerting trend.”
That very trend does seem to challenge Bilyeu as it challenges any modern journalist, though she is supportive of social media’s impact on journalism and the storytelling tools it offers. She wasted no time founding a Facebook page specifically for The Blade’s food offerings, which she said “gives another venue to develop relationships with readers; and if you have a relationship with them, you can write better for them, knowing them and their interests and their needs.”
Bilyeu’s inclusive perspective is one The Blade’s readers already seem to flock to. This self-made journalist and now, food editor, likely has a pantry full of rich stories to tell about Toledo and she’s shopping for more. But beyond the story, Bilyeu is eminently mindful of what’s truly important about her role and about food.
“People think the best part of my job is the food I get to eat, and I won’t deny that’s pretty great! But really, truly, the best part of my job is the friendships I make as I go to new places and meet new people. We bond over food.”
Bilyeu is open to receiving pitches and relevant press materials via email. “I sometimes feel as though I spend every waking moment online, so that’s the easiest way to reach me. But unfortunately, it’s also the easiest way to get lost in an onslaught of email,” she said.
For a different approach, Bilyeu recommends mailing press kits and materials. “So ‘snail mail’ – something tangible, something colorful – is another option. Your invitation – and that’s really what it is, an invitation to listen, to read, to find out what you have to say – has to stand out, because there are a lot of people vying for my attention. Be creative.”
Bilyeu also recommends knowing her coverage area and audience, and making the effort to tailor a pitch directly to her.
“Also, be personal,” she said. “Don’t send me a generic press release making a grand announcement that has no relevance to me, to Toledo, to anything connected to my job or to my audience. Take the time to learn my name – I’m still getting press releases addressed to the second-to-last food editor. I also get solicitations sent to my blog addressing me as “Dear Yenta,” since I go by “Yenta Mary” there,” she said.
“And be genuine. Don’t try to sell me something; let me know that you represent something or someone of value and that you can be trusted. Build a relationship with me, as I will with you. Start a conversation that will continue each time we check-in with each other, whether I have questions or you have news.”
Bilyeu also notes she is not interested in coverage of food gadgets or appliances.
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