Dick Snyder is the founder, editor and president of CityBites Media, which produces print and online coverage of the food and dining scenes in and around Toronto. He’s a custom content strategist and journalist, and consultant to Star Content Studios, a new content agency within the Star Media Group.
When did you start in media and what has been your career path to get to where you are now?
I’ve always loved information: books, newspapers, magazines, TV documentaries, TV news, etc. And I was a computer nerd way back in the late 1970s — I even had one of the first personal computers, a Commodore PET. So yeah, I’m really old. Books and stories were always a passion, so after graduating from music school in Montreal and realizing that I had plateaued talent-wise and was never going to be a guitar god, I enrolled at Ryerson for journalism. This was 1992, the year they got computers at the faculty! I’d written my application exam on a typewriter. I spent more time hanging out at the school newspaper and radio station than in class, but I graduated anyway, and did some stints at daily newspapers as a reporter. Then I landed a summer internship at the Globe and Mail — my dream job! — and managed to spin that into a five-year gig. I edited on the foreign desk, laid out the front page, wrote for travel and arts, then became fashion editor (oddly enough for a guy in jeans and a T-shirt). But hey, it got me to New York. Meantime, the internet was invented (thanks, Al Gore!), and I wrote some of the paper’s first columns looking at online resources for a travel column, I think it was called The Internet Traveller.
I left the Globe in 1999 to join the start-up Redwood Custom Communications, an offshoot of Redwood UK, which arguably pioneered custom content (back then it was called custom publishing) in London in the ’80s. Over the next 13 years or so, we pretty much led the custom publishing arena in Canada and, also arguably, North America. We grew from eight to 150 employees, with a plethora of blue chip clients. I became editorial director. Transcontinental bought Redwood in 2008, and the name changed to Totem. I left Totem this past January, intending to freelance and work on CityBites, but along came an offer too good to refuse, and I signed on to do some contract work for Star Content Studios, a new custom marketing wing of the Toronto Star. We’re doing some really interesting work, offering print advertising clients an extended platform to weave custom marketing content across platforms, be they Star-owned, client-owned, or yet-to-be born. We’ve got a killer digital and social media team, and with the storytelling heritage of the Star in the back pocket, we’re defining a marketing communications offering that is really powerful.
Citybites has been alive for seven years (which is a significant amount of time considering how many magazines launch and fold within a few years). How has this brand evolved from its initial format to its current multimedia offering?
The magazine was born to fill a gap in local food and wine coverage, back before the term locavore had been coined. This was also pre-food blogger mania. We did everything wrong: launching without a business plan, making decisions based on passion instead of monetization, etc. It was truly (insert cliché here) a labour of love. We were a lot cheekier in the early days, when it was printed on crappy newsprint that smeared ink all over you. We’ve cleaned up a bit over the years, moving to a glossier stock (advertisers like that!) and have cut back on the swearing. But it’s always been about high-quality journalism and fresh points of view, with a sense of humour. I’ve also given a lot of new young food journalists a platform, which is something I’m proud of being able to offer. I relied on a lot of small publishers when I was starting out, to hone my craft. As a journalist and nerd, I’ve embraced all of the new media channels along the way, and I think Twitter and Tumblr are godsends to micro-publishing; in fact, mega-publishing too. We’ve built and continue to build an audience on all platforms, and leave it to the fans to choose which one works best for them.
Do your print readers differ from your online readers? If so – how?
I imagine they do, but I don’t parse them out that way. A few years ago, at the height of the “print is dead” frenzy, it was a bit demoralizing to be a print publication. We only launched our full website this year, so we’ve been a bit late to the game. But our readers love the print product, and I think they see the website social media channels for what they are — extensions of a strong editorial voice that is rooted in the permanence of print. I look at the magazine as the calling card, that endures by virtue of its tangibility. We’re getting our mobile site running (working the bugs out) and will have a tablet version on iTunes shortly. I don’t really look at them as separate media, but rather as different platforms that have their own strengths and weaknesses. And we’ll play up the strengths of each using the tools that each one offers, such as extended content, video, shareability, image galleries, commenting, geo, etc. I love it all! As a journalist, I’m able to focus on the storytelling and putting the reader first. As we’ve seen, that now entails knowing how to leverage the medium. I still can’t wait for the next wave of crazy innovation. Say, when apps are dead.
What is your social media activity like and how has it helped to elevate your brand?
I like Twitter best, as that’s where the foodies tend to hang out. We’ve been tweeting for a couple years now, I guess. We’ve got more than 6,000 followers, but it’s clear that they are not all active. The hard-core foodies are easy and fun to engage with, and I love the foodie Twitter community for its obsession with anything new in Toronto food and drink. It’s great for me as an editor, as I get timely info on what’s hot out there. Then I can take it and run; that is, do an article that addresses the trend, or just spot a trend and watch it develop. Sometimes the story doesn’t become relevant for a while.
You have a tablet version of Citybites that is going to be available on iTunes soon. Did you see a demand for this from your readership? Or was it more a matter of a must-do on any publishers to-do list? And what are your expectations with the tablet version?
Good questions! Now that I think about it, I wouldn’t say we’re responding to a demand from readers. We’re rather just curious to see if we like it, they like it, and advertisers like it. Until we see how the past six issues or so translate on the iPad, we won’t really know how to maximize the technology for our purposes. Apart from the obvious, you know, linking, adding video, extending content, etc. But I’m curious to hear the feedback and see what we can do to make the platform work for us. Video, of course, will be huge.
Because you publish six times a year – how does your online content differ from your printed issues?
I see the printed content as where we define who we are, and how we can carve out a reputation for solid journalism that is less breathlessly obsessed with “the new” and more focused on creating a permanent record of the points of view we expound. The journey for the reader from print to online to mobile is one for them to choose to embark upon. Obviously, we want to give them great content all along the way. Online, I see the role of CityBites being to capture the culture, in photos, videos and images, and to alert readers to news, happenings, events. We’ll promote good works by, for example, donating a link to a charity food event. And, most importantly, to interact with our contributors, our staff, and our subjects (the chefs, producers, farmers, etc.). So, to that end, I want to make it easy for those dialogues to happen. And it’s also about serving up great advertiser experiences. Our readers like the ads, and the ads pay the bills, so it’s a win-win!
The food/restaurant category is a hot one online. How do you beat your competition at being a go-to for recommendations and ideas?
We don’t do reviews of restaurants, for one. One reason is that so many other media do it, so there’s not much point. They don’t have the heft that they once did, anyway. I mean, I think there’s absolutely a role for the critic, but we don’t need to go there, and I’m not sure they have the influence they once did. We celebrate what’s good, and ignore what’s bad (unless it’s really, really, laughably bad, and then we can’t resist). My approach is to put out insightful, smart and fresh content, and then let the readers take it and react. I don’t worry so much about scooping the competition, because I think that often in the rush to be “first,” the quality of the message deteriorates and, often, facts are mangled. I’d rather be correct than first through the door. I had a nice message from Lucas Sharkey-Pearce at Ursa after we wrote them up, saying that all the other media messed up the food descriptions and/or misquote or just plain got it wrong. I take pride in the craft of journalism, and also the art of the (once written, now typed) word.
Do your advertisers generally buy a mix of digital and print or do you see very different brand support for the various mediums?
Our website really only came on stream this summer, but out of the gate we had a strong interest in our online offerings. We have traditional ad spots, but are also working on offering custom content opportunities and other pseudo-promotional products. Our print advertisers have been very loyal, but they’ve also been vocal in demanding an online offering, which we can now provide. And certainly, some advertisers only want online, and we’ve never been able to sell them print alone. Now, they’re happy too! We’re just watching the numbers and we’ll work on driving traffic.
Are you using mobile as part of your brand offering and if so, how's it working?
We’re starting with a foray into the tablet realm, but also optimizing our website for mobile. We’re brainstorming on ways to leverage mobile apps and fun things like geo-location and Instagram, but right now it’s only pie-in-the-sky. But we’ll get there. I like the idea of partnering with developers who’ve figured out cool new ways of sharing content, or who’ve nailed a particularly cool functionality that we could use in the food and restaurant realm. So we’re open to those dialogues. I’ve also challenged our developer to come up with some cool ideas. So we’ll see!
Moving from more traditional print to digital media – how has your role changed as an Editor and how have you evolved this new digital thinking to your team?
It’s changed hugely! I can’t obsess about the content as much now. You’ve just got to feed the beast! And in that way, it’s been liberating. I need to let go and let our contributors churn it out! However, good copy editing and fact checking is more important than ever!. That, and solid grammar. The basics still hold (take heed, bloggers!).