“Between a Rock and a Hard Rock: Food Journalism in 2015” by Todd Vandenberg

Our local paper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, used to publish a popular alternative weekly paper, Metro Pulse. The parent company, E.W. Scripps, apparently decided in late 2014 that Metro Pulse was cannibalizing sales of the News Sentinel’s Friday edition, so they said goodbye to the entire Metro Pulse staff, effectively killing the paper. A quote from the News Sentinel regarding this event: “The staff of Metro Pulse has distinguished itself through the years with its provocative and informative content,” said News Sentinel Publisher and KNS Media President Patrick Birmingham. “Like other businesses, though, the News Sentinel must adapt to the changing business environment. Despite this difficult step, we remain committed to being the authoritative source of information about things to do in and around Knoxville and are excited about the possibilities for our combined product.” (knoxnews.com, October 15, 2014)

Metro Pulse, you are missed.

So I open this Friday’s edition (March 20th) of Go Knoxville, The News Sentinel’s weekly insert, which is their replacement for Metro Pulse. I happily anticipate news of weekend concerts, events, and a restaurant review or two. Sure enough, there’s a full page review of the Hard Rock Café in Pigeon Forge. Full disclosure: I have not eaten at this particular venue, nor do I plan to do so. I’ve eaten at two other locations, and found them to be greatly over-priced vendors of very average food and drinks. For the price, you can get much better food at Aubrey’s or Seasons or Café 4 in Knoxville. For that matter, you can get a better burger at Cook-Out for half the price.

But this isn’t a review of the Hard Rock; this is about the ramifications of the end of Metro Pulse, specifically, and what passes for journalism in general. This alleged review, with a word count of 592, is titled “Hard Rock Café transcends tourist trappings”. The author, Matt Ward, describes the location, his arrival in the parking lot, how he was greeted by the hostesses, and a bit of the décor, including a dress worn by Dolly Parton, a lyric sheet from another artist, and a few more baubles which would normally be considered “tourist trappings”.

We are now 330 words down, with no mention of anything other than how to find the place, how to get seated, and several descriptions of the tourist trappings. I’m really anxious by now to see how Hard Rock transcends the theme. Ahh – here we go! After a brief description of the band and what they’re playing, the author “took a gander at the menu”. I assume he didn’t want to take a goose, because that might have been misconstrued about writing about food – no matter, we’ll finally hear about the menu itself. The author helpfully describes how Hard Rock wisely follows the standard menu format; it begins with cocktails, then lists appetizers, even mentioning two in particular – wings and potato skins. Wow, I’ve never seen those at a restaurant! Amazing cuisine. Oooo, and the entrees: fajitas, steaks, “a couple” of seafood items (fish sticks and Star-Kist tuna, maybe? Who knows?), barbecue (see, I am completely justified in writing about this on the BB&B site), burgers and sandwiches. I suppose they sell beer, another reason to write about this here, but I don’t know that from the article.

Now I’m ready to read how the author enjoyed his meal. You can imagine how sad I was when he immediately launches into a description of the crowd, and how East Tennessee has so many tourist attractions. Apparently Hard Rock transcends tourist trappings by being “one of the most well-known tourist attractions in the country”, because that’s the next line. Apparently the new location is much larger than the old Gatlinburg facility with more parking and a stage. Oh, and there’s a King Kong climbing the side of a building just down the street. Thanks Matt; that really helps me see how Hard Rock transcends tourist trappings.

Wish I could get a photo of that great parking lot.

Total word count that gives any information at all on the food and drinks – 41. I suppose mentioning beer would have put the word count of actually useful information over 50, and they had to watch the budget. So what exactly distinguishes this place from any other tourist trap? Hard to tell in just 41 – that’s forty-one –words. Especially when there is no mention of the quality of the food itself, when the writer seemed to have not actually had anything to eat or drink. He certainly didn’t mention it in the article, if he did. Or maybe it was so pedestrian, so ordinary, so “damn, I wish I’d just gone to Steak-N-Shake”, he couldn’t bring himself to write about it.

Or maybe he couldn’t be honest because he apparently isn’t a staff writer for the News Sentinel. The article’s byline is “By Matt Ward, Special to Go Knoxville”. And now we come to what passes for journalism today. “Special to Go Knoxville”. We’ve all read these types of articles; they’re basically marketing pieces provided to websites (and newspapers) to fill in the blanks. Woo hoo, free content! Who cares if it’s basically a full page ad? It’s something to read, dammit! And E.W. Scripps doesn’t have to deal with that whole bothersome “Staff” thing. Why present an independent voice, and actual review, when you can just get this crap for free?

Look, my problem isn’t with Matt Ward. Probably a nice guy; kisses babies and promises to never be a politician. As a general description of the Hard Rock Cafe, his article is fine. But how, exactly, does it in any way demonstrate the premise of the headline? It’s strictly a puff piece, giving the reader the basics of this chain, in case they’ve been under a rock for the past twenty years. Would have been nice to read how he thought the Hard Rock was more than a tourist trap; instead, we get twice as much information about the décor, an acknowledgement of the band and the music they played (John Mellencamp and ‘70’s funk, if you’re interested), and that great parking lot. He mentions the parking lot twice, so it must be pretty damn good. My problem is the “journalists” of E.W. Scripps and the News Sentinel somehow believe this still services their readers, that this is “informative and provocative product”.

Thankfully, we now have the Knoxville Mercury, the new venture from the publishers of the late great Metro Pulse. You can find them at http://www.knoxmercury.com. I can once again read an actual review, no thanks to E.W. Scripps or the News Sentinel.

But right now, I think I‘ll just head down to Pigeon Forge this weekend so I can park at the Hard Rock and take a gander at King Kong. Gotta love how it transcends those tourist trappings.

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