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'Expertise' is Highly Overrated

Eyewitness Views



When news editor Ryan Pitkin and I were doing the research for this week's cover story on Charlotte's best sandwiches — and by research, I mean eating tons of sandwiches at spots all across the Q.C. — we'd scurry back into the office, bellies full, and do a quick powwow on the quality of the sandwiches we'd consumed that day.

It's a tough job, as they say, but somebody's got to do it.

Last issue, Ryan wrote a rare food piece on The Mad Greek Cafe in South End, and had an epiphany when a big plate of food came his way. "It was around that time that I came to a realization," he wrote. "I need to write food stories more often."

Does this mean we are now food experts? It depends on how you define expertise.

Ryan and I had a lot of fun chiseling down the list of great sandwiches for this issue, and we think we covered most of the bases. You'll find out where to get a great barbecue sandwich, a flavorful grilled cheese, a delicious Vietnamese bánh mì plus some bizarre Dagwoods and a few of the best vegan or vegetarian options the Queen City has to offer. But as you peruse our choices, know that these are really not the be-all-end-all sandwiches in town, and that Ryan and I are not any more authoritative on sandwiches than you are. We just like to eat, and we wanted to spotlight some of the more interesting and tasty sandwiches we've come across. So, go check them out and then do your own research. And tell us what assholes we are for missing your favorite.

This is the way we operate at Creative Loafing these days. We know how to do the research, ask all the right questions, and write, so we go out and find interesting stuff to cover that we think you need to know about. It's that simple. We're not experts on everything, although during the course of a story, we learn a lot and we pass that info along to you.

That's the role a journalist should play.

We do each have our particular areas of expertise — Ryan knows a lot about local news, I know a lot about music, staffer Pat Moran knows a lot about arts and theater — but we don't always stick to those topics. The fact is, at Creative Loafing today, we all often work outside of our comfort zones. In earlier years, CL would hire so-called professional food and arts critics, but we have to be more resourceful now, because budgets are smaller and resources scarcer than they were in the prosperous '90s and early aughts.

There's a silver lining to this. What I've learned as an editor of a leaner staff is that pushing outside of our comfort zones has led to some of the more interesting perspectives and well-researched stories I've ever had the pleasure of writing or editing. For instance, when Ryan writes about music, he's not coming to the story from a music critic's perspective — he's coming to it from the perspective of someone who simply loves music. And there's a difference. It means Ryan has to do more research. He has to ask the kinds of questions a casual music fan would ask. He has to find the story in the music. Which is what he did for his terrific cover story on the MollyWops in the Music Issue a couple of weeks ago.

We still hire professionals. Freelance contributors Alison Leininger and Catherine Brown both are experts in the food world. Contributor Kia Moore is an expert in arts and nonprofit organizations. Contributor Grey Revell is an expert on music. And when Ryan writes a local news story or I write about music, you can rest assured that we know what we're talking about.

But when all is said and done, you are the real experts. You are the ones out there plucking down your hard-earned cash for a good meal or a good concert. We just do a little footwork to provide the context for the food you eat, the art you experience or the local band you might want to check out. And we like to think we offer alternatives to the choices that mainstream media outlets shove down your throats based on whatever restaurant or arts organization has the highest-paid publicist.

Does that mean we're experts? Well, kind of. We're experts in the sense that we spend our work hours (which are all hours for us) doing what you may not have time to do. We're experts in the same way an artist or musician is an expert when they write or draw or sing about a topic that's important to them.

In the arts section, I talk with a Charlotte writer, Valaida Fullwood, who has thought long and hard about what being an "expert" means. Lots of times, creative people feel like frauds when we speak authoritatively on a topic. It's not true, of course, and there's a name for that feeling: "imposter syndrome." Fullwood will speak on that topic at the Charlotte Art League this week, and she gives me a little preview in the Artspeak column.

Enjoy this special sandwich issue. And rip us a new one if you don't agree with our expert choices.

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