The New World of Travel Writing
As a writer, editor, and teacher, I care about travel writing that matters. My own journey of learning about and reflecting on the ever-evolving world of travel writing and publishing is a continual one, propelled each year by the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, held each summer in the Bay Area, where I live. Even more recently, I was thrilled to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival and TBEX travel bloggers gathering as a guest speaker—where the conversation gained momentum.
One of my prime lessons this year has been the fact that today, what might be called “mainstream travel writing” encompasses a broader spectrum than ever before. This stretches all the way from the traditional independent journalism that newspapers and magazines have been publishing since well before I enterered this field three decades ago, to a kind of cutting-edge destination marketing that includes blog posts and other writing as part of a larger package negotiated with a destination marketing organization or other travel-related company.
One importance of this for the budding travel writer is the fact that there are more ways than ever to make money writing about travel. Bearing in mind that for the vast majority of writers, the money to be made in this way is still “icing on the top” rather than the career cake itself, it can still be inspiring and encouraging to realize the full range of options out there, from writing for third-party outlets (publications, websites) to working with travel-related companies such as luggage and clothing manufacturers, hotels, airlines, and tourism boards.
The issue this ever-broadening spectrum has raised for me is a thorny one that has been around for a long time in one guise or another, but that seems even more central now. Namely: Who controls the content?
In the traditional publishing world in which I grew up professionally, publications paid for their content by running advertisements. There was a generally well-respected division between “church” and “state”—editorial and advertising.
When I was travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle, the most we blurred this division was when we published “special sections,” usually themed by geography—Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and so on. The closest we came to merging editorial and advertising (there’s even a name for it now, “advertorial”) was when we did sections on Mexico and Hawaii. At one point, the newspaper’s ad salespeople approached me saying, “Such-and-such resort will buy a full-page ad if we can guarantee to include a story about them. Can you do that?” And my answer would always be, “No. All I can guarantee is that the main articles will be about some aspect of Hawaii.”
I leapt from print into cyberspace in 1995. In the two decades since then, at most, if not all print publications, these church-state divisons have become increasingly blurred—but at many, the notion of editorial independence from advertising is still a cherished principle (though the degree to which it is followed is often scaled to how financially robust the media outlet happens to be).
On some of the new content islands that have risen via the plate tectonics of online publishing, however, these distinctions are irrelevant. Some self-publishing content creators now approach a destination or a travel provider and say, “We want to work with you. We can offer you a full menu that includes blog posts, tweets and Twitter chats, Facebook shares, Instagrams, and Pinterest pins, plus appearances at conferences and conventions. We’ll work with you to help you get your message across. And it will cost you this much.”
Clearly, this isn’t travel journalism, nor does it pretend or claim to be; this is essentially marketing. And while in the Old School part of my brain, this kind of content is immediately editorially suspect, I’ve learned that doing marketing of this kind doesn’t have to mean sacrificing standards. High-quality storytelling can be incorporated into these efforts. In the same way that three decades ago nonfiction appropriated the stylistic elements of fiction to create the New Journalism, we might say that today, the best cutting-edge marketing is appropriating the traditional storytelling elements of travel writing to create the New Marketing.
What this relationship does ultimately entail, though, is a sacrifice of independence. The message is finally dictated by the destination or company that is paying for it. Does this mean that the New Marketing creators blindly produce whatever their payers ask them to? No. The best ones work with the payer to try to ensure that the quality of its offering is as high and appealing as it can be, so that they can promote it with passion and conscience intact. In this sense, they actually provide a further service.
But what worries me about this model is that, taken to its ultimate extension, it would mean that travel coverage would depend directly on budget. Destinations and companies that have little or no budgets for promotion would fall off the metaphorical map.
A big part of what I loved about being travel editor at the Examiner & Chronicle was that I got to shape and share a little world each week. Every Sunday I’d have one story about Asia, one about Europe, one about North America. I’d cover South America every other week, and the Middle East and Africa at least once a month. I’d combine articles every Sunday to create a picture-puzzle mix of travel styles and budgets, tips and tales.
This world was a reflection of me, of course, and of my thinking about my readership—but my desire to engage, inform, and inspire that readership was what fueled my editorial decisions each day. That same desire also fueled my own decisions about where to travel on the newspaper’s dime, and what subjects to write about. Where the funding was coming from to publish the section was almost never a factor in my decisions.
So, a related question this new world of travel content raises for me is this: Where is the consumer in this new equation? The consumer, the reader, was truly paramount for me. In the new world of travel content creation, there is a danger that the reader is being reduced to an afterthought, useful chiefly as a statistic—an accumulation of fans, likes, unique visitors—that can be used to convince a travel company to employ one’s services.
These twin reductions—in the range of destinations covered and in the attention given to readers’ interests and needs—diminish both the world of travel storytelling and the actual world which is the subject of that content.
These are the thoughts my own wanderings in the past few months have inspired, and they’ve raised further questions: Going forward, who decides editorial focus? Who vets editorial content? If the funding for independent third-party travel outlets such as newspapers, magazines, and websites dries up, who will dictate the content? If there’s no budget to pay independent travel writers, how can they maintain their independence? Who will pay for the mind-expanding narratives that explore the wide world outside and the soul-stretching essays that explore the wide world inside? Whither travel publishing?
I’ve also become convinced that more than ever, individual travel writers are becoming the gatekeepers—the stewards—of the planet that readers see, regardless of medium. In this regard, the following guidelines seem urgently critical to me:
1. Transparency is key. It’s important to be clear about—and to state clearly—who funded your travel and your content. Readers won’t necessarily think less of you or trust your descriptions and assertions less if you reveal that you were the guest of a destination. But they may well think less of you—and question your content more keenly—if you don’t share this information up front and they discover it some other way instead.
2. Integrity is essential. No matter who is paying for you, you have to maintain your own quality guidelines and principles. Integrity is the bedrock of readers’ trust in you. Don’t promote something you don’t believe in. Don’t tell us something is wonderful if you don’t really think it is.
3. Quality in creation is still paramount. Do the best you can to make your writing accurate, detailed, and lively. All the tips I wrote earlier this year about creating quality—attention to passion points, sensual details, music, meaning—are critically important in this emerging new world.
4. Honor yourself, honor your subject, honor your reader. Know your subject and your audience thoroughly, tailor your content to serve that audience, and create the most passionate, evocative, engaging, and connected work that you can.
5. Cultivate your sense of respect, gratitude, and wonder. Those of us who get to travel the world on someone else’s dime, whether on assignment or on a press trip, are incalculably lucky. It’s essential that we bear this in mind and keep our experiences in perspective—and that we continue to connect with the core of wonder that inspired us to travel this path in the first place. Honoring our shared craft in this way will enhance and enrich us all.
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.