In Praise Of Service Journalism

service journalism - travel magazinesMy career in the travel world started out by pure luck. I was assigned to work a temp office gig in the PR department of Condé Nast Traveler for two weeks, which turned into two years at the magazine, four more at a PR agency for hotels and travel providers and two more here at Gadling. Before and throughout my career, I’ve always been a major consumer of travel media, whether I’ve used it to inspire and help plan my personal travels, as a resource for how and where to pitch my clients, or for story ideas and to keep up with industry news. Some of my favorite stories to read or write have been service pieces, the much-maligned but reader-popular side of journalism.

Service journalism has been called the “fast food” of journalism, providing the reader with “5 of the World’s Sexiest Beaches!” or a suggested itinerary for exploring the city as in the New York Times‘ regular “36 Hours in..” series. While a narrative feature might probe into a culture’s essence, or try to evoke the feeling of a certain place in time, a service piece gives you quick tips, highlights the “best” of a place and may include lists, bullets and infographics. I like the definition of service journalism as “informational“: it tells you not just about a place, but how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, etc.At Condé Nast Traveler we promoted many different magazine articles from investigative stories on airline security to roundups of romantic getaways for Valentine’s Day, and it was generally the articles on how to save money booking your next cruise, or hotel packages involving chocolate-dipped strawberries that got an editor booked on the Today Show or a mention on the Associated Press. At Traveler, I worked with Consumer News Editor Wendy Perrin, whom I might call the Meryl Streep of service journalism: well-known and beloved in the industry, frequently honored but not as much as she deserves. Wendy publishes annual guides to the best travel agents, vacation rentals, cruise ships and dream trips. She was also a pioneer in social media, as one of the first “old media” editors to start blogging, and an early advocate of social networking platforms like Twitter as an essential tool for travelers. While a guide to the best credit cards for racking up frequent flyer miles may not sound poetic, Wendy’s writing regularly affects readers in a very real way, and she maintains an open dialogue to make sure readers are taking the best trip possible.

While I might read a travel narrative or even a novel to be transported somewhere else, a service piece helps me actually get going somewhere else. It was a L.A. Times article on the Corn Islands that got me to go to Nicaragua in 2007; of the few other Americans I met there, most of them were there because of the piece as well. A recent post from Legal Nomads might look like a standard list of travel tips, but it’s peppered with anecdotes, insights and links to other travel stories, and I was transported around the world with Jodi (and craving oranges) while I read it. A Nile Guide roundup of decaying castles has me plotting a trip to Belgium. Some of my favorite and most heart-felt articles I’ve written for Gadling have included finding the expat community and tips on travel with a baby. The Society for American Travel Writers’ annual awards have a category for service-oriented stories, but a few service pieces have snuck their way into other categories, such as the deceptively simple-sounding “Ten Reasons to Visit New Orleans.”

Looking through several of the major travel magazines, most stories are now accompanied by some kind of service information: a sidebar on farmers markets to accompany an essay on eating locally, or a back-of-book addendum of hotels and practical tips for a feature on a changing city’s political landscape. Perhaps all travel media should strive for this mix of inspirational, educational and doable. Our own Features Editor Don George explains that a successful travel narrative should describe a “quest that illuminates a place and culture.” A top ten list of summer vacation may not provide such a point, but a feature on visiting the Seychelles on a budget just might. Not all service pieces have to be fluffy, or recycled from press releases, or lacking insight. They can contain mini-narratives and discoveries, and at best, give readers the tools to create their own.

Travel writers: You need what Book Passage offers

The Book Passage Travel and Food Writers Conference had its 20th anniversary in August of this year. It was small, there were approximately 75 students. The conference is made of the usual stuff — formal talks by travel writers and classes taught by food bloggers and panel discussions about social media and breakfasts made blurry by staying up too late the night before. Book Passage is expensive, inconveniently located, and doesn’t include the cost of staying overnight at the limited hotel options nearby. And Book Passage can, I believe, make a very big difference in your trajectory as a travel writer, making it worth every dime. It was probably the most exciting, meaningful conference I’ve had the good fortune to attend.

A disclaimer and some context, first. This year was my first year at Book Passage. A travel writer friend, Jen Leo, had been badgering me for years to attend. (Jen is one of the regular voices on This Week in Travel, she launched the LA Times travel blog, and she edited Sand in my Bra, a travel compilation.) “YOU need to go,” Jen told me, “Promise me you will save all your ad money from this year to attend.” Then, shortly after TBEX (the Travelblog Exchange, a bloggers conference) in Vancouver, Don George offered me a faculty spot teaching a course on travel blogging. (Don contributes here at Gadling, but he’s also the author of Lonely Planet Travel Writing (How To), a contributor to National Geographic Traveler, and one of the founders of Book Passage.)I accepted and attended my first Book Passage as faculty. This means I didn’t pay the conference fee and that some of my expenses were covered. That said, let me assure you, I wasn’t there for the money. I was there to teach, to participate in panel conversations about social media, and to find out what all the fuss was about. By the end of the weekend I was equal parts delighted and really angry with myself for putting it off for so long. I was wildly honored to be there as a teacher, but I wanted to be a student every minute I wasn’t teaching. Jen was right, I needed to be at Book Passage. And if you are serious about your work as a travel writer, but having a hard time finding your way, or just looking for the next sign post, you do too. Why? Here is what you can find there.

A Sense of Possibility. Travel writing can, at so many junctions, seem like an impossible career path. For those of us who are truly in love with words and writing, it can be deeply frustrating and demoralizing. But the environment at Book Passage is all about encouragement and possibility. There are places where your stories can see the light of day and at this conference, you will meet people who genuinely want to help you make that happen.

An Emphasis on Creating Good Work. On the first night of Book Passage, I listened to Tim Cahill (the founder of Outside magazine, author of Road Fever, and so much more) talk about new media. He struck me as something of a curmudgeon, a guy with tendencies to dismiss the digital world as not worthy of attention simply because it was digital. But I changed my mind about that when he said something along the lines of “all the Twitter and Facebook and blogging tools in the world are not going to help you if you can’t tell a story.” This emphasis on creating good work was repeated throughout the weekend. There are no easy shortcuts, you must sit and write and do so until it is good. It is hard and it is worth it.

Valuable Critiques from Respected Pros. For a little extra money, you can book an hour with a writer or editor who can help you whip your story into shape. They’ll give you actionable notes that can get you unstuck or out of your own head. This isn’t coddling positive feedback, it’s a private session that will make your work better. If you’re further along, you can do three days of this in a small group with Tim Cahill. His students seemed positively shinier by the end of the weekend.

Access to Experts. Book Passage is small with a low student/faculty ration. The travel-blogging class I co-taught with Jim Benning (the editor and co-founder of World Hum) had 12 students — that’s a lot of one on one time with plenty of opportunity for Q&A. Plus, faculty were always accessible between sessions — in the book store, over breakfast, during afternoon breaks on the patio. They don’t disappear when the sessions are over. They’re next to you in line for lattes and they are genuinely interested in what you’re doing.

Really Great Company. Book Passage is the travel writer’s tribal gathering. It doesn’t matter where you’re going next: Phnom Pehn or Honolulu or Dar es Salaam. Somebody has been there and can’t wait for you to go, but mostly, they can’t wait to read what you have to say about it. Really. These are people who are just as compelled to write as they are to travel and they understand. Not only do they want you to have an amazing adventure, they want you to write well when it’s over. And you kind of love all of them for that.

Fairy Dust. I’m a firm believer in conference fairy dust. At big conferences, you find it in the hallways between sessions or in the hotel when it turns out your New York friend has the room across the hall and you have a bottle of Scotch. At big events if you want fairy dust, you have to look and get offsite and make plans. But at Book Passage, the fairy dust seemed concentrated, like something great could happen at any moment. Like an editor could say, “That’s a great idea, write me that! I want to publish it.” Or an idea could go from abstract to concrete in front of your eyes. Or you could go home inspired, knowing that yes, it’s a fool’s path, of course it is, but you would not have it any other way. I saw all these things happen.

I sincerely hope I’ll be invited to return to Book Passage next year as faculty. But even if I’m not, I’m going to do what Jen Leo told me to do all those years ago. I’m going to save my money and go as a student. You should too. See you there.

Image: The Travels of Babar Record Cover by Dominus Vobiscum via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The world’s most dangerous destinations (according to the Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times recently compiled a list of their picks for the world’s most dangerous places, with some popular tourist destinations earning amongst their ranks. Unlike other lists of this kind however, they automatically omitted places like Baghdad or Afghanistan, which are not travel friendly to begin with. Instead, this list points out the the very real dangers that a tourist might face while visiting one of these places.

For example, Gansbaai, South Africa earns a spot amongst the world’s most dangerous destinations because of the shark infested waters that surround the city. The region has an abundance of seals and penguins, which attract hordes of great white sharks, making it a popular place for visitors who want to see those predators up close. Thrill seekers can take a dip in those dangerous waters inside a shark cage, while most will look on from the safety of their boat.

Other dangerous destinations include Mt. Everest in Nepal for the extreme conditions and high altitude. The entire country of Australia gets the nod thanks to all the dangerous snakes and spiders that live there, and Memphis, Tennessee is a surprise entry for its proclivity for earthquakes. The city sits on a major fault line that could make it a major disaster waiting to happen.

There are a number of other popular destinations on the list, each with a unique threat to those that visit there. The list is a good reminder that we don’t have to visit a war torn nation to face real dangers on our next trip.

More travel deals for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

The folks over at the LA Times have rounded up a few more great travel deals for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And what better way to recoup from this most hellish of shopping weekends than by looking forward to a discounted vacation?

Shell’s Vacation Hospitality’s Black Friday Sale runs today with discounts of up to 50% off at 26 of its resorts located in Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, New Hampshire, Texas, Wisconsin, California, Mexico and Canada. Sample deals include a $79 per night room in Napa Valley, $84 per night on the Big Island of Hawaii, and $64 per night in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. There are some blackout dates around the holidays and the rooms must be prepaid and are nonrefundable.

Gap Adventures’ sale runs from Black Friday to Cyber Monday and offers 20% savings on selected tours. 12 days in Laos can be had for $999 per person, 8 days in Thailand is just $479, and 20 days in India is only $1099. Over 25 tours are discounted, and include locations in South and Central America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Prices don’t include airfare and are only valid on select departures in December, January, April and May.

Sonesta, a resort company that operates two properties on St. Maarten, is also offering 50% off for bookings made through Monday. The discount is valid for stays from December 18 to March 31. Stays over Christmas and New Year’s require a 5-night minimum, but at just $138 (down from the usual $275), the total price is much more affordable.

Feds spank spankers with arrest

Two kids were arguing over a window shade on a plane. Sound familiar? We’ve all lived through it, and we’ve all griped about it. Unlike most parents, who seem to let their kids go on this way until they’ve exhausted themselves, Tamera Jo Freeman took decisive action, according to an article in the LA Times. After their fighting caused a Bloody Mary to spill into her lap, she spanked each kid on the thigh. Three times per perpetrator.

Apparently, this makes her a terror suspect.

A flight attendant responded to the situation, prompting Freeman to hurl obscenities and the remains of her tomato juice. Freeman has since been arrested and convicted under the USA PATRIOT Act. The chain of events that began with trying to keep her kids under control has turned Freeman into a felon.

And, she’s not alone. At least 200 people have been convicted under an amended version of this law, in most cases with no evidence of an attempted hijacking or physical attack on the flight crew. Loud voices, inappropriate language (this would land me in deep shit) and drunken behavior (ditto) have prompted arrest and prosecution, leading many to believe that the law is being misused.

Duh.

It’s time for us to be a bit realistic here. What Freeman did was inexcusable. Her approach to the flight attendant, both in language and in deed, was wholly inappropriate and certainly called for some sort of disciplinary action. Press charges, treat her like she treats her children … do what ever it takes. But to pursue the spanker as a terrorist? That seems like too much. It’s not like she went after the hell-raisers with a box-cutter.

I think the more appropriate punishment would be to make her fly to Cuba with drunken Irish hooligans.

[Via LA Times]