Travel editor Q&A: Sean O’Neill

Until last week, Sean O’Neill served as senior editor of Budget Travel magazine online. For over three years he served at the helm of the online publication of the only US travel magazine focused exclusively on budget travel.

As editor of the Budget Travel blog, Sean executed a perfect balance, providing readers with up-to-the-minute news, very helpful travel tips, and timely sorts of planning information, all geared toward a budget-friendly audience. His work on the blog and other endeavors at Budget Travel has always been helpful, thoughtful, and well-targeted.

Sean departs New York for London at the end of August. Gotham’s loss is The Smoke’s gain.

Q: Describe your profession.

A: For more than three years, I was senior editor of Budget Travel magazine’s website.

Q: What excited you about Budget Travel when you came on board?

A: I liked the magazine so much that I would memorize passages from it. My friends thought I was weird. (I was.) But, hey, I really liked the magazine because it was unpretentious and freewheeling. When the editor inaugurated the Road Trip section (a monthly series of first-person tales about U.S. drives) in 2004 with a trip through the desert Southwest, he wrote about a stop he and a friend made to roll down the side of a sand dune. Can you imagine the editors of any of the other travel magazines getting sand on their expensive clothes? I can’t.

Plus, founding editor and genius Arthur Frommer had the savvy to use reader material extensively long before “user-generated content” became a catchphrase. That tradition continues today. The October 2010 issue will be entirely derived from reader opinions, a trick that editors can only pull off when they have thousands of readers interacting with them constantly. Naturally, readers are similarly engaged with, and it’s fun to interact with them. Our blog has drawn more than 25,000 comments to date, and the blogosphere has made it one of the top ten most linked-to travel blogs according to Technorati. (Gadling is #1, natch.)

Q: Which of your accomplishments at BT are you proudest of?

A: I’m most proud to be part of a team that has wholly transformed the site. A few years ago, the site was essentially a bulletin board in cyberspace for pinning up print articles. The company formed a team that attempted to apply the magazine’s signature brand–realistic vacation advice told in a conversational style–via the Internet. The team has come a long way toward that goal. An upcoming switch to a new content managing system will allow the site to be as smartly designed as the magazine has become in the past year or so.Q: What are some challenges to putting together a successful online publication in conjunction with an established print magazine brand?

A: The simplest problem is that some editors struggle to cope with how readers are in a different mindset when they’re reading a magazine than when they’re reading online. Metaphorically speaking, you tend to read a magazine leaning back, and you tend to read an electronic device leaning forward. In other words, you’re in “daydream mode” when you’re reading an article about, for example, a farmstay on St. Croix. Meanwhile, you’re more likely to be actively socializing (via Facebook or IM) or actively booking a trip while you’re using a laptop or smartphone, as well as multi-tasking, while you scan one of our blog posts. It can take a while for any editor to learn how to mentally jump back-and-forth during a workday between the needs of the various audiences.

Q: Give us a sense of the contours of the future of online travel journalism, as you see them.

A: First, this year will mark the birth of ‘zine culture in travel media. We’re looking at the democratization of travel publishing. Thanks to print-on-demand services like MagCloud and e-readers like the Kindle and the iPad, any small group of dedicated people can deliver content to a global audience without needing to worry about print, postage, or shipping costs. That’s a huge shift. Look at what a group of clever kids at Longshot magazine are doing in the general interest category, producing a print-on-demand magazine in under 48 hours at low cost. Increasingly, text and imagery that you lay out in a print publishing tool like InDesign can be imported intact into an iPad app as well as into a Web content management system based on Drupal’s operating system. What that means is that any tiny team of people can now publish the same material in a consistent aesthetic across multiple formats–all on a start-up cost of $5,000 or so. Despite all of the talk of the “death of print,” paper-magazine culture may undergo a renaissance if a small army of upstart magazines try to appeal to niche segments of travelers.

Now for a more controversial prediction. I believe many Americans will soon start paying for content online the same way they pay for cable TV channels. I am confident that there are underserved audiences of travelers out there who are increasingly starved for high quality travel stories and advice and are willing to fork over, say, $25 or the equivalent of a one-way checked bag fee. I believe a start-up company will eventually be founded to deliver that set of subscription products to those hard-core travelers, and I intend to work for that start-up. (Interested VCs can contact me via Twitter. Haha.)

Q: Where do you love to travel the most?

A: Rome is my favorite city. Next year, I’m making my seventh trip in seven years to Rome.

Q: Tell us about a secret destination, restaurant, neighborhood, bar, or hidden plaza somewhere.

A: Do you define “secret” as a spot that doesn’t show up on Google maps? If so, then I can recommend a cute spot that qualifies in the northwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Dupont Circle by S Street NW and 22nd Street. It has a micro version of Rome’s Spanish Steps, large enough only for a handful of people to sit on. It’s a quiet, shady spot that’s frankly excellent for making out.

Q: Where are you off to next and what will you be doing there?

A: I’m off to London, where I’ll be a contributing editor for Budget Travel. I’ll also write for other publications and take advantage of how well London is served by many low-cost airlines.