In Praise Of Service Journalism

My 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.

Road trip tip: Best audio books for a drive

Saturday’s road trip tip–how to stay awake while driving, listed listening to audio books as one technique.

The last audio book I listened to on a road trip (from New York City to Columbus, Ohio along I-80) was David Sedaris’s Live at Carnegie Hall. It isn’t an audio book per se, but a taped performance of Sedaris reading some of his essays. I was awake and laughing–hard.

This weekend, as I was leafing through a magazine (Better Homes and Gardens?) at a friend’s house in Wooster, Ohio, I came across a sidebar-type article on the 7 best audio books for the road. One of them is a fabulous choice because of its lovely language alone.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best novels written, in my opinion. The language is lush. Harper Lee , the author is the narrator.

Another author narrated suggesion was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. This choice reminded me of another option that would appeal to children, but also resonates with adults. White is the narrator as well.

Here’s another one of my choices. The Velveteen Rabbit narrated by Meryl Streep is wonderful, particularly since George Winston’s piano accompaniment is woven in with Streep’s voice.

For another mix of music and narration for children, what about Peter and the Wolf? Here’s a version where David Bowie is the narrator. This one is a great way to brush up on your instrument knowledge.

Gun-friendly national parks possibly coming soon

I’ve been in national parks from Acadia in Maine to Glacier in Montana to Zion in Utah to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. (You can start humming “This Land is Your Land” if you like.) I’ve always felt safe–aggravated sometimes by over-sized RVs, but safe.

I even felt safe when I was hiking in Glacier with my husband, then boyfriend, when we saw a mother grizzly bear and her cub in the distance. We were far enough away from them that they looked like dogs. Even when my husband, then boyfriend, said, “All I have to do is out run you if they come for us,” I felt safe.

Evidently, I may not have been as safe as I thought. If I had had a gun, I’d feel safer. That’s the general idea of the proposal that is on the table to allow guns in the national park system. The people who think this is a good idea must have seen the “The River Wild’ several times over. That’s the flick when Meryl Streep‘s character takes on Kevin Bacon’s character–the bad guy, during a family raft trip down a river in some western state. It was filmed in Montana and Oregon.

There are people that think this idea is about as dumb as they come. According the this article in The New York Times, The national parks are supposed to be family-friendly. Family-friendly places don’t have guns. Look at this picture taken in Yosemite by James Gordon. Is there any place that looks more family-friendly than that? Plus, there is a chance someone feeling threatened might kill an animal when there isn’t a threat at all.

Personally, I’m on the side of folks who aren’t happy with the idea of guns in national parks. I’m a fairly calm person, but I know what it feels like to not find a parking space because some large vehicle pulling another large vehicle is taking up more than one space–or what it’s like to not be able to get around a large vehicle pulling another large vehicle on a windy road. Add summer heat, limited vacation time and you have to pee, but can’t stop because there’s no room to pull over, and you’ve got trouble. “Road Rage at the Grand Canyon” coming to a theater near you.

Movie Costume Designs: A History Tour

A few years ago I interviewed Kristine Kearney, the head of costume design in the Department of Theatre at The Ohio State University. Kearney’s costume design expertise brought her to the sets of Fried Green Tomatoes, Shawshank Redemption and Driving Miss Daisy among others. She talked about quality fabrics, how costume designers make decisions and what colors look best for the stage.

Every year during the Academy Awards, I watch with interest the costume award nominees. These are truly the artsy folks. If you’re a person who loves costumes and can remember what actors had on in various roles, here is an exhibit you might want to check out this summer.

At the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, “Fashion in Film: Period Costumes for the Screen” is on exhibit through September. There are 36 costumes to remember if you’ve seen them worn by Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Gweneyth Paltrow, and Elizabeth Taylor. Let’s see, among these women we have Virginia Wolf, Karen Silkwood, a Shakespearean actor/actress, and Cleopatra. Those costumes may not be the ones on display, I just wanted to see what I could name off the top of my head. How many centuries does that cover?

The Paine Art Center and Gardens was once the estate of Nathan Paine and his wife Jessie who built the mansion beginning in the 1920s with the idea of turning it into an open-to-the-public museum. It took them until the 1940s to complete it due to financial slow downs. You can also tour it on-line.

Anguilla: Where The Stars Come Out

The Chicago
Tribune is featuring an article by Rosemary
, a Los Angeles Times staff writer who went on assignment to the Caribbean island of Anguilla, fast becoming
the hottest vacation spot for the Hollywood jetset.  She admits she was shocked to find that Anguilla isn’t a
tropical paradise — it was, in her words, rather "homely" — but what it lacks in verdent beauty it
apparently makes up for in elegant luxury.  Besides, the island has apparently become a favourite of the likes of
Sean "Diddy" Combs and Meryl Streep — surely they can’t be wrong.

Anyway, if you’re interested in
a Caribbean island vacation, be sure to check the article
— and don’t miss, at the very end of the piece, McClure’s travel tips and where to stay.