Don’t go there

Is the Internet the death of travel writing?

Television didn’t kill great travel writing, but the Web just might. Consider the kind of content being brought to you by the titans of roamin’ journalism. From Travel & Leisure: Crazy Holiday Light Displays. World’s Scariest Runways. 50 Best Romantic Getaways. World’s Worst Travel Diseases. From Concierge.com, the Website powered by Conde Nast Traveler, this dross: Off the Grid: 10 Places to Totally Unplug. Hottest Hotel Hookups: 9 Places Where Celebs Got Caught.
Wow. The utter debasement of the word “best” to move magazines and/or generate site traffic is what it is, but what’s more depressing is what this kind of corporate-driven drivel hath wrought on the traveler’s literary landscape – and how it’s destroying the way we think about travel too.
Not only are we a long way from Mark Twain and his travels with a bunch of innocents abroad, we’re a long way from Horizon, that great literary magazine of the 1970s, and hell, we’re no longer even within sight of that numinous ‘80s repository of percolating wanderlust, the Banana Republic catalogue (wherein the French Café Shirt was described as “turning mere sophisticate into instant boulevardier: exudes worldly wisdom and elan. The old-fashioned hand-picking on pockets, collar and cuffs marks the wearer as someone who’s unswayed by the latest fads: the fabric falls in folds of consummate unconcern.” Sold.)
How, exactly, did we go from Bruce Chatwin, Jan Morris and for that matter Mel and Patricia Ziegler to “Out and About: Key West” (The New York Times), “Confessions of a Hotel Housekeeper (CNN.com) and “America’s Best Doughnuts” (ForbesTraveler.com)? In a word, greed. The same avarice that’s cracked the foundations of the economy has dumbed down travel writing and numbed readers – who are now “users” – almost to the point of no return. Which would be of little concern if print publishing were in a healthy, robust state, but – no comment.
As magazines fold left and right, and ad pages fall and what titles we’re left with thin out, the flight to online travel information consumption will intensify. Are we to blithely settle for the mediocrity that is so rampant in this once exciting new medium? At a travel writer’s conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. last October, Travel & Leisure online executive editor Rich Beattie told a roomful of eager scribes-to-be that “Clear is the new clever.” He was referring to his Website’s woefully watered down heds and deks: 20 Great X…50 Best Y… and his justification for them: search engine optimization, or SEO. The (flawed) thinking here is that Joe Web surfer is likelier to tap “10 Hot Hotel Hook-ups” into Google’s search bar than, say, “Rendezvous with George and Condi at the Ritz”, thereby more driving page views to the Website. In other words, Beattie was saying, circulation pressures now trump editorial priorities, all the time, every time.
The fact that’s he’s not alone doesn’t mean, however, he should be readily forgiven. You could forgive a marketer for speaking in Orwellian tongues, but for an editor to fall into that trap is anything but doubleplusgood. For there is never a “new clever.” If you have to resort to banal headlines in order to cover a new resort or attract readers, you’re simply not being clever enough, and you probably should be selling real estate, not crafting content.
But Travel & Leisure is not the worst culprit in this mess. It is the reductive and infantile American consumer mentality itself, notoriously self-defeating when it comes to the possibility of intellectual advancement. The fracturing of the leisure content landscape online into so many tasteless flakes parallels, for one, the crass downward spiral of print publishing standards (50 Places to Go Birding Before You Die??) and for that matter of the physical landscape as well: America is littered with strip malls of the lowest aesthetic value to mankind because semi-educated managers in boardrooms in New York and Chicago and Dallas thought it made good economic sense at the time. A bit late in the day to revise that kind of thinking now.
Publishers’ relentless focus on Web site traffic demonstrates their lack of understanding of the medium but it will continue even as America’s relentless focus on profits saps the country’s energy and coffers. When priorities are so far off base, there’s no amount of protestation that will counteract inertia. Consider a press release issued by Forbes.com on January 22: “Forbes.com Traffic Surges in December: Leading Financial Web Site Attracts 20 Million Unique Monthly Visitors…a 46% increase over December 2007.” Forbes.com includes ForbesTraveler.com, from which most of the staff was unceremoniously laid off in late 2008 (not mentioned in said press release). If I were a travel publisher – and I have been – I’d want the media to see me in my best clothes, not my undergarments. I’d want them to know about my great, enriching, inimitable features, not how many eyeballs may (or may not have) crossed them.
After all, who cares? Not advertisers – they’re pulling creative from coast to coast, from Conde Nast in the East to The Desert Sun (in Palm Springs, Calif.) in the West. Perhaps they’ll get back into the game when the content compels them to. Right now, it’s a desert. Could there be anything more unromantic than “50 Best Romantic Getaways”? How about a good old-fashioned tale of sex with a stranger on the Orient-Express? (Paul Theroux, where are you?) As for 10 Places to Totally Unplug? Oy. I can shut off the Internet in my TV-less Manhattan apartment and for all intents and purposes be in the wilds of Queens. Creativity, please. Can I make this any clearer?

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