Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 1: transparency and the trouble with top tens

Ever found yourself getting annoyed at massive omissions in a ‘best of’ list or wondered where they hell the writer has got their info from?

Well, here’s a chance to go behind the scenes of a feature and see the writer’s process (well, mine,) as well as gain access to the original pool of journalistic research.

The idea is that you can select your own ‘top tens’ rather than put up with mine – in effect you can rewrite the published end result if you so desire. You can also use the info as further reading for more ideas, it’s not in a writerly style but some people will like that.

Or, more adventurously,  if you’re a fellow travel writer/blogger, feel free to mine the data to put together a whole new travel feature altogether – just let me know what you create and I’ll link to it here on the blog.

The problem with ‘top ten’ lists…

…is that they’re subjective. Recently I was asked to compile two gallery features for the most romantic places in the UK (below) and a global version of the same thing.

Screengrab of the first page of the feature on UK's most romantic spots

Here's what the intro page looks like

Not only are ‘top tens ‘and ‘best ofs’ subjective (unless charted by stats), but how do you measure romance? Answers on a postcard…

Because of my general tomboyish lack of romance, I started to feel the pain of writing something I knew little about. To be honest, writer’s dread set in. As my friend Christine says, ‘No writer likes writing, but they all love having written.’

So I decided to experiment – as is the will of the Tourist Vs Traveller blog – and crowd-source the answers using interactive tools and applications, but also funnel the suggestions into a one universally accessible place rather than swamping my email inbox and making it unusable.

Cue 98 detailed PR responses in 48 hours, a large number of informal social media suggestions, and a spreadsheet that would take me eight hours to plough through.

But before I unpack all of this travel feature’s baggage, and reveal the tools I used, here’s why I’m doing it and who I think might be interested.

(In future, you’ll be able to skip this bit and get straight to the juicy stuff when the other posts in the series are written but for now, just deal with it…)

Why expose the guts of a story – and who cares anyway?

Number 4 on my list of 10 New Year’s travel resolutions for 2010 is ‘Transparent Journalism’. And this is good because…

Curiosity – readers, who never see behind the scenes of travel writer’s job, may enjoy seeing how a feature was put together.

An exposé of journalism – people have come to distrust journalists because of spin/angles/pure lies. I think they would probably appreciate a bit more honesty, so here’s the guts of both features laid bare for anyone to see, review and make their own choices about.

Transparency and choice – there’s only so much information you can get into a feature but a helluva lot more collated research just going to waste – maybe the reader would like to see the full set of options rather than just the writer’s choice? Kind of like ‘Further reading’.

Traditional travel writing has a long history of accusations of lying. What happens when you make the writing transparent? I have no idea what response this series of posts will bring – I hope there will be some response! Especially from those who are disillusioned with journalism. The whole point is to tear down the traditional forms, experiment and open up to other ways of creating online travel content. (Here’s an earlier rant on this over on my website.)

Skills sharing – print and non-techie web journalists can see some of the online tools available to them, and to know the pros and cons of using them. Techie types can also perhaps advise me of more tools I can have a play with.

Interaction – Crowd-sourced stories create a small community of contributors for that article and break down the barriers between journalist and readers.

Distribution – Those who contribute to a feature are more likely to follow the story’s trail to the end. They may also distribute it via sharing sites. Distribution is no longer via a newsagent’s shelf but via networks and communities and RSS feeds and the like, so journalists should have a interest in experimenting with crowd-sourcing. The other thing is that stories no longer die on publication but may come back to life again in the comments to form new stories – see the Online Journalism Blog for more this (eg the News Diamond structure for an online article).

If there are any other reasons you can think of for making research transparent, let me know as these are just initial thoughts. I’m wondering also if there may be some risks involved in doing this, and has it been done before?

I’ll be publishing the tools, results and social media stuff in future posts because this has suddenly grown into an epic. So time to wind up.



2 responses to “Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 1: transparency and the trouble with top tens

  1. It’s an interesting question, ie to reveal the scene behind the scenes or not. From a writer’s perspective, I never like to explain…this is not for any precious artistic reasons but as a reader I prefer the implicit rather than the explicit.

    However, what you are proposing here is different, this is (as I understand it) an expose of the mechanics of being a (travel) writer – which to me seems entirely valid. There should be no “secret” writer’s code, only available for the illustrious and the priveledged, what makes an article or any piece of writing readable is the bit that cannot be magically obtained from having access to a set of rules, hints and techniques. And that is personality and originality.

    And that is why being transparent about what you are doing isn’t necessarily devaluing it or undermining the “trade” by giving away the proverbial “tricks”.

    Having said that (ref: “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), some things retain an added value in their mystique eg crop circles (before it was revealed they were the work of some idiots high on E), didn’t we actually prefer the possibility of aliens sending us esoteric shopping lists in the corn?

    I always kind of cringe however, when I hear a musician say the dreaded words ” and this song is about….”, I’d rather not know, what makes it for me, is my understanding of a song (lyric) or how it relates to me. I may come to the wrong conclusion about it, but it’s my conclusion not someone else’s.

    There is only one occassion, I have used the phrase “and this song is about…” on stage, and here it is, verbatem and in it’s entirety, “I never like to say what songs are about, but I will make an exception for this one. This song is about two minutes”.

    To conclude: bravo!

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