So how do you research a feature in the 21st century? The short answer is: In much the same way that journalists have always researched their features – by pulling ideas from their own head, asking colleagues, digging through cuttings, a good contacts book, and researching and phoning experts.
But the variety of online tools, applications and networked communities should make it a) a lot faster, b) a lot easier, especially when it’s not your specialist subject (see pt 2: the commission).
I’ll try to answer whether this was the case or not at the end.
SEVEN TOOLS I USED TO CREATE MY ‘TOP TEN’ FEATURES
1 Personal knowledge/experience
Who doesn’t know that Paris is the city of lovers or that Brighton is the original dirty weekend destination? But the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham is also on my doorstep – and I had lots of photos of it from a Birmingham Flickrmeet I attended in 2009 – so this threw in a slightly left-of-centre choice. A mix of core choices and thought-provoking ones makes for a good ‘top ten’ mix. (For the trouble with tops tens, see pt 1 of this series.)
2 Online networks
In the last two years, I have built up a community of travel journalists, PRs and friends on Twitter. But it’s not quantity but quality of connections that counts – the truth is it that is the people I have met IRL (in real life) who are more likely to respond and re-Tweet #lazyweb requests for help with a feature, such as here:
3 Social bookmarking sites
I keep an A-Z destination cuttings file of print articles and press kits but these were of no use for a themed feature. In this case, it’s easier to use a social bookmarking site like Digg or Delicious to find your keywords (‘romance’ ‘destinations’ etc). Here are some Delicious bookmarks for ‘romantic getaways’ (click to link through) – after all, why go searching for sites when someone else has probably already bookmarked them for you?
4 PR contacts
I do have a few PRs that I know personally from press trips and if they cover a destination or suitable product, I’ll email them for a suggestion. The naturist Pakleni Islands in Croatia was one, for example. But I also cast a wider net by sending out a journalist alert on Travmedia.com – a useful service for soliciting PR material either in your own region or worldwide. (They also cover other subjects, not just travel, by the way.) HARO aka Help A Reporter Out is another option, though with a US bias the last time I used it. There may be others – let me know…
5 Search engines
I used this as a quick check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to include a staple like the Taj Mahal. While there’s no copyright on ideas, it can be tempting to lift information from a good article but it’s just not worth it – more than three words in a row lifted from a source may land you in court and all it takes is for a sub-editor to paste your copy into a search engine and you’ll never be used again by the travel editor. For these features, I did use Google to help put flesh on the bones of the suggestions, and to find pictures, but best practice is to source information direct from official sites and tourist boards – such as info on Lover from the Visit Wiltshire website.
6 Review sites
TripAdvisor and other sites that rely on UGC (user generated content) act as a useful check and balance against official sites and marketing blurbs. It’s always good to get the downside on a destination so that you can include it if need be, especially for popular tourist destinations like Gretna Green. Although, for speed, this was an easier ask on Twitter – garnering a response from the owner of a wedding car service:
7 Google Docs
Time to experiment! I’d seen a friend, @uktraveleditor, using Google Docs to source PR information and decided to give it a go – mainly because I wanted PR suggestions, package details and guide prices, but I mostly wanted to avoid an avalanche of marketing gumpf swamping my inbox – it was barely usable the last time I put a HARO alert out.
The idea is that you send PRs to the online form (eg, via Travmedia, see above), set a deadline for responses, they fill in a Q&A that you set up, and the answers are then collated in a spreadsheet. You need a Google account but it’s pretty easy to set up from there.
Here’s is the original form (click and zoom to see it at full size):
You can see I’ve included pitch details on there, who the commission is for, what it is NOT for (ie spamming or emailing), and asked some very specific questions not just to get relevant answers but to keep PRs from chancing their products. I also noted that I might be writing this up here.
The only trouble was it was almost too successful:
- Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 1: transparency and the trouble with top tens
- Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 2: the commission
- Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 4: the results of the Google Docs experiment
- Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 5: 101 romantic places around the world