Tag Archives: experimental

The Other Birmingham

Homepage, The Other BirminghamIt’s been a bit quiet here of late – and that’s because there’s lots going up at my first Tourist Vs Traveller experimental microsite, which has an ever-changing name but is currently called The Other Birmingham.

What started out as a feature on ’24 Hours in Birmingham, Alabama’ (yawn, stretch, seen all that before), has become a twin city matching experiment, looking at what we – that’s Birmingham UK, my current hometown – have in common with our industrial namesakes in the US, how we might be doing things differently and maybe even using some of the matches for ideas and inspiration. I did all the big fancy thinking about it in an earlier post for the interested.

This time around, I just want to point out that there are a good few matches on there already and more to come. So far, I’ve twinned:

  • Bus stations
  • Roller derby
  • Problematic highway exchanges
  • Coworking spaces
  • Skylines
  • Iron statues

This is probably only of interest if you live in either city, but hey that’s what niche travel journalism experimentation is all about.

For Brummies, Bhammies and ‘none of the above’, it would be lovely if you could follow the Birmingham Match Tumblr for more posts as they come in – roughly one a week at present – add this link as an RSS feed in your reader, or ask me what you’d like to know about the ‘other’ Birmingham.

Thanks and ta ra a bit.


Birmingham, meet Birmingham!

Birmingham welcome sign at the Amtak stationThe great thing about not having a traditional print commission is that:

  • you can publish the end article in a format of your choice.
  • you can don’t have to write for a set demographic.
  • you can have an altruistic motive because, let’s face it, payment for travel features is so 2008.

So, last month I spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama. Being from Birmingham, West Midlands, I thought it would be a funny stop-off point and that Brummie folks back home might like to read about their namesake.

But the traditional print idea of ’24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama’ for a regional Midlands audience didn’t do it justice. And, for the three reasons above, my travel feature has transmuted into more connective material.

To answer the three bulletpoints above:

  • Chosen format: a theme blog
    I picked this because there were so many overlaps and connections, and fun stuff – from the entertainment districts of Five Points vs Five Ways, to Malfunction Junction vs Spaghetti Junction, to discussions over their version of Benny from Crossroads – that a single blog post wouldn’t have done the content justice. Similarly, a series of posts here would have been diluted by general musings on travel journalism. The end result is that a tale of two Birminghams is now a blog unto itself. Well, a Tumblr, because it was easier. It is currently named Birmingham, meet Birmingham – and I have around 32 connections just for starters.
  • Potential readership: Brummies and Bhammies
    So the potential audience is 1,250,000 – that’s the sum of two Birmingham populations, although the figure would be more like 5,000,000 if counting the Birmingham metropolitan area and Greater Birmingham, rather than just the cities themselves. The readership is not tied to a demographic but to a subject of interest – our two hometowns and how we benchmark with each other.
  • Altruistic aim: foster connections
    Travel journalism is a happy field. We present aspirational destinations and stories about those places that people want to travel to. At best, travel advertisers hope that readers will book their product off the back of reading a published feature. However, as I connected with Bham natives via the internet and then IRL, it seemed to me that there were more interesting outcomes than tourism. What if, for example, like an aunt at a singles party, I could introduce Birmingham to Birmingham? What if Alabama’s coworking space could connect with my local coworking space in Moseley, or Birmingham Museum of Art (AL) could talk with BMAG (UK) – could they share connections, swap ideas, learn from each other, have fun? Could businesses even start to trade, offering pathways into international expansion?

Ok, so the idea took off in my head and will probably have nothing to do with how users actually consume the content.

But at the same time, why the hell not? At the tweetup they held to welcome me to Birmingham Alabama, I discovered they’d heard of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit – one of the more well-known (and irreverent) guides to Birmingham UK. They also knew that Birmingham City Council had used the ‘other Birmingham’s’ skyline to illustrate a recycling leaflet. An easy mistake in some ways – after all, we get each other’s search results all the time. We had also nearly organised a Skype linkup last year as their BarCamp was on at the same time as ours.

So perhaps we could do something with this. Like the British Airways-sponsored MetroTwin, which connects places, sights and entertainments in London and New York, and also now London and Mumbai.

But the connections don’t just have to be limited to the touristic.

Why not ‘metrotwin’ Birmingham with Birmingham on many levels?

The information is out there on the Birmingham Match Tumblr, or will be by degrees. What people do with it is another matter.

Travel journalists! Ditch the fancy writing and just give me your travel notes…

Visual notes

© Len Kendall

Does anyone actually read those lengthy travel narratives in newspapers anymore? After all, travel features are really just a vanity in that the travel section is not written for you, the consumer, but for the advertisers who desperately need content on which to hang their product. This in turn funds the news part of the editorial mix – as Paul Bradshaw from the Online Journalism Blog reminds us in this Audioboo about the Times paywall.

I’ve been wondering what kind of travel writing/journalism a reader might actually want to read, now that the advertising imperative is pretty much defunct and traditional travel supplements on their way out.

As a consumer of travel writing, what do you actually want from a feature? Do you just read the first few pars of a lengthy travel article and then scan for the relevant bits? Or do you enjoy the poetic telling, wrapped up in a narrative, inside one particular (and privileged) writer’s experience?

Or perhaps you may just want to cut to the quick and see the summary or the travel notes? (I’m sure I’m not the only one who skips to the end of a feature to get the lowdown on whether the writer liked a place or not.)

In the interests of experimenting, as is the will of this blog, I was interested to come across Len Kendall’s series of visual note sketches taken at SXSW Interactive this year, a festival I also attended and struggled to write up because of its enormity and huge downloads of information. Above are Len’s visual notes on how to take visual notes – or you can visit his Posterous if you want to see the whole sketchnotes series.

I think they are cute but also show a mixed bag of results – some of the sketches make life very easy indeed, while others leave you hanging and full of questions. And yet…

I’m wondering if this could transfer to travel writing?

After all, travel journalists are trained to observe, collect and note experiences on a destination. And The Times has already got in on the travel sketching act in the form of George Butler’s Sketch Travel Blog –  of course, after June, the paywall means you won’t be able to see it, for free anyway.

I have a trip coming up soon to Paris. If my hands aren’t dead from taking notes at the conference I’m attending, then I might attempt to do create visual notes rather than write up a feature. I imagine it will look kind of like an ‘essay plan’.

We’ll see. Any further suggestions on how to ‘do’ travel writing differently, I love to hear ’em.

The list that keeps explorer Benedict Allen alive

Benedict Allen is a pretty experimental traveller – known for heading off into the remoteness with not much more than basic kit, some porkscratchings and a handheld camera.

Over the years, he’s had run-ins with everything from venomous snakes to blood-letting head-hunters.

But sometimes it gets really, really bad…


Eating with the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia /cc Wikipedia

He’s written many books about his adventures and posted his list of kit and survival tips on his website, but I was fascinated to see his list of last resort at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London at the weekend [20 Feb 2009].

It turns out that Benedict Allen carries a piece of paper in his kit that keeps him alive as much as anything in his survival or first aid kit. The scrawled list contains several bolds, underlines and scribbled asides – you imagine done in desperation at some treacherous point in his journey – and reads something like this:

  • A way out. Exit.
  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened.
  • Clear goal.
  • Morale.
  • Break down impossible objectives.
  • Adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Work with forces bigger than you.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless /unpopular.

(Bulletpoints are mine.)

Royal Geographical Society theatre

Benedict Allen at the Royal Geographical Society theatre for the Travellers' Tales festival

At least that’s as much as I could note down as speed before the slide on the big screen shifted to something else and Allen, solo explorer, survival expert and ‘pioneer of adventure television, started to elaborate on how, especially in the worst of times, he still shaves and maintains discipline, to keep up morale.

Of course, the extreme nature of his Boy’s Own adventures, has led to a number of times when the shaving routine has been dropped. And that’s when the list comes into its own.

For example…

The Amazon Basin can kill you in myriad ways.

Allen used his piece of paper several times on the last 300 miles of an Amazon Basin expedition from a bit of Ecuador and Columbia (‘the boring bits’) across the widest and most dangerous expanse of the basin and into Brazil.

This is a region of earth that can kill you in myriad ways, says Allen, and after experiencing three near-death experiences on this trip alone, he knows what it is like to see hope fade and die.

The worst was when, after being rescued by illegal loggers after stumbling across their camp, he was later betrayed by them when they ostensibly escorted him on his way, only to rob him and leave him to die in the middle of nowhere with no route out.

‘Self-pity flooded me.’

‘It is rather bad when you are going to die,’ adds Allen, drily.

  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened – tick.

‘The reason I did survive was the people back home waiting for me. But also there was this incredible sense of liberation. If I was going to die anyway, I had nothing to lose. So I decided to steal one of my bags back.

  • Adapt to changing circumstances – tick.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless – tick.

‘I used tracking skills taught to me by Lucy [an eight-year-old girl he’d met earlier on the trip who had saved him from her five-year-old assassin brother], and tracked the two men. Then under cover of darkness I stole one of my bags.’

  • Play to your strengths – tick.

‘But I still had 100 miles to go – through dense rainforest. I had a survival kit and compass but no map. I thought, I can’t do it. I can’t do 100 miles.

‘Then I thought I could do 100 paces. So I got a stick and walked 100 paces. I notched it on the stick and it wasn’t long before I needed a new stick.

  • Break down impossible objectives – tick.
  • A way out. Exit – tick.

‘I began to believe in myself again.’

‘I wasn’t alone as there were all these people in my head – the Niowra tribe from New Guinea, the little girl, all those I had learnt from.’

  • Morale – tick.

Finally, he shows a slide of him walking barefoot and ragged out of the Amazon, wearing trousers that have rotted away into shorts and his girlfriends t-shirt. ‘Her t-shirt just kept looking better and better.

‘Never underestimate the power of women’s clothing.’

Benedict Allen shows the ladies his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea

Benedict Allen shows his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea - he survived that but will he survive the circling pack of lady travel writers?

Once again he had survived.

A fan once called him a cat who has used up six of his nine lives but Keyboard Cat isn’t playing him off just yet. Yet what keeps him (and people in general) going is what he is talking about at the Travellers’ Tales festival.

In fact, he makes sure to announce that he’s not just talking about survival instinct but that moment when your dreams disappear, things seem hopeless or death itself seem inevitable.

He also mentions depression: ‘Did you know 1 in 10 men suffer from depression? In fact, I can see some pretty miserable people in the audience right now.’

And, what is really good about Benedict Allen’s speech at Travellers’ Tales, is that here is someone who has faced the absolute worst of times and not someone who is there to brag about having been there and done that.

And when you look at his list, it seems a pretty wise and useful one, not just for extreme survival, but for life in general. My advice? Nick it!

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: Tourist Vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

Travel articles remixed?

Could there be a trend for releasing journalistic research or unused data for others to ‘remix’ – as I suggested when I released the ‘behind the scenes’ source material for two of my online travel features?

It’s been happening in music for a while with the likes of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails releasing downloads of his music for fans to remix – check out Remix.nin.com. [Thanks to TTV Pete for the heads up.)

Digital journalists like Joanna Geary have bookmarked source material in Delicious and shared them at the end of their features for transparency. Meanwhile more and more people are uploading their research and original writings to Scribd.

But reworking traditional journalistic product ? With a growing DIY culture online, why not.

After writing up my ‘Behind the scenes of a travel feature‘ series and opening out the source material, I was interested to discover that I’m not the only one testing the water of transparent research with the additional invitation to create something new from it.

The BBC has just released footage from its series on The Virtual Revolution, inviting viewers to make their own documentary from the film:

We are providing unedited professionally filmed footage from the series, for you to use. This includes interviews, aerial shots, graphics and music. Download them for free under our permissive licence, and mix them with your own ingenuity.

I wonder if tech journalist and presenter Aleks Krotoski was behind the decision? She writes on her blog that she wanted to ‘keep the process as transparent as possible’ and agreed to take part in the series because it was a multi-platform event. In fact, she released her interview rushes with the web elite back in November 2009 and invited readers to ‘Steal this!’ In her post, she says:

Each link below takes you to the Digital Revolution page that hosts the video. On that page, you can watch and – crucially – download the content to keep for your very own. No, really. So when I say ‘Steal This!’ in the headline, I mean it (obviously with caveats…). With this content, you can mix it up, mash it up, create your own story of the Web. More on that in a forthcoming post. For now, I will leave you with the goods.

People share their creative endeavours with each other online all the time. It’s interesting that working journalists are now (finally?) doing the same. I’d love to know if anyone know any other examples of this, particularly in the travel genre. And I’m wondering could this be the start of a trend? What are its possibilities? What are its limitations? And how can we experiment with this stuff?

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 5: 101 romantic places around the world

Well, allegedly. Here, finally, is the source material that more than 100 PRs created via the TravMedia/Google Docs experiment. You can dip into it for reference or use it to create a whole new feature – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it. (Also, scroll down for links to the rest of the series and the published articles):

The features

The deconstruction

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 4: the results of the Google Docs experiment

Time for a quick review. After being commissioned to write two ‘top tens’ for Allaboutyou.com, I posted a PR alert and Twitter callout to help me find ‘romantic places’ in the UK and abroad – more on the problem with top ten lists in part 1. In part 2, you can read the travel editor’s original commissioning briefs, and in part 3, the seven tools of feature research are listed. Now, in part 4, the story continues…

So what happened next?

There was my blank Google Q&A form sitting out there in a load of PR and tourist board inboxes. The idea was that it would act as a collection funnel for the incoming data – and keep it off my email.

Answer: Google Docs went nuts.

Research results 1-50
Research results 1-50
  • Over 48 hours, the online Q&A form filled up with 98 responses.
  • The CEO of the African Travel and Tourism Association (ATTA) – spotted the callout on TravMedia and reposted the request to 400 association members across Africa.
  • The PRs did all the hard work for me in preparing guide prices, product details, image sources and contact info.
  • Nearly every question was answered by each PR and boxes were filled in – although many wrote an essay where the simple location was asked for, which stuffed up the spreadsheet layout.
  • Reams of irrelevant material and spin were produced to make a generic place sound romantic rather than point out any actual romantic history, tradition or fact. Annoying although certainly not unexpected.
  • There were a small number of bang-on-target suggestions, which were siphoned off into a UK and a worldwide file as per the commissions.
  • Several places were suggested twice, eg the Taj Mahal. I ended up using both client details as I used information from both.
  • I DID receive emails – but only nine (annoying but better than 98!). Three PRs ignored my form and emailed text such as a ‘nestled castle in a perched village’ or entire Valentine press releases (all ignored). Another emailed for clarification – subtext: was it worth her filling in the form? Some PRs experienced firewall issues and couldn’t access the form due to Websense, which blocks personal storage sites. Another emailed after the deadline had passed. And one filled in the form with out of date information – oops!
  • My favourite justification for romantic credentials was this one: ‘My daughter was conceived there, so no better compliment to the romance of the ambience.’
  • Another PR threw in some language tips on what to say in Sardinia to your beloved: ‘Non posso vivere senza di te – I can’t live without you!’
  • Twitter feedback resulted in a few funnies but no major new ideas. It did have a supportive role when I had further queries, though – see part 3 for more on this.

On the whole, it was a spectacularly good response, though. What did I learn from it?

Some pros and cons…

There were issues: double postings, excessive writing, unfounded statements and opinions, clichés, spin and so on. (The original source material is to be published in the next and final post.)

But there was also great value in rooting out knowledge I wouldn’t have found otherwise, such as being able to wear a suit of armour to propose at Warwick Castle or the location of the original ‘Horse Whisperer’ ranch.

So I have to say to the PRs, a big thanks for taking the time to fill in the form rather than send generic press releases.

Some tips for PRs…

For those faced with a Google form or  journalist request, DON’T waste your time spinning your product to fit the journalist’s angle. Facts, evidence, relevance and concision are the things that stand out over pretty prose and just stating that something fits the bill. It took seven hours to plough through all 98 responses, and to copy and paste the potentials. Take out all the generic suggestions spun for romance and this could be reduced to just an hour or two.

Ultimately, it was the chancing of so many sort-of relevant ideas that made the Google Docs/PR alert route financially unviable – shoving me frustratingly over time and therefore budget.

Factoring in picture research…

Sourcing good pictures is also like entering a time warp.

The pic research for each of the 10 blurbs was another tipping point. Free tourist board or PR pics are desirable and usually great quality. But traditionally writers haven’t had to source them – picture researchers have. Now, though, gallery features make popular editorial pieces and sourcing can be part of the commission package. Even with a media library log-in, or the PR contact for images, the resulting workload – the back and forth of emails, selection and zipping of images, collating and sending to the travel editor – soaked up another half day.

Surfing for images on a stock library is faster but you can still while away many minutes looking for the right image to go with your copy.

My judgment on the Google Docs research method…

Ordinarily, this type of feature would take me 1.5 days to write, but the extra spreadsheet and picture sourcing brought this up to 2-3 days. So using Web 2.0 tools did make life easier but it also actually slowed down the work.

The Google Docs sourcing experiment is not for every time – you have to be pretty dedicated to go through this process – and it’s probably not targeted enough for general themed features like these ones. It would probably work much better for my next list piece on great rail journeys.

But I do think it is invaluable when you are stuck for inspiration and it takes only a couple of minutes to put together. It also throws up some great source material and new ideas. The likes of TravMedia and HARO offer a community of experts and the wisdom of the crowd.

Statswise, in the end 6 out of 10 of the UK’s most romantic places were sourced from the Google Docs form; 8 out of 10 of the most romantic places worldwide feature were.

An invitation to rewrite my feature…

To round off, I’m finishing this series by publishing the source material itself (the locations and romantic USPs only in order to keep it manageable and to keep individual PR’s emails and phone numbers private).

Again I invite readers to compare the finished articles (UK and global) with the sourced material – would you have picked out the same list? I also invite the romantic among you to look for further inspiration and make your own selection from the list. Meanwhile, journalism students or wannabe travel writers are free to use the material to create their own travel feature from the material – – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it.