Tag Archives: research

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.


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 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.


Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 3: the seven tools of feature research

AAY Most romantic places feature

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.


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.)

Goldsmith's doorway

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:

Twitter request for help

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?

delicious bookmarks

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…

HARO front page

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.

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:

Twitter on Gretna GreenTwitter-Gretna-Green

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):

Romantic places Google Doc

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:

Soliciting Google Doc suggestions


Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 2: the commission

Lover 30mph sign

Now for a short post, which shows the kind of commissioning brief a travel writer might get. (Want to read from the start? Here’s pt 1.)

FYI, for any potential travel writers out there, this is how short and punchy you need to keep your pitches to editors, though perhaps with a couple of  suggestions thrown in to illustrate your idea.

Allaboutyou.com, which commissioned the features, is a portal for the readers of Good Housekeeping, Country Living, She, Prima, House Beautiful and Coast magazines. It has  470,000 unique users per month. It publishes some features from the magazine but also commissions fresh website content.

Here are the two briefs from the travel editor.

1. Romantic places UK: top 10 most romantic places in the UK, the actual place, not a hotel so people can do a day trip/walk/pop in if they’re passing without spending £££ to stay the night. If it’s a spectacularly romantic place to stay in a romance-inducing place, that’s fine, or where the accommodation is synonymous with the destination.

2. Romantic places worldwide: top 10 most romantic places in the world. Can include loved-up accommodation as with this one, as people aren’t as likely to be passing. Include a where to stay, how to get there – whether it’s package tour operator or just flight details for a place, or accom details if accom. These 2 features aren’t necessarily a destination guide but more of a general romantic travel theme. Also can you supply a pic for each frame of the above 2 galleries – if PR shots are not suitable, source a ref no from one of our image libraries.

As you can see, it’s a pretty open brief – so there was fun to be had with the theme –but there is also a heck of lot of detail work to do in finding an image to go with each blurb and also pin down prices, accommodations, travel details, etc. However, I had a cunning plan – to be blogged next in ‘tools of research’.

Here are the published features:


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 Allaboutyou.com: 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.


UK’s most romantic places – going behind the scenes of researching a feature

Just to note that the first of my two Valentine’s features is now up at Allaboutyou.com – click to see ‘The most romantic places in the UK.’

I am half way through a blog post lifting the veil on how I researched these ‘top ten’ features – basically an experimental Google Docs/Twitter/Travmedia mashup. I’m hoping to have it up in the next couple of days so if you’re interested in seeing how a travel journalist collects material, check back or subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.

Transparency is good so I’m also thinking of publishing the 98 PR suggestions that came in, so that if you’re not happy with my subjective selection, you can choose for yourself.

After all, Valentine’s Day is a-coming.