July 06, 2009

Good (Travel) News

I am surprised to find this morning that I might be in greater agreement with Hartigan than I first thought. I've never thought newspapers would be killed by the internet, not just yet anyway. I'm of the view it's bad editors that kill newspapers.

This week's comments at Canberra's National Press Club was a rally call to champion the worthy content of newspapers, to stake a claim to the relevance of the daily papers and outline the future for News Ltd to make them more appealing to their customers.

In his own words, "As some of you may know we are completely reinventing our features coverage with new national sections in-paper and online. One of them is travel. Up till now travel journalism has been junket journalism. The airline with the best trip, the resort with the best room, gets the cover. It’s voyeurism but it’s not value. Instead of the same old destination stories we intend to give readers information that helps them research their next holiday and the tools to book and pay for it. Just by reading the newspaper or visiting the site."

Today I read the speech again with a little distance, and it doesn't offend me quite as much as it did the first time I read it. Why? Because when I first read it my colleagues at the ASTW were up to their armpits in debate about the future of Australian travel journalism, and had been under attack from a spurious complaint that any sponsored travel editorial is tainted. In that light, Hartigan's comments look like a red rag to a bull.

Take these comments on their own, you could interpret that Hartigan is admitting his own failures rather than slapping *all* travel journos in the face.

It was his editors at ESCAPE who were running stories about which business class seats were the best, having sampled a handful in the period of a few weeks on special famils. It was his editors who sourced editorial content specifically for a particular airline to showcase their destinations. It was his editors who run the endless stream of facile Fiji resorts without balancing the presentations with other Pacific or Asian destinations where travellers can get better value for money and immerse themselves in some genuine culture.

This is my view of where News Ltd has floundered. They kicked out a couple of great travel editors a few years ago and shoved some square pegs in round holes. Sydney got a news desk man and Melbourne got, well, Melbourne got totally screwed. There's no other way to put it. (I'm told he's a nice guy, but he was a rubbish editor in every possible way) We learned a few weeks back that things were changing, that a new editorial regime would replace the current ESCAPE format. And guess what, they put a decent editor in charge of the show.

I'm going to watch this space with a cautious eye, but it almost looks as though Hartigan is doing exactly what he's saying.

The new emphasis for travel to be informative and a resource for the reader is not novel. Take a look at Vacations & Travel, a national magazine that manages to publish a sensational edition every quarter. Presented in the best of glossy paper the content is attractive, relevant and is accompanied by a cascade of options for the traveller who wants to look deeper into the destination. It's the best shopping guide for Australian travellers in the market. It's not a Lonely Planet, it wont tell you what to do when you get there. Instead it tells you about a bunch of great experiences, why you might want to go there and who in Australia can help make it happen.

Is there a relationship between the advertisers and the editorial - yes. That's the nature of advertising, you have to sell space in the mag to pay for content. The price at the newspaper stand along doesn't cover it. This applies to any travel publication - a good editor sets up a forward plan for content and the advertisers can fight over the slots. Sometimes editorial is commissioned to support advertising too - to highlight a destination that isn't otherwise getting a run.

If you look carefully at Hartigan's speech you find the smoking gun. "Give them something they can’t get anywhere else."

Fair call. I think just about every travel writer in the ASTW would like to do that. We'd much rather be wandering off the trail and reporting on travel that goes beyond the cliche and covered. If that really is the mandate that Hartigan has given to his new look ESCAPE team then we're in for some interesting years and perhaps a revival of the very things that stir our passion for travel.


This blog diverted from it's original theme, about journalism rather than travel journalism.

Hartigan has pointed on many occasions that he feels journalism is in a healthy state today, compared to decades past. Lots of competition, lots of passionate journos and lots of open debate about issues - and he has a point, the media world is far more dynamic even without some of the familiar mastheads. The trouble is that the agenda being set by editors are usually the wrong issues - the people of Australia are too often being led down the path of the sensational instead of the informative.

Just take a look at what the Herald-Sun in Melbourne puts on the front page on any given day, and compare that to the real stories of the day and ask yourself if the debate is taking place on a level playing field?

I think John Hartigan is less concerned about the influence of Rupert Murdoch than I am. Personally I am less concerned with Rupert in particular than I am with concentrated ownership of the media. It concerns me that any one man would have such a potent influence on the selection of so many editors - and hence the debates take place on the wrong issues.

That's where my views most likely differ from Hartigans.

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