We read a lot about the death of print these days. For travel journalists like myself the statement is usually followed up with a stiff drink and not-so-fleeting moment of insecurity. Just this past week at the Society of American Travel Writers’ national conference in Houston, Texas, I met travel editors from around the country who were feeling the pain of budget cuts, restructuring, and mounting pressure to do more with less. But even after a series of potentially deflating conversations, I still maintain that there is a space for travel writers in the new media landscape: it’s just a matter of finding and pitching evergreen content that can be supported online.
Take for instance this stellar piece the New York Times produced focusing on the last stop of subway lines. The concept was simple: what’s at the end of the line? The delivery: genius.
The article itself was a long piece of beautifully written prose, but what really makes it a bright spot for me was the well produced multimedia package (video, audio, and photography) that accompanied it.
Sure, the production cost was huge, and this kind of content goes beyond the typical skill sets of most freelancer writers, but the concept is important: as we move forward, we would do well to adopt a screenwriter’s perspective: don’t just tell, show.
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A few weeks back I spoke with Tyson Anderson, a visual journalist with a strong affinity for infographics and online storytelling. His insights and experience at the Rocky Mountain News play nicely into the change that is happening, and provide an insiders look to how travel writers need to rethink traditional newspaper stories.
Written Road: Would you mind elaborating a bit on infographics, and explain what they are, and how they can enhance a story?
Tyson: An infographic does more than just add decoration to a publication. An “info”-graphic’s job is to display information visually. After a certain point, a list of numbers or a textual description makes it hard for us to understand or draw any conclusions because we don’t have the ability to take all that information in, categorize it, and then relate it to the rest of the data. An infographic does a great job of doing these things, and if used properly can help people visualize stories and increase comprehension. Infographics are also very good at conveying a large amount of information very quickly to readers, which is very good in today’s internet world where you might only have someone’s attention for a few seconds before they are off to something else.
Written Road: While you were working at the Rocky Mountain Times, did you learn inside tips on how to pitch editors multimedia packages?
Tyson: Most of the things I did at the Rocky, luckily didn’t really have to be pitched. They were either planned before I started or I was given an idea and I got to take it where I wanted. However, I think the best way to pitch multimedia to an editor is to show them a little piece of it. Things are much easier to imagine if there is at least a little part you can see. For example, I did a map at the Rocky comparing 1908 Denver to 2008 Denver. The project consisted of two maps, one 1908 and the other 2008, displayed on the screen together. If you drag one map around, the other one moves simultaneously. Also, two cursors appear on the graphic, one at the exact place you’re looking at on both maps. Because this interface was something I hadn’t really seen anywhere before I had to create some kind of way to demonstrate it before I actually spent the time creating it. I did this by mocking up the interface. I made two ugly boxes in the place of where the maps would be and wrote the code for the basic interface. I was then able to show my editor and others the general idea of the project and get feedback on how we could make it better.
Written Road: What advice can you give travel writers just starting out about producing new media?
Tyson: Take advantage of the tools around you. If you don’t know how to write code, don’t feel you can’t utilize the web for telling stories. The web provides many free services that you can use to enhance your stories without knowing a single line of code. For example, if you don’t know how to use the Google Maps API, a service used to embed custom google maps in your website, you can use Google’s myMaps service which requires no coding at all. Learn and adapt. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a buggy while the automobile drives past. The internet changes every day, it takes a lot of work to keep up with it but it’s necessary. I like to read blogs about upcoming technology or view sites like digg.com that allow people to submit things that are new and exciting on the web. Don’t be afraid of learning a little code. I think that there is a common misconception that code is something only for MIT grads sitting in dark rooms typing ones and zeros all day. The truth is that with a little training, code actually isn’t that hard to learn. Just one example, Flash, is a good place to start because it combines a traditional drawing environment that can be used with little or no code but then, as you get more experienced, can be extended with Flash’s coding language ActionScript. There are also great resources online to help you out, lynda.com and gotoandlearn.com are just a few of my favorites. Remember that if you can teach yourself to utilize these wonderful new tools and not be scared of them, you can let readers experience the stories you are trying to tell in ways never before possible.