So, after countless times of hearing a reply from a newspaper travel editor that goes something along the lines of “we are only doing regional stories now” or “are budget has been cut back and I really don’t buy many stories from freelancers these days” I have come to this conclusion: the American newspaper travel section has died. The era is over. Kaput. La Fin. Burned up in the atmosphere.
Newspapers are not doing well these days. More and more people are getting their news online, where they get many of the same articles for free and do not have to wait until the next day. Therefore, revenues are down across the board in US newspapers.
When I first started travel writing I felt relieved that the newspaper travel section even existed. Anyone could brake in if they had a good angle. They never paid great, but they paid OK and the pieces looked respectable in your portfolio. Unless you knew an editor and built a relationship you didn’t pitch to them (at least this is how it works in the US), you just submitted a piece. If the idea was good and it fit into their schedule someone would buy it. My first pieces I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch, my hometown paper, are some of the articles I am most proud of in my career. I was impressed that the editor was willing to take on some of my articles that were a bit out of the ordinary (Morocco, Cambodia, etc) to an Ohio audience and it gave me a lot of hope of what you could accomplish as a travel writer. They were articles I was proud of.
Now though, with no one buying, it frankly isn’t worth the time and effort to send a completed article around. Many stopped sending them long ago. Maybe I am just slow to catch on. If the section does buy something it is usually regional. Regional!! Does anyone really read articles on regional destinations? I rarely do. I realize I am not everyone, but I want different. I want exotic. I want to be blown away by a reading about what it is like to hike across Papua New Guinea or to how the cold rain cuts your face in Patagonia. I don’t need international either, just don’t give me another fucking word on Amish Country or a quaint B&B in the hills. Wasn’t the newspaper travel section supposed to take us away from our hometowns? Even with high gas prices and the economic crisis people are still traveling abroad in greater numbers than ever before. Sure, some may be stuck at home, but isn’t picking up your Sunday paper and opening that travel section meant to inspire you on a lazy Sunday to get off of your ass and see the world? Or at the very least think about those places or to educate us about what else is out there? This is knowledge most Americans need baaaadly.
Most of the papers are still there and a few papers – well the ones with big budgets, at least for the time being – are even putting out good work like the New York Times and the LA Times. Most others though have had their budgets cut significantly and the top editors in the field have been kicked out in the street. Examples: Thomas Swick of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, KC Summers at the Washington Post, etc.
Let me clear this up though: I don’t blame the editors. It isn’t their fault. Far from it. All of their budgets have been cut and they are working with extremely limited resources. It is the publishers. There is an ongoing examination of what is expendable in print. Travel is one of the first to go. Next it will be Food, Home & Garden, Life, and every other section that isn’t necessarily the “news.” I think this is a death sentence for exactly that reason. They aren’t the news that you need to check online or can know the basis of by checking on your iPhone. These are not one sentence bits that can be 95 percent understood as they race across a ticker on an electronic billboard or news ticker. Sports scores and Election news I like to see as they happen, but the Travel, Food, and these other sections I like to let it linger in front of me for a while. I soak these sections in. More so than I even do with a magazine. I like to hold it in my hands. I relax. Sometimes the sections will sit on my desk or in a pile for weeks and I’ll pick them up a few times. I spill coffee and tea on them and occasionally use them as a coaster and read an ad or sentence every time I lift up my mug. Sometimes I tear out articles I like.
British and European newspapers seem to be doing better, though, I get the feeling it probably won’t be for much longer. We all have to move on to other markets I guess. The web is the future; however, few websites can put out 1,200 word articles with sidebars, garner the admiration, or reach as wide an audience as a newspaper can. It was a good run, but sadly, the newspaper travel section just doesn’t mesh with today’s print media. It was a fine collective national voice. Sometimes it was cheesy and written only for freebies. Occasionally though it was respectable journalism and in a matter of a few short years the medium has been swiftly quashed.