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The Quick and Dirty Guide to Successful Travel Journalism

by Sarah Stuteville Feb 20, 2008
When I left college with a degree in journalism I found myself saturated in theory, but lacking in practical and applicable knowledge.

I WILL ALWAYS be learning about how to become a better travel journalist.

I’m no expert, but one of the great things about journalism is that there are no experts; the best travel journalists are curious, engaged people who are always ready to learn something new.

In this guide I’ll try to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned (functional and philosophical) in reporting internationally over the past year, in hopes that I can help demystify how a feature article actually gets found, reported, written and produced.

How to find a story

Many of the stories I’ve written emerged from casual conversations with people at parties, bus-stops, etc.

Paying attention to the news is the best tip I can offer. Most of our stories have come from leads I’ve found in the news sources I follow.

Another good avenue is NGOs (non-governmental organizations or nonprofits) in the region/country you’re covering. They usually have their ear to the ground and know what the most current issues are.

Also, be sure to always keep your ears open, even in social situations. Many of the stories I’ve written emerged from casual conversations with people at parties, bus-stops, etc.

Shaping your Story

Again, NGOs are the best place to start. I usually do a general search for NGOs working on the issue I hope to cover and start making phone calls from there. Nonprofits are very open to media attention and eager to give you background information and additional contacts.

When I decide on a topic, I always do general searches to find out what has already been covered and how, and try to shape my story to address what has been overlooked or ignored. The best way to get noticed, even in saturated markets, is write your story from a fresh angle.

Basic Tools

You’ll need a notebook and pen, an audio recorder of some kind, and a photographer. I’ve found that reporting with another person who can act as a note taker and extra set of ears is very useful.

Most importantly you need to bring curiosity, engagement, and flexibility to your interviews-if you’re interested and passionate about your subject, the people you’re interviewing will be too.

It’s also important to let the story change when appropriate. Almost no story I’ve embarked on turned out as I’d originally expected. Don’t force your agenda if it isn’t working–be ready to let the story tell itself.

Look for a Main Character

Once you’ve obtained background information and know your basic thesis, look for a main character whose experience can personalize the issue or destination. Start asking your contacts if they know of people who can offer firsthand accounts.

In my experience, personal testimony is what drives your narrative, attracts your audience, and makes a story intimate and engaging. Also, look for an event (a festival or event, for example) that helps make your article timely and relevant and can work as a scene setter.

Find Experts and Opposing Voices

Personal testimony is what drives your narrative, attracts your audience, and makes a story intimate and engaging.

Look for people (through internet searches and independent research) who can speak as “objective experts” or even as opposing voices.

I believe that “experts” should never be weighted more heavily in your story than firsthand accounts and experiences, but I also believe that the depth and texture of a story is improved when people recognized as “knowledgeable in the field” offer some perspective.

An opposing voice (if appropriate) is important as it challenges your readers and encourages dialogue.

A Few tips for Interviews

Don’t be afraid to relentlessly revisit a question or topic that you feel hasn’t been properly addressed by the interviewee. Sometimes people need time to warm up to you or to a topic, or will respond better if your question is worded differently. Keep trying.

Continue taking notes even after the interview is officially over. People can say the most revealing or intimate things when they feel that they’re out of the “hot seat.”

Another great question is “Why do you care about this issue?” This can be an effective way to get a strong and emotional quote about why the topic you’re covering is so important.

You can also ask for the turning point in a story, the moment when everything changed or catalyzed. This can help you shape the narrative of your story as well.

Be Fearless and Confident

Be confident and people will respond in kind. Remember that even if you’re new to this you’re a writer all the same.

Call yourself a writer and act professionally. Don’t apologize for a lack of experience and never say, “I’ve never done this before.” You’ll be amazed how many opportunities open to you once you start calling yourself a travel journalist.

This article was adapted from journalistic tips offered to writers for the Common Language Project.

What are your tips for writing feature articles? Share in the comments!

Sarah Stuteville writes for The Common Language Project – dedicated to developing and implementing innovative approaches to international journalism by focusing on positive, inclusive and humane reporting of stories ignored by the mainstream media.

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