Who are these kids? What are their names, their stories? Travel journalism is about moving from the decontextualized to the factual, real, ground level. Image by nattu.

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LET ME PREFACE this by repeating something I’ve said elsewhere: I don’t look at writing within a context of value judgments. Travel journalism isn’t “better” than travel blogging: To me there is no writing that’s good or bad, better or worse; everything is simply a reflection of motivations, experience, and influences. The context, application, and audience for your work reflects your progression as a writer, a human. What moves you (or your audience) now may bore you later, or vice versa.

The purpose then in comparing these two forms is to help identify their characteristics and provide a few insights for those looking to push their writing in new directions. As part of my early training as a writer came in the form of being a small-town newspaper reporter, I wanted to emphasize certain aspects of basic journalism that younger writers — particularly those whose points of entry into writing are through travel blogging — may not have experienced.

Assume the role of a reporter.

I graduated with a degree in English. I didn’t go to journalism school. Nobody taught me the inverted pyramid or what a “nut graf” was, and I’m sort of grateful for that in a way. I became a reporter through dumb luck. After winning a creative writing contest at our local paper, I happened to meet the editor at a neighbor’s house party. After talking for a bit, she said she was looking for someone to “cover the town meetings.” I told her I’d give it a shot, which led to me being, suddenly, a “reporter.”

…as soon as you tell people you’re a journalist, it gives you an excuse to be there, writing about wherever you are, whomever you’re with.

While this wasn’t something at the time I was actively seeking to become, I did want to write, and I wanted to get paid to write. But the inadvertent lesson I learned — and ultimately the most valuable “lesson” here — is that as soon as people think you’re a journalist, you have an automatic excuse to be there, writing about wherever you are, whomever you’re with. It gives you a cover, a justification for asking questions and taking notes, which is 75% of the whole game.

Consider for a minute the archetypal image of a modern travel blogger. Picture her in, say, the Cafe Britanico in Buenos Aires. She’s heads down typing on a computer, or writing in her notebook, talking to nobody. In fact her whole body language and act of solitary writing broadcasts a kind of separation, exclusion, exile. Don’t bother me, I’m making important notes to myself here.

What are those notes going to contain?

Now switch the persona. Take the same person, but instead of a blogger, now give her the role of a “travel journalist.” Assume she’s conversant in Spanish. She’s created an ad hoc mission around “travel culture in Buenos Aires” so that wherever she goes she can quickly explain to people, “I’m a journalist doing a project on tourism here in Argentina. Can you tell me when you began working here?” Before sitting down, she asks this to the server, the bartender. After a brief interview she sits down, then begins taking notes.

Now what are her notes going to contain? How has her profile / interaction changed?

The point here is that you don’t need any formal training to become a journalist. While it certainly helps, all that really matters is that you assume the role. All it takes is having a fallback question / mission you can tell people (and yourself). This is especially useful — critical really — for those like me who are shy when it comes to social interaction.

Never miss an opportunity to get into journo-mode.

While hiking in Patagonia with fellow Matador editor and MatadorU Dean Josh Johnson, we talked a lot about how travel blogging can provoke the often unwelcome mindset: should I do ____ [activity while traveling] just so I can blog about it?

“Journo-mode” is similar in that it can stimulate story-finding, but instead of approaching a given experience or place with the goal of internalizing it for a blog, you’re reaching outside of yourself, looking for others’ stories that would never be told otherwise.

Another difference with “journo-mode” is that it can occur anywhere, anytime. You don’t have to be traveling. You can be in the midst of a pub-crawl, or taking your kids to a museum, or stopping at your local Habitat for Humanity. You can ask people questions under the guise of being a journalist almost anywhere.

Understand the “5Ws” or “Journo 101” questions.

The points of entry to journalism are questions. You have to interface. In journalism there’s a formal structure known as the “Five Ws,” the premise being that anytime you’re covering a story, you should have a factual framework around:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Where?
  • When?
  • Why?

While these questions are centered around traditional news coverage, the structure as a whole has important takeaways. The first is that none of the questions can be answered “yes” or “no.” They all elicit facts (hopefully). There’s an art to asking questions which get interviewees into narrative or anecdotal modes of responding. A great trick for this is the question “when?” When did you move to Buenos Aires? When did you first start working in the Cafe Britanico? “When” naturally leads towards the subject giving a chronology, often followed by his or her motivations, which can point to certain subtexts or hints about bigger stories. For example, the server from the Britanico may say his family moved to Buenos Aires in the mid ’80s after the dictatorship ended.

A second takeaway is noting how the answers to these questions place events, people, and places within a factual context.

Avoid decontextualization.

Following up from the point above, journalism is all about context. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of this post in a popular travel blog:

Rachel’s look of horror said it all. The taxi driver barely noticed the girl as she stood outside of our window with her head pressed against the glass, slowly putting her hand to her mouth in an eating gesture. She couldn’t have been more than 8. Her torn clothing and gaunt face suggested she’d experienced more than an 8 year old should.

She continued to wander in and out of the 4x4s, BMWs, Mercedes, and whatever else the privileged classes drive in Indonesia. No one gave her money, as far as I could see. I glanced around and noticed she wasn’t the only one out there. 7 or 8 others were wading through the traffic in search of generosity.

Notice how instead of narrating within a specific, transparently stated context (for example — “While traveling through Indonesia…”) or describing the subject in a specific context (ex — “…we met a little girl named ______. She’s eight years old, and lives in the poorest neighborhood of Jakarta…”) the blog abstracts the little girl, using her as a stand-in for “poverty in Indonesia,” and then suggests how the reader should react, with “Rachel’s look of horror” saying “it all.”

While the authors of this blog likely had good intentions and didn’t consciously mean to appropriate the girl’s struggle, by decontextualizing her they effectively dehumanized her, turning her into a symbol.

But what if the authors had instead employed the 5W’s:

Who?

Might they have opened by transparently stating who they were, and later introduced the little girl, actually talking to her, asking the “driver” about her, trying to find out who she was instead of just observing her through the window?

What?

What were they actually doing in Indonesia? Were they there specifically to photograph something? To learn the language? To document something in particular?

Where?

As opposed to just a decontextualized “street” full of “4x4s, BMWs, Mercedes, and whatever else the privileged classes drive,” what if they’d given us precise locations, place-names, and local landmarks to help place the reader in the scenes at ground level?

When?

When exactly did this happen? Was it in the morning, afternoon? What year was it? Was it post-April 2012 earthquake? Was is it during a particularly tumultuous time politically, or a period made especially difficult because of economic, environmental, or other societal factors?

Why?

What besides a decontextualized “poverty” was at play here? Were there factors specific to this particular subject’s family? Ethnicity? Were there economic or environmental factors which compelled her family to move from a rural area to the city?

Although doing this kind of investigative reporting may not be feasible or appropriate without proper training and skills (particularly language skills), the point is simply to consider how you can provide context that both (a) informs the reader of the underlying factors, the cultural / societal / economic “lay of the land,” and (b) presents the character as a real person existing in the real world, never a caricature or nameless abstraction.

Find and include relevant studies and give proper attribution.

A related concept to making sure subjects and narration are contextualized is respecting and properly attributing source material. For example, in the blog above, if the authors had decided to address some of the “why?” they might have possibly researched trends of rural-to-urban migration in Indonesia, and then included these findings in their text, giving proper attribution.

Even on a much more mundane level, anytime you’re sharing information, articles, photos — either as part of your work or simply via social media — good journalism is about getting the author / photog / source info right.

Don’t just post a random photo at Facebook and caption it “Great Shot!” Remember at least two of the 5Ws: Who took it? Where? Always give credit.

Strive to get strong quotes and others’ “voices.”

Finally, tying all of these other points together: The ultimate “mission” of a travel journalist is to record others’ voices, to document what other characters actually say and do, as opposed to simply recounting one’s impressions of the place / people / culture.

Simply “hearing” what the Indonesian girl actually said in her own words may have been much more memorable, emotive, and edifying than a thousand words of the authors describing how seeing her made them feel.

Please stay tuned for more on travel journalism, and in the meantime you can learn more at MatadorU.

*MatadorU’s curriculum goes beyond the typical travel writing class to help you progress in every aspect of your career as a travel journalist.

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