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THE ROAD WARRIORS program is a long term partnership between our new media school, MatadorU, and the Belize Tourism Board. It began on April 1st, 2011 and will run for an entire year.
How it works
Exceptional graduates from our writing and photography programs will travel to Belize for multi-month assignments. There they’ll have all travel expenses paid, plus a salary, in order to establish themselves as writers/photographers in-residence.
Each participant will have an investigative focus area such as Mayan culture, music, diving, or environmental issues, and produce articles and multimedia both for BTB and across Matador channels, as well as for other media outlets.
Redefining “press trips”
While it might seem inconsequential for a new media school and a country’s tourism board to partner, Road Warriors sets a precedent, essentially redefining how travel writers can work with host countries, tourism boards, and local communities to develop stories on culture and place.
Traditional press trips are useful for reaching destinations, but very limited in a number of ways, not only for participating writers, but also ad agencies / clients paying for the trips, and, of course, readers.
For writers, some of these limitations include:
- Limited time / budget for ground level exploration and finding stories outside of carefully constructed “slice” of the country / culture that the host wants you to see
- Having to base what your write / investigate not on what you’re passionate about, but what’s “salable”
For PR firms, ad agencies, and hosts, other limitations of press trips may include:
- Diminished ROI as a result of media produced from press trips lacking resonance with readers
- Dealing with participants who, through lack of media skills / editorial support, overinflated egos, or other factors, are poor candidates for the press trip itself
Lastly, traditional press trips (and the expectations placed on them by clients and editors) can reduce the importance of stories available to readers in various ways, including:
- Propagating oversimplified (and uniformed) views of culture and place
- Using unimaginative or unoriginal language
The common denominator for nearly all of these problems is time. Only by investing extended amounts of time in a place can a writer begin to build a relationship to it. The Road Warriors program is based on the minimum of a year’s worth of investigative work in Belize. So with that in mind, let’s look at how that affects the writers, sponsors, and readers.
How Road Warriors Works for writers
- Participants have editorial support for their work through MatadorU editors and community.
- The long-term nature of the assignments allows participants to engage with and report on place and culture in ways that would be unavailable on a short press trip.
- The program encourages new media innovation and creativity, allowing participants to work without stylistic constraints typically imposed by travel industry marketing.
- Participants are guaranteed publication, allowing them to devote all work-time to writing / shooting and editing as opposed to querying markets.
- Graduates of our program can begin or advance their careers in new media with a high-profile, paid assignment.
- As opposed to “inside connections” or other selection criteria (such as social media popularity contests) candidates for the program are selected based on performance in writing and photography as well as their specific vision for projects in country.
- Everything published is backed up by editors who have worked closely for several months with each candidate.
- The group nature of the program (new participants will cycle in every few months) promotes comprehensive media coverage and long term association of the country and culture with Matador’s brand and readership.
- The presence of the Road Warriors as protagonists in certain stories (via 1st person narrative nonfiction), combined with the evolution of their projects over time, lends a richness and authenticity to the brand, giving readers a chance to identify with people, culture, and place in a way that doesn’t occur in other forms of travel media, particularly short term press trip write-ups, “destination pieces,” and one-off “sponsored reviews.”
Why it works for the reader
On an immediate level, the Road Warriors program creates more meaningful travel writing and photography because the participants will engage place and culture in a way that wouldn’t be available to them otherwise. They’re not “seeing” a country (or better said, a very closely controlled part of it) in 5 days, then trying to write about it, as is typical with most press trips.
Nor are they having a budget travel / hostel / couchsurfing experience, where, because of time and or financial restraints, many other elements of a culture and place go unexplored.
A less immediate, but perhaps more far reaching effect is that the kind of writing and reporting that comes out of the Road Warriors program will–as we’ve been seeing over the last two years at Matador–continue to change the paradigm of what travel writing–even a sponsored hotel review can be. That it can be smart, poignant, instructive, hilarious, ironic. That it can honor places and cultures, not reduce them to commodities. That it can, above all, be transparent and real.
The separation of church and state, and how it applies to Road Warriors
As dissected by David Page in the article Do Freebies Undermine Honesty in Travel Writing?, the double bind facing writers and publications today is (a) maintaining integrity while (b) trying to stay in business.
The prevailing ethic in journalism has been that “as a ‘professional’ journalist you should not be financially beholden to the subject you’re covering, but rather to the publication you’re writing for—and, by extension, your readers.” Essentially it’s the division between advertising and editorial, referred to sometimes in media as “the separation of church and state.”
The Road Warriors program is a new approach. While the sponsor does have a financial stake in the outcome of the project, what motivates them is outside the traditional thinking / dichotomy of a “paid review” equals a “good review” vs. only an “independent” review can be free of bias. They’re not looking for testimonials, but sharing people’s real, ground level experiences in the country.
“Sweden.se is the official website for Sweden. For lack of a better phrase, it’s the site that shows Sweden’s ‘image abroad.’ My job as photoblogger is to document daily life in Sweden how I’m living it, not what you’re going to see in tourist brochures or in marketing copy, but just ground level photography in Sweden.”
–Lola Akinmade, MatadorU Photography Program Faculty, Photoblogger for Sweden.se
As with Sweden’s long-term employment of photobloggers such as MatadorU faculty member Lola Akinmade, BTB’s sponsorship is itself supporting and advancing solid journalistic work.
The “presentation” or “positioning” of place, trying to make it “sound good” (“a sun-dappled village nestled in the heart of x”), is disconnected with present day reality as far as what savvy readers and consumers actually want. What matters to younger generations isn’t “packaging” but authenticity. Only the savviest marketing companies–the tiniest minority–seem to get this.
As everything becomes increasingly “mapped” on the web, what’s important isn’t that your business, your travel service, your company, your country, your brand, get only “good reviews.” What matters is that whoever writes about your brand (a) has a genuine connection to it, (b) the writing and media skills to convincingly express this, and (c) the publishing channels available through which it can reach a captive audience.FULL DETAILS HERE
Questions about the Road Warriors program? Please let us know in the comments.