Where to for travel writing?

Interview one: The newspaper editor

By Iain Manley Sep 18, 2012

Graham Boynton in the MatoposTravel writing has grown up alongside the travel industry. The word tourist entered the English language in 1772, just three years before Samuel Johnson’s A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland was first published. Thomas Cook founded the company that was to issue the world’s first traveller’s cheques in 1841, less than five years before Dickens wrote Pictures from Italy. Both Johnson and Dickens were writers of a new ilk. They were among the first professionals, with a living that the printing press and copyright laws had made possible, and for better or worse developments in these two industries – travel and publishing – have dictated the shape of travel writing ever since.

The internet has shaken both industries up immeasurably. Independent travel and self-publishing are just a few clicks away, after all, and professionals are being crowded out. It’s not yet clear where they will find a place. As part of Old World Wandering’s Kickstarter project, I’m interviewing three people about travel, writing and how they intersect in the topsy-turvy present. The first is Graham Boynton, author of Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland. He was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler for ten years and Group Travel Editor at the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Next Monday, I’m speaking to Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. In two weeks’ time, I’ll publish the final interview in this series, with Jodi Ettenberg, Legal Nomad and curator of Travelreads.

IM: You started your career as a reporter in South Africa. How and why did you move from that to travel journalism?

GB: I was a journalist who covered politics in South Africa, mainly the student movements and the burgeoning black trade union movement. That got me into trouble with the authorities and I was declared an “undesirable alien” in 1976 and deported to the UK. For the next few years I wrote general interest features for magazines internationally and started writing the occasional travel article.

By the early 1980s I was working for a Fleet Street magazine called Business Traveller that had among its regular contributors Eric Newby, Auberon Waugh, Geoffrey Wheatcroft and other distinguished writers. That was when I began to read Newby’s Short Walk in Hindu Kush, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar. I then became the editor of Business Traveller, a job I held until I moved to America at the end of 1987.

IM: What was the state of travel journalism when you started?

GB: I would say that travel journalism was beginning to thrive in the 1980s in line with the growth of the travel industry. Britain’s national newspapers began to attract more advertising and thus the travel sections expanded. Similarly in America specialist magazines such as Travel and Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler flourished. The launch of Conde Nast Traveler, under the editorship of Sir Harold Evans was a significant moment in travel publishing. Formerly editor of London’s Sunday Times, Evans was an iconic figure in British publishing, and his involvement in a travel magazine gave the genre credibility. I was lucky enough to be recruited by Sir Harold as the magazine was being launched and spent 10 years as a senior editor there.

IM: You say that travel journalism began to thrive in the 1980s, and names like Newby, Chatwin and Theroux – as well as the credibility you say Sir Harold Evans lent to Conde Nast – all indicate how well things were going. What characterised that period? How much editorial freedom did writers have, for example? Are there any stories that you remember particularly well, that might be a good example of something that could be published then but not now? And how did the relationship between the travel industry and travel magazines affect editorial decisions?

GB: Conde Nast Traveler made a virtue of its editorial independence and the “investigative” journalism that established its reputation. I was in charge of investigative journalism and remember most vividly my editorial team doing a big expose on the lack of airport security at America’s airports. This was long before 9/11. We also did major pieces of elephant poaching and the state of African wildlife conservation, a subject that was not common in travel magazines of the time. However, the reason such stories might not be covered now is more to do with the cost of such investigations. In those days we had big budgets and could put writers and researchers on stories such as these for significant periods of time. These days budgets are much tighter. As for the relationship with the travel industry, Conde Nast Traveler has always paid its way and not accepted hospitality – it’s part of the American magazine’s DNA. All other travel publications in the UK, Europe and the rest of world are forced to accept hospitality for budgetary reasons and thus have an entirely different relationship with the industry.

IM: You say that in the 1980s the travel industry was growing. Can you give me some idea of what you mean by that? And how has the growth of the travel industry shaped travel writing over the course of your career?

GB: It was the commercial boom years for international travel. Suddenly people regarded travel as a right rather than a privilege. Advertising across newspapers and magazines grew, paginations increased and staff were hired to fill the pages. Significantly, the travelling public were also looking for advice on increasingly far-flung places they wanted to travel to, so public response to the travel magazines and newspaper travel supplements also grew.

IM: Could you outline your career from then on, until you were appointed Group Travel Editor at the Telegraph?

GB: In my 10 years at Conde Nast Traveler I was lucky enough to be able to travel, write and edit. The editing was the bread and butter that paid the mortgage and the travel writing was the bonus. During this period I concentrated on African conservation issues and the magazine became a champion of community conservation programmes, not a widely supported idea in the US at the time. At the same time I launched a series of conservation awards that in the years since have become the World Traveler Awards.

IM: What is the role of travel desks at large newspapers? And travel magazines within a large publisher like Conde Nast? How important is the part they play in overall revenue? And how much respect do they command within the company?

GB: This is a complicated question and not one that I feel I can express my true feelings. What I do know is that at the Telegraph Media Group travel is/was a major revenue earner. Whether or not the newspapers’ executives believe that this has anything to do with the quality of editorial content or whether they regard this as merely part of the larger commercial picture I cannot say. Equally, it is for the newspapers’ executives to say whether or not they had any respect for the editorial product I was responsible for producing over 12 years at the Telegraph. One thing I can say is that both the readers and the travel industry held Telegraph Travel content in high regard.

IM: Let me rephrase that. Travel is an unusual combination of engagement with the world in the broadest sense of the word and close engagement with an industry. It is not always clear to me what separates a travel story from general correspondence, and I imagine this is something you’ve given a lot of thought. The job travel writers do is also not always clear. Do they help consumers navigate an industry, confining themselves to the ways in which the vast majority of people travel, or do they undertake exceptional journeys and write about them in ways that some might call elitist. How have you navigated these contradictions?

GB: Firstly, the sudden storm that is the internet revolution has changed newspaper travel coverage profoundly and glossy magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure rather less so. Assuming, probably rightly, that their readers can find information on travel anywhere online the newspapers now see their role more as utilitarian guides than sources of inspiration. Newspaper readerships are falling dramatically so travel sections are also trying to make up for concomitant advertising losses by selling holidays alongside editorial content. Of course, this changes the nature of newspaper travel journalism completely. So, fewer travel writers are commissioned to write great sprawling old-fashioned features about remote destinations and undiscovered primitive tribes in the way that the Newbys and the Chatwins once were. Newspaper executives have chosen a more prosaic approach to travel which is why you will now see acres of coverage on cruising, which some purists do not regard as travel at all. The American magazines still carry stories that might be regarded as exceptional journeys that are of only minority interest but certainly less than in previous years.

IM: The internet has upended few industries as thoroughly as the media and travel industries. It makes sense that it has also had an enormous effect on travel media. Can you give me some idea of what it’s been like to watch that unfold from the very beginning to the present?

GB: You have to adapt. I have no doubt that travel websites, blogs, and tweets are rapidly replacing conventional print travel journalism, but the problem is there is not enough money in it for the journalists to earn a decent living. If writers who want to specialise in travel lose the financial incentive to do so, then the gene pool of travel literature will be diminished. That, to my mind, is the greatest crisis facing travel writing – the dumbing down of the genre.

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One Response to “Where to for travel writing?”

  1. Heather says:

    A really interesting interview with a really interesting man. I think Graham's answer to the last question is very important; dumbing-down is happening to more than just travel writing and yet there is excellent work available on websites and blogs. A large part of the trouble, I believe, is that many people put everything available online into the same bucket. We don't do that with books and magazines. We need to separate the wheat from the chaff in online content generally.

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