I recently led a brown bag conversation for a popular travel media company about solutions journalism. It was essentially a solutions journalism 101 introduction followed by a Q&A with the editorial team. Because this approach to travel journalism would be new territory for the publication, the questions were thoughtful and inquisitive while also focusing on logistics: Can we still deliver travel advice? Can a solution be contained to a sidebar? Do we need a separate solutions journalism team?
One of the questions, of course, is which organizations or journalists are already doing this work? Who can we look toward as a model?
There are a few publications this media company can look toward for inspiration, but I think the far more interesting and truthful answer is that this is largely untrodden territory. Experimenting with solutions journalism with a tourism lens is an opportunity to approach traditional travel journalism in a new and unexpected way.
This is not easy. All of us, regardless of our role in the tourism industry, become boxed in by what we do and know. Our habits and routines work for us. It’s what our audience — our readers, clients, and travelers — comes to expect.
There is value in consistency. However, the ability, interest, and willingness to completely reimagine and experiment with new ways of delivering our products and services can breathe new life into stale ways of working.
For travel media, in particular, this is a natural step as the tourism industry evolves, readers (and, therefore, consumers) become more discerning, and the world at large becomes more focused on sustainability, inclusion, and equity. While some media have started correcting destructive practices, there is still a lot of opportunity to disrupt the traditional travel media model.
Dabble in solutions journalism.
Solutions journalism is rigorous reporting about responses to social problems and their associated results. The old thinking was that journalists might compromise their professionalism by covering solutions. However, the new thinking is that journalists compromise their professionalism by not covering solutions.
Many people working in editorial capacities became journalists because they want to have an impact, to make the world better — and that’s a common refrain in the travel industry. How many times have we heard the saying that “travel is a force for good?”
Solutions journalism focuses on a response to a social problem, looks for evidence that shows effectiveness (or lack thereof), distills the lessons that make a response relevant and accessible, and notes limitations. Taking this approach is an opportunity to widen the travel journalism lens, tell more complete and interesting stories, and acknowledge that the “real world” and all it encompasses exists beyond readers’ backyards.
- The Ancient Stepwells Helping to Curb India's Water Crisis (Feza Tabassum Azmi, BBC Future)
- An Abandoned Roman Salami Factory Becomes an Illegal, Inhabited Museum (Lidija Pisker, Atlas Obscura)
There's never been a better time to surface solutions!
Bring your media team up to speed on solutions journalism.
Hire local writers.
Parachute journalism (or fly-by journalism) has its benefits. Out-of-town travel writers enter places with a natural sense of curiosity and awe. Their senses are highly attuned, and they notice everything with a sense of fresh discovery. This is valuable because they experience things as a novice traveler would, which is important in helping readers appropriately shape their expectations of a place and prepare for trips.
However, for a deeper understanding of a place, it’s important to remember that destinations are, in fact, places. People live here. There is a deep and flourishing history and culture. This is land seeded with traditions, trauma, and stories. That’s a deeper understanding that can’t be fully recognized, appreciated, and shared if someone is not innately familiar with it.
Traditional travel journalism has tended to keep readers at a distance by relying so heavily on fly-by journalism. But, if travel is about people and places, then people writing about the places they intimately know is compelling travel journalism. This is especially true for those readers craving authenticity and personal experiences when they travel.
- Now I’ve Left Afghanistan, Will I Ever Have a Home to Return to? (Narges Ghafary, Adventure.com)
- My Journey Around India in 80 Trains (Monisha Rajesh, Guardian)
Address controversial issues.
Historically, travel media’s job has been to inspire and motivate people to travel. This has meant painting destinations as stressless and beautiful, free of any problems or controversy. Common formats like listicles and service pieces have served travel media well in this way, because they cherry pick the lovely bits and provide just enough information to get travelers where they want to go.
But, tourism does not live in a silo and, in fact, it has both created and exacerbated many challenges in the places people visit. Travelers want to leave the messy parts of life behind when they’re on holiday, and travel media has done a stellar job of doing just that.
Yet, not addressing controversial issues lets people off the hook for the harm they cause when they travel. This causes even more stress on destinations. It also assumes that travelers don’t have the capacity to handle the truth.
Travel writing can be problematic. You are the solution.
Instead of shielding readers from reality, travel media have an opportunity to invite readers to grapple with the complexity of the world through the travel lens. This offers an entryway into addressing challenges and controversy while encouraging readers to think about how their travel experiences are integrated into the larger societal ecosystem.
- What Role Do Souvenirs Play in Cultural Appropriation? (Megan Spurrell, Condé Nast Traveler)
- The Great Barrier Reef’s Great Big Complicated Story (Juli Berwald, AFAR)
- What the Term ‘Local’ Means in Hawaii, and Why It’s Controversial (Kathlyn Clore, SF Gate)