More and more travel sites are cropping up on the Web, but they’re coming up short
This column appeared in the July-August 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.
As online news matures, we’re beginning to see Web publications evolve into true news channels rather than warmed-over digital versions of their pulp parents.
One of the biggest trends in cyberspace during the past six months has been the rise of Web sites that take advantage of readers’ booming interest in travel news. But you’d never know it by visiting the travel sections of almost any online newspaper.
At the annual meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers editors council in the Bahamas in April, it became clear that when it comes to newspaper Web sites, the Travel section is just an afterthought — if it’s given any thought at all. Consider:
• Most papers refuse to put their travel section contents online.
• For those that do, it’s often impossible to find the travel section. Even at such estimable sites as the San Jose Mercury News’ and the Seattle Times’, users can spend hours on any given Sunday without being able to locate any travel news.
• Many papers that run their printed travel content online often resort to shovelware. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, merely pours its 100-inch-plus features onto its site without so much as a nod of recognition that the Internet is a different medium than print.
• The vast majority of newspapers run travel stories with no photographs at all, flying in the face of the Web’s very raison d’etre. These are mortal sins in cyberspace. Blame it on lack of vision. I was invited to give a presentation to 60 or so of the conference’s attendees. After my talk, a dozen editors shared with me their frustration at how their sections are given short shrift by their publications’ new media departments.
“I’ve made the same pleas that you have,” confided the travel editor of a large daily in the West. “The managers of our Web site just don’t consider travel a priority.”
Strange, then, the recent boom in Web travel sites: Travelocity, Epicurious Travel, the Internet Travel Network, CNN Interactive, Mungo Park and Expedia (operated by Microsoft, my employer) are among the major players that are pioneering the digital frontier; most of them let readers book airline tickets, lodging and car rentals or buy discounted air fares online.
IS THE GAME over, then? Hardly. Online papers have a built-in advantage over many of their rivals, even the ones with slick travel sites like Conde Nast, Travel & Leisure, Fodor’s and Frommer. Those magazines and books understandably don’t post all of their content online; otherwise, a reader would have no incentive to buy the print product.
But a newspaper travel section has no such limitation. Users aren’t about to cancel their subscriptions because they can read their travel sections online. The Web is not a publishing medium. It’s a medium for information-gathering and communication.
What, then, can newspapers do to make their online travel sections competitive? Consider these mantras:
Simplify. Make it easy for users to find your section and navigate your site. Use a friendly URL, like www. herald.com/travel, rather than a convoluted address only a Webmaster could love. (Remember, not all users come through the front door, or main page, of a Web site.) Always include travel in both the index and search engine of your site. List it seven days a week, not just Sundays.
Get interactive. Include the travel editor’s e-mail address on the site, as the Houston Chronicle does. Hold weekly chat sessions with a local travel authority. Sponsor a travel forum, where readers can offer their own travel experiences and interact with other readers. Don’t have time to run a forum? Consider delegating the moderator responsibilities to someone else in the newsroom, a local travel expert, or perhaps even a travel agent, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram does.
Be timely. The new breed of online travel sites don’t play by the once-a-week rules of Old Media. Put up travel news as it comes in during the week.
Be timeless. Use the travel stories in your section every week as an invaluable asset that remains on your site for years. Create an online archives, as the Washington Post does. Travel stories have a far longer shelf life than hard news.
Dare to be different. Take advantage of the Web’s bottomless news hole. Resurrect those sidebars you didn’t have room to run in your print edition and put them online.
Use multimedia. Give readers sound clips, QuickTime video and a foreign currency converter (available online). Next time you go on a trip abroad, bring a camera or camcorder as well as a tape recorder. Tape a native drum ceremony or an interview with a local.
Build a network of trust. Serve your readers by enabling them to book a flight or make reservations. At the very least, link to resources on the Web — as The Miami Herald does — that help readers map out a trip, learn phrases in a foreign language, or provide insights about a destination’s culture, customs, cuisine, history and entertainment.
Lose the ink-on-dead-trees mindset. You’re not a newspaper on the Web. You’re an online publication. There’s a difference.