Weekly Travel Scorecard [10.03.10]
As print newspapers fight to stay alive, travel sections lose pages and steadily increase service journalism while operating under more scrutiny than ever. In support of our paper/e-ink colleagues, here’s the Sunday print travel news that’s fit to post about.
Most weeks, the New York Times travel section puts every other paper’s travel section to shame. On the basis of column inches alone, it is the Queen of newspaper travel sections. Lately, though, the Grey Lady seems to be struggling with an element that has never been more important than it is today, as attention spans are shrinking daily. I’m speaking, of course, of the intro or, in journalist-speak, the lede. That first sentence or two that grabs the reader’s attention right away and makes them want to keep reading past the jump. This week’s section, filled as it was with historically focused pieces and advice about waking up at dawn, was particularly in need of some good bait, and it just wasn’t there. The one story that did draw readers in failed to deliver once it got us there. “Chaim Kahanovich, an 18-year-old Polish Jew, caught his first brown glimpse of the Holy Land from the deck of a steamer in November 1924. He would never leave,” begins a story on Israel. What should be a fascinating story about one of Israel’s first modern-day settlers devolves instead into a sentimental recounting of facts, delivered by Chaim’s Seattle-based descendant.
Stories about a quickly disappearing historical district in Shanghai, ways to catch a glimpse of Atget’s Paris, and an incongruous village of sculptures on the outskirts of Moscow, on the other hand, suffer from the opposite problem: All three stories are fascinating, they just start off with a yawn. “On Duolun Lu, also known as Duolun Road Cultural Street, a short but history-studded pedestrian street in the Hongkou District of Shanghai, working-class residents mingle with tourists — mostly Chinese — seeking to commune with the progressive literary giants who lived and worked there in the 1920s and ’30s,” begins the Shanghai story. It turns out to be a great read, but it’s hard to keep the eyes from glazing over when the first sentence is a paragraph long.
In general, the section was a bit of a miss, but I suppose even the Queen has an off day now and again.
SCORE: 5/10 carry-ons
The LA Times, on the other hand, seems to have its mojo back. I’ve been to Oklahoma City and it’s not really a destination I feel a burning desire to return to, but the story on its 100-year-old stock yards kept me reading, regardless. This is the last large stockyard in the country, writer Jay Jones tells us, “the last place on the plains where cattle are bought and sold in huge quantities.” Purely as a history lesson it’s an enjoyable read, whether or not readers take Jones’ advice about where to buy a cowboy hat when they’re in town.
And Christopher Reynolds handles history with his usual verve in a piece on Old Santa Fe as it celebrates its 400th year. “‘Oldest house,’ panted Robert Chavez, steering his pedicab past a 17th century adobe,” Reynolds begins. “‘Oldest church,’ he added a moment later, nodding left toward the 17th century San Miguel Mission Church. Santa Fe — rich, tan, relentlessly artsy and frequently artificial — is really old, by American standards. The city turned 400 this year.”
It’s a great intro, a perfect blend of local color and simple facts. The third feature in the section–about birdwatching in Sacramento–is about as boring as it sounds, although bird watchers will no doubt appreciate the amount of information it contains.
SCORE: 6/10 carry-ons
The Washington Post delivered its usual stellar (if short) section this week, with a wider variety of stories than it has been running lately. The sections features included an adventure piece on rock-climbing in China, a weekend-trip piece on Nantucket in the off-season, and a well-crafted story on enjoying Aspen during shoulder season. I’m convinced that what makes the Post’s section so good is the fact that it’s always at least partially written by the same staffers every week. The occasional outside contributor pops in and out, but the staff writers deliver consistently good work every week. Take this week’s Aspen story: Really, it’s just another story on the benefits of traveling during shoulder season. But because writer Andrea Sachs has handled this sort of content before, she knows it needs extra effort to keep from being boring. Her care and time are evident in lines like, “The 44-mile highway wiggles like an elongated snake, winding past sparkling lakes with small islands of aspens and peaks that crowd the sky.”
And rather than just rave about the great deals and availability in shoulder season, Sachs tried out the city’s new “Adopt a Tourist” program, which paired her with a local upon her arrival and gave her a new way to breathe life into an old story.
The short piece on Nantucket in the off-season had the same potential for boredom, but writer Ted Weesner’s staccato pace kept the story interesting.”Wake early. Roll out of bed. Trip down a flight of stairs and out the door and along a path of bramble, rose hip and sand,” he begins. “Skitter down a powdery cool dune and fall upon: more than 10 miles of untouched beach. Endless ocean, endless sky, fiery sun peeking over a shockingly broad horizon. Not another mammal in sight.”
In contrast, the story on rock-climbing in Yangshuo, China loses steam as it slips into generic descriptions of the region’s craggy rocks, and list-like “I did this, then I did that” sentences. In one particularly bland paragraph, the writer describes getting his equipment set in painstaking detail: “They lent us a rope, which I fastened to my harness with a figure-eight knot. Tom fed the rope through his belay device. As I scrambled up the face, he took in the slack until I was suspended 60 feet off the ground.”
SCORE: 7/10 carry-ons
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