What's the Best Way for a Travel Writer to Cover a Place They Didn't Like?
If we can't say anything nice, should we say anything at all?
For the audio edition of this article, go here.
Brent and I just spent a month in Novi Sad, a mid-sized town in Serbia.
I didn’t much like it.
Novi Sad? Try Novi BLAH.
However, this newsletter is about our travels as digital nomads: our thoughts on travel in general but also reports on our specific destinations.
Brent and Michael Are Going Places is a more personal travel take than you’ll find in the travel section of the New York Times, but Brent and I still consider ourselves travel writers — journalists.
Here are the kinds of thing we usually write:
Sarajevo is a Great Place to Visit (But a Lot of Locals Don’t Want to Live There)
But Novi Sad presented something of a problem: How do I write about a place I didn’t really like?
It’s not like we never write negative things. We wrote The Tragedy of Sarajevo's Olympic Triumph and How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Graffiti. Kind Of.
That said, I’m pretty sure no one is interested in reading Novi Sad is the Most “Meh” Place We’ve Ever Lived, Or: My Long, Hot, Sweaty Walk to a Boring Mall.
So while our stay in Novi Sad may have been a dud, it did force me to ask some interesting questions about this newsletter and about travel writing itself:
What exactly is our responsibility to our readers?
What’s our responsibility to the places we visit?
What’s the point of travel journalism anyway?
Here are some of the answers I came up with:
It’s really important to be fair.
Brent and I long ago coined the 72-Hour Rule, a travel “rule” we always try to follow: since first impressions are often wrong, you should wait at least three full days before judging any new destination.
In Novi Sad, I didn’t follow this rule. I openly disliked it right away. The city is gritty and flat, the architecture is mostly unexceptional, and the Danube River, which runs through town, isn’t so much “blue” as it is “grey and drab.”
I quickly expressed my dislike of Novi Sad on social media.
And then as the days clicked by, I slid into hate-watching the city, something I’d never done before.
Hate-watching means watching something — usually a TV show or movie — specifically to find reasons to keep hating it, and also say snarky things about it.
And I was pretty snarky.
Keep in mind, snarky doesn’t necessarily mean untrue. But it can be pretty mean.
Plus, impressions on social media are fleeting and limited — by definition. They’re almost never complete.
Which means they’re not always fair. Would a Serbian local recognize their hometown from my tweets? Would other visitors to Novi Sad?
But being fair is Journalism 101.
It was fun to be snarky on social media, but I soon realized it didn’t make for good travel writing.
But when writing about a place, it’s also really important to be honest.
The flipside to hate-watch travel writing is clickbait travel writing. That means pretending some place is nicer than it is for any number of reasons:
You’re pitching a piece to an editor, and you really want it to sell, or you were assigned a piece, and you don’t want it to be killed.
You’ve invested time and money in traveling to a place, and you want to be able to “use” the expended resources.
You’re trying to be positive and/or supportive to the destination in question.
You simply need content for your website or newsletter.
I think one of the big problems of a lot of travel writing is the writer doesn’t tell the whole truth about the place they’re covering.
And this is another kind of unfairness: it’s unfair to the reader.
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