Today I was reading Laura Kammermeier’s article on Matador about surviving your first press trip, and I couldn’t help but think of my own first (and only, so far) press trip. It’s a smart and interesting article that really examines the kind of emotions and challenges you have to face on a press trip. For me, my first press trip came in December for GoNOMAD.com. I was an intern for a semester, and at the end of the internship I was rewarded with a press trip to Grenada. To clarify, that’s the island in the Caribbean, north of Venezuela, not the city in southern Spain. If you’re interested in reading the story, you can find it here.
Upon arriving in Grenada, we were immediately treated like royalty, at least from my perspective as a poor college student. Waiting in line at customs? Forget that. We were taken to a “Diplomats” line and breezed right through. I’d never imagined something like this could happen to me. The last time I’d traveled, I was staying in sketchy hostels and surviving on sandwiches for weeks at a time. Now I was having free five course gourmet meals three times a day.
Long story short, after a couple of days I looked back on my notes and realized that everything I was writing wasn’t real journalism, but simply a glowing review of everything I’d seen before. As a journalism student, we’re always taught to exercise objectivity; in other words, to stay out of it and report only what you see. For me however, I was making conjecture and assumptions that I was in no position to make, as well as overlooking other things because the service was so good.
It’s hard to really see things clearly on a press tour because PR firms and guides will make sure that everything is perfect. That’s their goal. Journalists, whether they are business, sports, or travel journalists, are supposed to see through that and report on what the real story is. So I went back through my notes and took a personal day to think about things and walk around on my own. I wouldn’t say thay I changed my look on the island or the people, but it was a breath of fresh air to not be hand-fed information.
As a journalist, especially a travel writer, it’s important to never lose sight of the objectivity and the point of the story. You want to remember every little detail, every nuance of character and hospitality. Because even if they are trying to make you happy, it’s still a part of their job. But you also need to see through the PR spin and make up your own analysis, because after all, that’s why the reader is listening to you. They want to trust you.
In some instances, it is better to travel on your own and make your story out of your experience. But there is also some great value to getting outside help. You can find places you otherwise wouldn’t have known about and get access to things that are closed off to the general public. With that being said, once someone knows you’re with the press, they tend to be a bit nicer, unless they have some grudge for whatever reason.
In my case, I learned more in the five days on the press tour than in the four months of the internship. I made some great contacts (which helped lead me to Matador) and saw how professional travel writers act and work in the field. It was very humbling to be working with writers who’d been at it for many years. If anything, I felt very out of place and awkard, considering I was 21 and still in college. Why did I really deserve to be on a press tour? I tried to act like I belonged there as much as possible. One thing I had to realize quickly was that it’s not a paid vacation–it’s work. And you don’t just sit by the pool and drink Rum Runners. You get out there and get a story. No matter what it is.
This has also made me think of Hunter S. Thompson and his contribution to journalism. I’m currently reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and though I’m not even half way through, it’s already one of my favorite books. Say what you want about Thompson, but the man knew how to write and record an event. I like Gonzo journalism. Something about it just makes sense to me. It’s simple and to the point, and without the unnecessary wordiness or educated dialect, it tells the story as simply as a person telling their tale might do so.
The fact that an entire generation of drug users and counter-culture enthusiasts have come to associate this book (and movie) with their own use of drugs is irrelevant and, in my opinion wrong. Sure, Thompson talks makes the point of using drugs as his focal issue in the book. But I think it goes deeper than that. I love this book because of it’s journalistic appeal. Without any interference of hindsight or opinion, Thompson simply reports on everything he sees. Not afraid of judgement or consequence, he tells his story as if he were talking to a group of friends over some beers. There’s something beautiful in that.
Now, Gonzo isn’t quite as popular and is a hard sell. It’s association with drugs has editors scratching their heads and questioning why a writer would want to follow that style. But you don’t need to be loaded up just to write Gonzo. All you need to do is place yourself in the story and work from there. It could be about your grandma’s birthday if you find the inspiration.
I think this all goes back to travel writing as a form of story telling. You don’t find much Gonzo travel writing, and when you do, it’s not syndicated journalism. However, you can take a lesson from Dr. Thompson as a writer and simply write everything you see, analyze everything as if you were a character in your story, and not just the writer. Those tools will ultimately help you see where the story really lies, even if you hadn’t planned on that originally.