The Editors' Perspective: How can travel writing be more representative?
Condé Nast Traveller Middle East and The i Paper editors discuss representation and the future of travel writing
This week, we wanted to introduce you to two of our favourite editors; women who know the travel industry inside out and are pushing to bring colour to a historically white-washed genre.
We spoke to Sarah Khan, the new editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East — who won many a writing award, during her time freelancing for Travel & Leisure, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal — about the importance of diversifying talent on the page, as well as behind the scenes.
Meanwhile, Sophie Lam — the well-respected travel editor of The i Paper, who took the helm at the travel desk four years ago, after spending 13 years at The Independent— helps us track the evolution of the industry amid the social awakening of the last twelve months, and explains how her editorial desk has shifted in response.
We hope you enjoy it!
Meera & Shivani
Sarah Khan, Editor-in-Chief, Condé Nast Traveller Middle East
As a modern-minded editor of a heritage brand, what’s your vision for the magazine going forward?
A large part of what drew me to my new role at CNT Middle East was the opportunity to continue what I've been trying to do personally on a much larger scale, working on more thoughtful coverage of a region that's largely been misrepresented and misunderstood, while also covering the rest of the world in a way that's more relevant to Middle Eastern readers.
I've often pitched stories that resonated with me as Muslim traveller — writing about Bosnia's Muslim history for the New York Times, or visiting Harar, a historically Muslim city in Ethiopia for Travel + Leisure — and now I have the opportunity to dive into more of these aspects of destinations, and to empower other writers to write them and champion new and diverse voices.
While I'm only two issues in, we've already started introducing more of these types of stories into the magazine — in our August/September issue, Egyptian food writer Salma Serry shed light on the history and evolution of Cairo's street food, and in the October/November issue out next week, we have features on Doha's emerging creative scene and Malta's Arab history.
You’re one of the co-founders of Travel is Better in Color (TIBIC) — a collective that’s really helping travel writers of colour break ground in a homogenous industry. What’s the most helpful way for white writers and editors to do their part?
All five of us — Paula Franklin, Nestor Lara Baeza, Naledi Khabo, Jeralyn Gerba, and myself — have been in various aspects of travel media for years, and have long lamented the current state of affairs with regards to how homogeneous and one-note travel media has historically been.
Through TIBIC, we're trying to show editors and the world beyond that there are brilliant voices out there already that simply weren't on their radars for some reason. There's still a long way to go, but this is an important step that eluded many publications for a long time, who were too comfortable turning to their same stable of writers over and over and not making an effort to break out of their comfort zones and discover new talent.
While this is happening, however, the most crucial step is yet to happen: the diversification of mastheads and newsrooms. Diverse voices in the pages is critical, but diverse talents behind the scene help shape the ideas and influence who and what gets commissioned, and when we see true diversity there — and not just one-off token hires — is when we'll see a genuine change in the kinds of storytelling that's being produced.
Can you give us a good piece of advice for aspiring travel journos?
One of the interesting things about this past year is that while editors were realizing they needed to find new voices, they also were faced with the challenge of travel restrictions — meaning they couldn't send their usual go-to writers out into the world. This has opened up amazing opportunities for writers on the ground in different countries and regions who may have been passed up for assignments in the past because they didn't have "ins" with editors in New York or London.
The best way in the door for anyone is to leverage what you have in your backyard — pitching ideas from destinations that you live in or are familiar with, that editors may not have access to, and are more open than ever to commissioning new writers to cover. Once you've gotten your foot in the door and made a good impression that way, you can leverage that relationship to pitch ideas from other destinations as well.
Sophie Lam, Travel Editor, The i Paper
As a travel editor, what have been the major changes over the last 18 months?
I feel we’ve had a big shake-up from the foundations. The pandemic, BLM, other events, have made us stop and think about what we’ve been doing and why. Trust is now vital for media brands — without it, we can’t build or grow our audience, and that applies to travel writing. It must be trustworthy, reflect the world honestly, with accuracy its cornerstone.
How has this changed how you commission?
In the past, I’ve been guilty of using a trusted pool of writers because they know the publication and can write to brief, and that means a lack of diversity and new voices. But because of the pandemic, I commissioned a lot of new, destination-based writers. I commissioned a Kenya-based writer on how Covid has changed the tourism model there from a domestic perspective and it was a refreshing read. I also sent a Sydney writer to Kangaroo Island, a year after the bushfires. They’d visited before, knew people there, and had that core knowledge.
I think much more about how features will meet expectations of different readerships. For example, we have a vocal readership of people with disabilities who let us know when we’re doing things wrong — and right.
What if someone pitched a trip with a hotel that celebrated its ‘colonial’ heritage?
I’m far more conscious than before. I’d ask: Do we have to talk about this hotel? With organised trips, I also feel it’s incumbent on PRs and tourist boards to not box-tick the usual suspects and make sure journos have access to people and places to make the story work harder. I want to move away from that feeling that you’ve read this feature before.
I also think about who’s the best person to tell a story. Are they the right person? Will they be nuanced and compelling enough in their storytelling? Having diverse writers is key to this.
What would make travel writing more representative and less biased?
I expect writers to do their homework and read up on the place. I’m also keen on bringing other voices into the story so you understand those lives and experiences on the ground.
I’d love to see publishers investing more in travel journalism. It would allow writers to do more research than sending someone to report on how lovely a place is. We need to elevate it to an art form that’s revered again.
So, do we need to see ourselves more as travel journalists?
Absolutely. Travel writing is a specialist skill, an artform — absolutely not writing up a holiday diary. Now that travel is re-starting, it’s not only about going somewhere. We need to ask: Why is this story being commissioned? What’s the angle? How will it inspire?
How do you see the future of travel writing? Do you sense a broader move towards a more inclusive, conscious style?
Yes, I’m positive about the direction of travel writing. Lots of challenges and I know we don’t always get it right, but I feel that travel media is more conscious of issues around bias and how to write and commission better.
This was the second in our October takeover by Meera Dattani and Shivani Ashoka from Unpacking Media Bias (UMB). Next week we’ll be talking to experts about how to create responsible and inclusive travel content, before examining how we can ensure our travel writing is both relevant and has a positive impact in a post-pandemic world.
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