Monday, May 30, 2011

Getting to Timbuktu, Electronically

By Dick Jordan

Newspaper Stack One of the last, “old-tech” reading joys of mine is sitting at the breakfast table perusing the print versions of the Sunday editions of the local newspapers. As a travel writer, naturally I check out by the stories and the by-lines (who’s getting published this week?) in the Travel sections where I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: Shrinking space devoted to recounting journeys taken by others that might have inspired me to follow in their footsteps.

Will travel writing for the Sunday paper just wither away and die? Maybe so, maybe not.

About a year ago, at a preview of the annual Travel Writers & Photographers (“Food” is now included) Conference at the Book Passage bookstore, San Francisco Chronicle Travel Editor, Spud Hilton, said that there were travel editors at only about fourteen U.S. newspapers. The number may now be down to about a dozen. (When he was on the faculty for the 2009 Conference, Spud had just been appointed Travel Editor for the Chronicle, and speculated that he might be the last to hold that position; he just wasn’t sure whether the job would last until he reached retirement age).

Timbuktu A few months ago I noticed that the Travel section of the Chronicle was down from six to four pages most Sundays. The same section in the Marin I-J (published by the Bay Area News Group) isn’t even a true “section” anymore; it’s usually only about a page or two.

But while print-editions of newspapers are doing a disappearing act, their electronic versions (and online publications in general) seem to be growing in both size and numbers. And while I’m still a mostly print-kinda-guy when it comes to the Sunday paper, a story in this week’s Bay Area News Group Travel section, illustrates why an e-version of a story can upstage the print version.

Timbuktu. Does it exist, or is it just a legendary place, like Shangri-La? It’s not mythical; it’s in the West African country of Mali. But for most of us, it’s like Shangri-La. We’re not going there, expect as armchair readers.

Jane Tyska’s story and photos in the Sunday print edition of the Marin I-J blew off the special fast-drying socks I take with me when I travel. And since going anywhere by boat intrigues me, her recommendation to get to Timbuktu on a pinasse (which she describes as a “long, narrow boat with a thatched roof you can sit upon”) prompted me to search for flights to Mopti from where the boat sails.

But the online version of the story was “way cooler” because it not only had thirty-five photos (as opposed to only four in the print version), but something unavailable in the “dead-tree” edition of the paper: Great videos of the Festival au Dessert and Jane’s boat trip with festival musicians, including JeConte from Sausalito.

So maybe travel writing in the Sunday paper isn’t dying after all. Maybe it’s just being reborn, in a much livelier way, online.

Lunch Swiss Style (Rosti with a Friend Egg Washed Down with Beer)(From time to time travel writer Dick Jordan posts book reviews under the “Armchair Travel” and “Book Review” sections of his blog, Tales Told From The Road. His last post to the Book(ed) Passage blog was “A Book Passage Student Success Story”, about San Francisco writer and performance artist Canyon Sam and her award-winning book, Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History.

When Dick isn’t traveling, you can usually find him hanging out with other members of Left Coast Writers at the Book Passage Corte Madera store on the evening of the first Monday of each month.)

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