Travel content: dead or alive?

This week’s online travel news, as cartoonist Walt Kelly might have put it, is us. Not only is this column ending after more than five years of covering the interactive travel business. So is its competitor, The Industry Standard’s Tech Traveler newsletter.

When you consider the anemic demand for travel-related information in general, you’re left to wonder if the battle between commerce and content hasn’t been won. Should the likes of Morris Dye, Michael Shapiro and me just pack our bags and go back to writing puff pieces and how-to books? Should travel Web sites discard the rest of their news operations in favor of ads, as two prominent travel dot-coms recently did?

Maybe not.

I take comfort in the words of Rich Jaroslovsky, the president of the Online News Association and a former colleague of mine at Dow Jones. “Content isn’t king,” he declared in a recent speech at Columbia University. “Good content is.” He ought to know. He’s one of the editors responsible for making The Wall Street Journal’s Web site the most successful subscription-model dot-com in its industry, if not online.

The question, of course, is: who decides what’s good content – and what isn’t?

Scenario 1: Readers decide. The idea of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web specifically, was to democratize the flow of information. Letting users determine what they want to read – and what they don’t want to read – would seem like a logical content philosophy. Whichever stories get accessed the most, you keep. The others get dumped. But as a former journalism professor of mine named Robert Scheer once observed, “our readers don’t always know what’s best for them.” (Yep, that’s the same Scheer who conducted the infamous 1976 Playboy interview with Jimmy Carter, in which the then-presidential candidate admitted to having “lusted” in his heart.) Indeed, if it were up to readers, every travel story would be about nude beaches and cheap theme parks – hardly a balanced diet of information.

Scenario 2: Editors decide. On the surface, this may seem like a more balanced approach. Bring in the professionals with lofty internships, postgraduate degrees and years of experience – not to mention clear editorial goals – and let them act as arbiters of good taste. Problem is, Web content is so new that no one can seem to agree on what’s good and what’s not. It’s a challenge I encountered most recently at CNN.com, where I worked as a travel columnist. One exasperated senior editor summed it up best when she confessed that the Web site “reinvents itself every week.” You might be able to chalk some of that obsessive-compulsive behavior up to the company’s dysfunctional corporate culture, but it won’t explain everything. As my editors ultimately proved, they were as clueless about good content as CNN.com’s readers. They ended up ordering the same crowd-pleasing columns about nude beaches and cheap theme parks in a pointless effort to overtake rival MSNBC.com.

Scenario 3: Advertisers decide. And why not? After all, they’re paying the bills. Shouldn’t they be able to dictate what gets published? I’ve asked this question in several previous columns, including a controversial story about two well-known travel sites that essentially let advertisers set their editorial agenda. Editors bristle at that kind of church-state integration, but readers generally make little distinction between the advertiser-sanctioned information – often called “advertorials” – and the stories that have been carefully prepared by an editor. From a business perspective, this is perhaps the most appealing and least expensive content choice that a manager can make. Under this scenario, nobody seems to get hurt. Advertisers don’t have to worry about unapproved criticism of their products while readers don’t know any better, at least initially. I recently called Expedia to task for gravitating toward this sort of questionable content. In one egregious example, a column about traveling with kids to Disneyland was underwritten by none other than Disney itself. “It doesn’t look good,” I told a senior executive. To which she replied, unrepentantly, “We are a site for happy travelers.”

The trouble with letting advertisers distinguish between “good” and “bad” content is that it slowly nibbles away a site’s credibility until at last readers see it for the giant advertising billboard that it is. Once you tear down the wall between the advertising and editorial departments, then you might as well fire the journalists and hire a team of publicists and copywriters to take over. Of course, leaving the editors in charge is often no better, particularly when they’re as naive as the ones handling travel content these days are.

Perhaps it will be the end-users who will have the final say-so, as they click away from content that they believe is tainted by commercial interests or the incompetence of its editors. Nobody knows. Not even someone like me, who has covered this business from the very beginning.

Good content is still king, even in the travel industry. It’s who gets to determine “good” that’s still undetermined.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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