Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Jim Benning Interviews Don George


A few years ago, Jim Benning of WorldHum fame interviewed the former travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner. The review has largely been lost in cyberspace, so I'll post it below for your inspection, as it seems timely with the recent release of a new book by Don George, published by Lonely Planet. It's a book about travel writing, and the first book ever written by Don George.

Don George is one of the most successful travel writers in the country, and has promoted an inspiring viewpoint about the wonders and benefits of travel writing for many, many years: Travel broadens our view of the world, tears down walls, increases understanding, brings peace. Arthur Frommer said it first, but Don has carried on the message for many years, and for this, god bless his soul.

Soul-Stretching Adventures Don't Sell Ads
A conversation with Don George of
Jim Benning
posted: 2001-05-29
modified: 2002-07-15

In founding Salon's travel section, Wanderlust, in 1997, Don George created a home for the Web's most ambitious literary travel writing. The section featured contributions from writers such as Pico Iyer and Jan Morris, and memorable stories from up-and-coming writers. Quality, however, doesn't ensure longevity, especially online.

Last year, citing money woes and disappointing traffic figures, the online magazine closed the travel section, leaving George out in the San Francisco cold, looking for work.

After a brief stint at Yahoo, George recently landed an editing job at Lonely Planet. The company publishes guidebooks revered by world travelers. It also maintains a thriving Web site. We asked George recently about Salon, the state of online travel journalism and his new gig.

Much has happened since we last talked. What are your thoughts on Salon these days? Are you optimistic about its future?

How can I put this? (Pause.) Salon is facing the greatest challenge of its life, and that's surviving this downturn when advertising all over the Internet has fallen off sharply. What I want to believe is that quality will triumph in the end and that Salon, because it's so great editorially, will pull through. There will come a time when advertising rebounds. I just hope Salon will be around to benefit from that.

How did the closing of the travel section affect your feelings about the future of great online travel writing?

(Sigh.) I felt that if the kind of travel journalism I felt passionately about was going to survive anywhere online, it would have been at Salon. Everybody's hearts and minds were in the right place with what I was doing with Wanderlust. I was tremendously disappointed when it didn't make it. I feel that a purely literary travel site would be almost impossible to make a go of online. What you have to do, I think, is either marry great travel editorial to a site making money some other way, like perhaps a Travelocity or an Expedia, or you have to become the electronic branch of a tree that already has very deep roots in some other medium. That's where Lonely Planet comes in.

After the section closed, where did you look for work?

I talked to online people who fell into two camps. I talked to small, enthusiastic start-ups, which were spiritually wonderful and tempting but didn't offer the kind of stability I wanted. I've had enough of that wild ride already. And then there were the Yahoos and the Travelocitys. I was actually affiliated with Yahoo for a while. That was an exciting opportunity to try to create some original travel editorial content for them, but it ended up not working out. We both saw some great potential there, but as the Internet evolved and Yahoo's concept of editorial offerings evolved, it didn't seem to make as much sense as it originally had.

Did you talk to print magazines, too?

Yeah. I talked to a lot of magazines. I went to New York and Washington and spoke with many editors, and I just came away thinking that there weren't any positions available that were perfect for me. I was looking for something that would allow me to stay on the West Coast and still have a full-time staff job that would involve writing and editing. While there was a lot of interest from people at some of the magazines and from me, this has been a tough time for the magazines. They're not expanding. The kind of job that might appear attractive to them in an age of expansion, such as a West Coast editor, isn't compelling in a time of cutbacks.

I don't see a lot of great travel writing being done at magazines anyway these days. Can a magazine that focuses on literary travel writing even survive?

I think it could survive but not thrive. The kind of great story-telling that Salon majored in is not a core part of any magazine out there now, probably because most of the editors-in-chief look at the bottom line. Tales of unforgettable encounters and soul-stretching adventures don't sell ads as well as tales of glitzy hotels and high-priced restaurants.

That's disappointing.

Yeah, it is disappointing. It doesn't mean that the editors' hearts aren't in the right places, but they have to be quite practical about what their jobs are, and that's to keep the magazines profitable. That said, there is great writing out there. Some of the adventure-oriented magazines like Outside and National Geographic Adventure publish in each issue at least one great read. It's not that the well is dry, it's just that the well is low.

That's so strange, because never before have there been so many travel narrative books being published. Books by Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson. Anthologies. There's a market for this style of writing. The book publishers see it. You'd think magazines would find a way to tap into that.

That's a really interesting point. People's mind-sets when they sit down to read a book might be different than when they pick up a glossy magazine. Hmmm. I wrestle with this stuff all the time. I don't lie awake at night and think, why didn't Wanderlust succeed? But I thought I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and I had a vision of what that was. You can say the Web is a new medium and advertising models weren't sophisticated and that, had it had two or three more years, it might have made it. But none of the print magazines are like that. Is there something else here, that a combination of great tales isn't economically viable? I don't know.

Related to all this, of course, is that last year Villard published a collection of Salon travel stories in a book titled's Wanderlust. Has the book done well?

The book has done very well. The initial run was 15,500 copies, and when I was in New York a few months ago, they had sold about 10,500. I assume that a few thousand more have been sold since then, so it's probably on the cusp of another printing. It was on the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List a couple of weeks ago, and I was really shocked. That was very exciting.

How did you wind up at Lonely Planet?

I realized that right in my backyard was Lonely Planet, literally 12 minutes from my home. I've always loved Lonely Planet, ever since I got my first guidebook 20 years ago. It's a publisher I respect immensely, with a huge range of titles, and happily, they had a Web site and a literary travel books series. I've known the founders for 15 years. It hit me that this is a company that I should be looking into. So I did. We were able to craft a job description that seemed to be exactly what all of us were looking for. I officially joined the company March 12. It's like a dream come true.

Was it important that the company was rooted in the print business?

Yes. Lonely Planet's headquarters in Oakland is in a warehouse. When I walked in and saw stacks and stacks of books, that was a really good feeling for me. It was something really palpable that the company was based on.

What exactly do you do?

My title is travel editor. My mission basically falls into three areas. The first involves the Web site. I'm writing a weekly column, already launched, called Traveller at Large. Over time I'm going to be working with other members of the e-team, the people who put together the Web site and wireless stuff. I'll be working with them to develop more robust original content down the road.

Does that mean we might see Wanderlust-style travel stories on the site someday?

It means that portions of something like Wanderlust will resurface down the road. Lonely Planet is trying to prioritize and strategize and figure out what the role of the Web site is in the context of the whole company. The notion of Wanderlust-type content is very much a part of the ongoing conversation.

The Web site has a lot of great components, including the news section.

Yes, that's called Scoop. It's updated every day with about four or five very interesting news stories from around the world. They're these vignettes that teach you something about the countries where they take place.

How about your other roles?

I'm involved with their travel literature books series, called Journeys. I'll be helping to bring in new writers for that. Lastly, we want to create something called Lonely Planet Conversations, which would be me interviewing great travel writers and travelers. We'd excerpt the interviews online in text, and eventually with sound and video clips. We also hope to try to syndicate the interviews either to radio stations, maybe PBS, and or to other TV stations. We'll be filming and recording these interviews for multiple uses. We'll get started in the next few months.

You've got a lot going on.

I've got a lot of plates, and they're all filling up rapidly. But it just feels perfect to me because I didn't want to turn my back on the Internet. I'd invested a lot of my passion and energy into understanding the medium, so I didn't want to just get out of it altogether. This job is so wonderful because it combines the print background I had before Salon (as travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner) with the online background I've gained at Salon. And as for the interviews, I did interviews at the Examiner for my column. That's when I first met people like Pico Iyer and Paul Theroux. So it all feels like it's coming together.

Are you still traveling much?

Happily, yes. Last fall I went to London and I did a cruise in the Mediterranean that began in Venice and ended in Rome and took me to Croatia and Greece. I'm going to Australia in a week and a half, and then I have trips planned for the summer.

Ever get tired of it?

Never. What I have not liked in the past is business travel. When I was at Salon I flew to Paris for a conference and spent the entire time going to meetings, giving speeches. I looked longingly out the taxi window and wanted to claw my way out. Business travel can be anti-travel. You go to an exotic place, but you never get to really be there. But pure travel, that feeling is still there. Being at Lonely Planet feeds that feeling so much. Lonely Planet is completely about the wonder of travel.

Don George Interview about Travel at Slate

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