I had an interesting conversation on email with Jo Tweedy who is the editor of Travelmail, the Daily Mail's travel website. Along with lots travel features and travel news on the site, they also run a blog. The contributors in the main are Travelmail's regular writers and editors.
She recently put up a post about a daytrip she did to Gibraltar whilst she was in Andalusia. It was a bit negative, contrasting the slightly down-at-heel feel of Gib's old town with traditional Andalusian tourist spots like the delightful scenery of the Pueblos Blancos and the atmosphere of Marbella's old town.
I agree, having visited it myself for a couple of days last month. I went whilst researching a guidebook to Andalusia for Frommer's so I saw all the places she compares it with too.
But that's not what I want to discuss. What was interesting was the avalanche of critical comments that the post attracted. 83 comments so far in total.
A few quick examples:
- This travel writer isn't very good.... As a travel writer you usually explore and sounds to me that she did very little and didn't travel around Gibraltar at all. (posted by neil)
- Jo Tweedy appears to have done no research on Gibraltar (did she actually go there) (posted by Roy)
- Very irresponsible way of writing - you should be sacked. (posted by Tommo)
Bit of a firestorm!
I must point out that there are plenty of comments agreeing completely too. It wasn't all one-sided. But it got me thinking about the difference between a blog post and a feature and the way people read them and react to them.
Blog posts are supposed to be opinionated. The accusation that as a ‘proper’ travel writer the author has done a bad job by just writing down their first impressions is just wrong. The fact that on first view Gibraltar seemed a bit shabby and expensive does matter. It’s actually very important. Sure, there may be great stuff going on elsewhere (like the impressive marina development) but Jo’s experience was no different to any other visitor's. Or to put it in the words of one commenter: Seems like Jo is just another day-tripper who spent their day treading the tarmac on a packed Main Street and eating tasteless grub in some tourist trap pub. (posted by Impartial)
Yes, she is. That’s absolutely the point.
Blog posts are more real. Travel writers often get the red carpet treatment. They get shown around by PR people and tourist board reps and everyone knows they will be coming so everything is nicely polished. And that's usually what you get in features as a result. Blog posts let you see behind the scenes. You get the bits around the edges like queuing to get across the border and getting stung for expensive fish and chips that you wouldn’t see in a ‘normal’ travel feature. That's good.
A good blog post gets debate going and sometimes it’s heated. That’s fine. Jo was I think a bit shocked by the depth of feeling and some of the comments (they were quite personal) and I got the feeling she wondered if she should have published the post. I’d say yes, absolutely. The comment and debate it threw up was both interesting and actually ought to be very thought-provoking reading for the Gibraltar Tourist Board.
In short blog posts and features are very different things. BUT readers don't appreciate the distinction. And this is important.
What would I do differently?
Make the blog space more distinctive from the main website. Help readers understand that this space is about opinion and debate, not researched journalism. Explain that too. Clearly.
Publish rules of engagement. Make it clear that overtly aggressive comments, particularly if they are personal in nature (eg you should be sacked) will be deleted.
Moderate the discussion. If you start a conversation you have to keep participating. I haven’t read all 83 comments, but I couldn’t see any comments from Jo in response. In fact a very quick glance at other posts on the blog suggests that the writers don’t respond to comments at all. Now, I know everyone is mega busy and that it’s difficult to know at what point to engage. But for it to be ‘real’ (and essentially to make it a 'proper' blog-space rather than just a bunch of opinion-pieces not dissimilar to a column on a magazine) there needs to be 2-way conversation taking place. Yep. That could be a pretty full-time job. Ultimately, they could do with someone as a fairly full-time moderator.
What do you think?