I dumped out the contents of my goody bag from SXSW Interactive, and Hell fell out. I don't mean the deluge of swag -- one expects that -- but a large, glossy magazine. A travel magazine. A vision of Hell.
Everywhere, it's called. "The New Travel Magazine Made by You." I knew it was trouble the minute I saw that cover line.
Inside, my worst nightmares were fulfilled in spades. Oh, it's pretty. It's glossy. It even has a few ads. But my heart sank, and it's remained sunk. This thing is evil. The explanation is right there only page 8. Read along with me and see if you don't get creeped out, too:
How Everywhere works.
1) See the world
Visit wonderful places, have fun, take lots of pictures.
2) Document your trip
Select your best photos and tell us about where you went.
Contribute your travel tales and photos to Everywheremag.com.
4) Peer review
The community votes on travel stories, photos, and favorite places.
5) Final selection
Our editors curate each issue from the best of the best.
Published contributors get $100 and a free subscription.
In other words, it's a blog. On paper. A very pretty blog on paper. And if it catches on, someone's going to be making crazy money.
Now, let me take a minute to explain why this is a very bad idea. This strikes to the heart of the whole neophilia thing I've been raving about, and I can just imagine Grant Alden's reaction when he reads this. I already know the reaction I got from a professional travel writer who's doing work she hates because she can't make a living being a travel writer. She's ready to pass out torches and meet me in the streets of San Francisco while we storm the Everywhere headquarters.
She and I, it turns out, had an identical vision at about the same time, before we were in e-contact: a travel magazine aimed at how the people we know travel. Not the "Paris on $5000 a Day" crowd that Conde Nast Traveler seems to target, but real people going to interesting places who want to learn about other interesting places to go. Superficially, Everywhere would seem to be that magazine, but it's not.
As I learned a long time ago, pure democracy is a very bad thing in the magazine business. There not only has to be a hierarchy, but there also has to be something of a dictatorship if the thing is going to work. This seems evil, but really it's not: nobody is an expert on everything. If you need your house rewired, you could, theoretically, do it yourself, but if you're not an electrician, my guess is you'll defer to an electrician's expertise and pay for it. And if you're an accountant, you might do your electrician's taxes. There's nothing wrong with this, is there?
There's something about writing, though, that makes anyone capable of creating a sentence think they can do it. They can't, any more than anyone can take a picture by pushing a button. You can write a sentence and snap a picture, but is either any good? So accountants account, electricians electrish, writers write, and photographers photograph. The writers and photographers put out a magazine, the electrician and the accountant buy it, and they rewire our houses and do our taxes.
Putting together an article is a very complex thing. While turning the pages of Everywhere, I came up with an example of how this works so I can show you what I perceive as the biggest problem with the admittedly seductive idea it puts forth, that a magazine "created by the world's smartest experts -- our readers" is doomed to mediocrity.
A few years ago, I did a story on Cracow. Let us say that a magazine or newspaper wanted me to go back there and do another one. Okay, first we have to come to an agreement: I'll lay out the dough for the travel, the hotel, the meals, and get receipts and send them to the magazine, who'll pay me back. In return, I'll give them a travel story about Cracow based on what I already know and what I'm going to learn about how it's changed since I've been there. Now, it's not ethical to take freebies from folks you're writing about, but the first thing I'd do would be to contact the Cracow Tourist Office and tell them what I was planning to do and when I was planning to do it. This opens some doors: I might be able to get a room -- which I'd pay for -- in a hotel I might ordinarily not have been able to get into. Cracow is dominated by a huge castle. Only a small number of tickets to it are available every day. I wouldn't hesitate to use my article to push my way to the top of the line on the day I needed to visit it if the travel folks could help, because it's the main tourist attraction and I'd have to report it. I'd want to see the brochures they put out, so I could see how they perceived the city, which would give me a foil for how I would see it. I wouldn't hesitate to ask them to make something available to me, to set up an interview (and provide a translator) for various important people, to give me an unfair advantage over the ordinary tourist -- that guy over there, sort of wandering around, who's going to upload his trip to Everywhere, for instance.
If you go to Cracow, you're going to see some unpleasant stuff. For one thing, right nearby -- your hotel can arrange a bus-tour -- is Auschwitz. There's no way I'd write a comprehensive travel story for an American travel magazine about Cracow without mentioning Auschwitz -- if only because for a lot of Americans who lost family there, it's a place of remembrance and prayer. I wonder if Everywhere would do a spread on Auschwitz. Or the controversy (now, I believe, settled) with the religious people adjoining it, hyper-conservative Catholics who were trying to hijack the site for their own purposes a few years ago. I couldn't not mention that, myself, because it has a larger resonance in contemporary Poland, which remains a place of pretty upfront anti-Semitism. On a somewhat lesser note, there are poor peasant women who come in from the countryside and sell cheeses out of baskets. They're everywhere, and you can tell at a glance that they're impoverished. I didn't even know what they were selling until I asked a Cracow resident, and he was embarrassed I'd seen them. But I'd want to report that, too.
Writing the article, I'd want to get in history, the major sites, places to eat, practical information, things to do and things to avoid, and then season this with some attitude. When I was there a few years ago, there were loads of tourist stalls in the Cloth Hall in the central square selling wooden statues of sad-eyed Jews, which appalled me because at that time there were only 300 real Jews living in the whole city. There were more wooden Jews than that in two stalls in the Cloth Hall! With Auschwitz nearby, a Jewish section of Cracow that was enthusiastically emptied under the Nazis, and the residual anti-Semitism, there's a rather sharp edge that any observant person's going to see, and needs to understand. It's part of the experience.
It's also nuanced. Everywhere's articles are tiny bites. The "big" ones take up maybe a page of type spread out over two pages, with pix. You don't get the impression that anyone who wrote them did a lot of research, because most people don't research their vacations, even when they do want to know a little more about what they're seeing. That's what I'd want this article to do, and you just can't do it in that amount of room.
The whole Facebookian "community" thing, too, is scary. Wooden Jews, Auschwitz, threadbare grandmothers selling cheese in the park...a bummer! So what you'd get from these folks would be a smiley-face story about the castle, the churches, and the pretty square. Maybe the good restaurants in the reconstructed Jewish quarter. The pictures would definitely pass: Cracow is stunningly beautiful. But the content would be, um, very superficial.
And so it turns out to be: without professionals -- except for a few who put together the section on Stuff and the Gridskipper ripoff section, and they work in the home office -- you get what you pay for. And you pay $100 and get a story that's worth just that. Not, likely enough, to pay for even a night at the hotel the writer stayed at, let alone the cost of getting where they were going. But who needs professionals? We're all professionals now! We have blogs instead of magazines, You Tube instead of television. The diminution of quality isn't even commented on.
So my travel-writing friend and I are out of jobs. As far as I can tell, my career is essentially over, by some sort of mandate I wasn't allowed to vote in. This (and its sister publication, a photo magazine called JPG) is the wave of the future: poorly informed people talking to each other. Ignorance will snowball, and nobody will care.
No, it's not going to happen that way. I'm going to resist, and I hope others do, too. The travel magazine I want to do may not happen (or maybe it will: I'll happily correspond with any professional interested in developing it, since I've sure thought about it enough), but I think the coming economic collapse in the United States may wake some people -- the right people -- up to the fact that you can't have amateurs in charge of things, whether they're foreign policy or magazines, and that the only way to turn things around is to let experts do what they do, even if it's only entertain and inform you. That's all I want to do, and I think I've proven over the years that I can do it. It's worth paying for (my Cracow story made me $1000 plus expenses, and it wasn't even as long as this post; someone like Conde Nast Traveller would pay substantially more), just as any expert's expertise is worth paying for.
A word to the wise, Everywhere: doing something doesn't make you an expert. And a hundred bucks is chump change.