Should You Watch Confessions of a Travel Writer?

Confessions of a Travel Writer critique by Kim Palacios
24 August 2009 Post Author:
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Confessions of a Travel Writer” sat, unwatched, on my TiVo as I headed to last weekend’s Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference.

One afternoon, while surrounded by a group of esteemed writers, the topic of the show came up, and the verdict was unanimous – they hated it.

As someone who likes to form my own opinion, I typically tune out conversations that might bias me. But I was at the conference to learn the meaning of success in this business, so instead I leaned in closer. I won’t share with you exactly what they said – only that it was rather damning – and after watching it I tend to agree.

I smelled danger from the beginning when the host introduced himself as ‘Charles Wilson Runnette IV’ and strolled off the plane in a collared shirt and jacket. The air of self-importance carried in his walk surfaced in everything else he did, from badmouthing his colleagues, to judging the local culture, to voicing complaint, after complaint, after complaint. He slammed the foodie for taking the culinary experience too seriously, the blogger for taking too many pictures for her blog, and the writer from National Geographic Traveler for speaking Spanish(!?) He squandered a third of the show on things that had nothing to do with Chile, nothing to do with travel writing – frankly, nothing of consequence.

Yet, a as a certain blogger pointed out, he was faithful to the formula of reality TV: he was petty, overly-opinionated, he fabricated drama, and he took himself way too seriously. To curious viewers infatuated with the life of a travel writer, it may strike the right balance between information and entertainment, and, on those grounds, it could become successful. But by describing a trip to a penguin colony as “a big island of poop” and miscategorizing a pair of wineries as vineyards (while on assignment to write for a wine publication, mind you), he makes us all look bad while doing it.

Despite the shenanigans of its host, the show does take some good steps toward demystifying travel writing. It introduces press trips, juxtaposes an enviable lifestyle with abysmal pay, and discusses the challenges of finding a story under time constraints – all new concepts to an uninformed public. By the end of the show, he seems to have grown a heart, and between barbs he even finds the time to tell us enough about Chile to make us want to go there. A final plus: the other writers were likeable, professional, and down to earth, a subtle fact I hope viewers pick up on.

When we think something’s cool, it’s really cool,” Runnette says of travel writers at one point, “but if we think something sucks, we have no problem saying it“. For me, the concept is cool, but the host should stick to writing and hand over the reins to someone who exhibits the flexibility, cultural sensitivity, and openness of a world class traveler and the professionalism of a journalist.

~Kim

Have you watched “Confessions of a Travel Writer? Share your opinion!

11 Responses to “Should You Watch Confessions of a Travel Writer?”

  1. Dave
    Twitter:
    says:

    “the blogger for taking too many pictures for her blog” — I didn’t know it was possible! I still have to check out the show for myself…but with little good written about it so far, I’m in no rush.

  2. Trisha says:

    Excellent review Kim! I like that you are able to give your opinion while remaining open-minded about the future direction of the show, even if the host IS a putz. Very balanced, the hallmark of a good journalist. No doubt many of us would have been tempted to just say “it SUCKED!…Next show, please!”….

  3. JT Turner says:

    Problem is: not all travel writers operate as these folks do. There are principaled writers who DON’T take press trips. In fact, many publications don’t allow them. So this is NOT the way all writers work, only those at the bottom of the food chain.

    I say DON’T watch it. It paints what should be an honorable profession in a dismal light and will make it harder for legitimate travel writers to get work in the future. After all, if the public doesn’t trust what travel writers say, who will buy their articles??

  4. Trisha says:

    Hi JT – Welcome and thanks for adding your voice to this conversation.

    I would like to say that I honestly believe that whether or not a travel writer participates in press trips is unrelated to principles. I know quite a few travel writers that are highly principled and exemplify integrity but they do go on press trips. What they don’t do is bow to any pressure to write a glowing article – if they like a place they say so, and if they don’t they say that too.

    I realize that there are some publications that won’t accept travel articles generated from a press trip, and even some that won’t accept submissions from writers who have EVER been on a press trip, and while I totally understand their reasons for doing so, I disagree with them. There are still plenty of publication opportunities available to travel writers – especially if you have good writing skills – so the decision to go or not depends upon which publication(s) you wish to write for – writers would do well to know in advance what a publication’s guidelines and rules are.

    I agree with you that the show does present travel writers in a bad way, so I’m hoping it dies a quick death at the network. Maybe we can start an online petition?

  5. James Hills
    Twitter:
    says:

    What channel is this on and is it available on Hulu etc?

    Nice review and I agree with the comments above … travel writing is a pretty diverse group of people and technology levels.

    I was on a trip last week where I was twittering and “twitpic’ing” constantly with cool things I was seeing / experiencing. At one point, a senior “print only” guy thought I was just goofing off and had very little understanding for how fast “online” media moved these days.

    I guess I am “at the bottom of the food chain” but I do it for fun and trips are perks (and opportunities to go places / do things) I can’t afford on my own).

    Having been on the other side of the fence formerly (with a national / international daily paper) I don’t know if there really is that much more professionalism in that group of travel writers than there is at my level – but online writers that I have met typically seem to be much more enthusiastic about their subjects because they aren’t “just another assignment”

    (not that there aren’t great print or senior people too, but my experience is that “big media” people tend to ask far fewer questions and act less interested in what the host is trying to introduce the group to).

    At any rate, I look forward to seeing the show sometime assuming it is on one of the cable channels I get or online somewhere :)

  6. Trisha says:

    Hi James – it was a Pilot on The Travel Channel – I don’t know about Hulu but worth checking….as near as I can tell it hasn’t (yet) been picked up for more episodes as there is no info on the Travel Channel’s site or schedule….it could be that with such negative response they may not order any more episodes, or who knows? Maybe they will just to stir the pot a bit. Or if they pass, another channel could pick it up. Guess we’ll have to wait and see!

    They do have their own website, so perhaps they’ll update interested viewers there: http://confessionsofatravelwriter.com

  7. Kim Palacios
    Twitter:
    says:

    @Trisha, thanks for posting the link to the official web site (which I had not yet seen). The site is effectively a blog run by Runnette himself, one that includes a suspicious volume of favorable comments from gushing fans who “loved the show”.

    As a counterpoint, please allow me to post the link to the feedback thread on worldhum, which has over 100 comments from (dare I say?) a more balanced set of viewers:

    http://www.worldhum.com/features/travel-interviews/interview-with-charles-runnette-confessions-of-a-travel-writer-20090810/

  8. Excellent addition Kim! I should have done that too – It does seem ‘odd’ (that’s being generous) that the comments on Runnette’s site are overwhelmingly positive when on most other blogs and open forums (and even the Travel Channel’s Facebook Fan Page) it is the opposite…..hmmmm…..interesting…..

  9. Maralyn D Hill
    Twitter:
    says:

    I agree that it is odd that Runnette has so many favorable comments. I would guess that anything unfavorable is deleted.

    Trisha, what you said about knowing what your publisher allows is imperative.

    In today’s economy, more and more journalists are discovering they have to make use of press trips. They do not get paid as much and need the added benefit. It is up to a good journalist to write without bias.

    When IFWTWA.Org runs a media trip, we expect the participants to produce. Even if their print source goes under, they can publish online.

    On our trips, the host determines how many clips they want and has final approval of who attends. If someone is questionable to the host, we will do our best to help secure their application. However, if they don’t produce, we won’t go out of our way a second time. Our conference is different. Any member can attend.

    It’s too bad that shows like this exist. If it makes the cut, it will mean travel writers will have to work harder to overcome the portrayal. However, that is true for any industry.

    Write well, come through with stories, send clips to hosts and keep improving. That is what makes it all work.

    Maralyn D. Hill, President
    International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association

  10. Amanda says:

    I always approach most travel shows with a sense of trepidation. They never seem to truly convey what travel shows are about. To be honest i’d never heard of press trips until this, although it now makes sense as to why so many of these shows seem so sterile. They only want to show you what they think will show the country in a favourable light, although i’d be interested to see a press trip through a country like North Korea or Afghanistan just for comic value. It does invoke a sense of pity for the journalists as they a shepherded around a myriad hotels, restaurants and “points of interest”. It’s essentially a school field trip trip on steroids – The schedules are packed, the accommodations not always what we would select for ourselves and sometimes the other kids (journalists) annoy you. But, at the end of the day, it’s a job and all jobs have pros and cons. I guess its an interesting insight into the world of a travel writer but i guess it cements my indifference to these shows,

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