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Interview with Lee Marshall: The Travel Writing Paradox

Photo: Pietro Viti

Lee Marshall, travel writer and film critic, brought international experts together for the panel “Travel Writing in the Age of Trip Advisor,” to discuss the changing craft of travel writing.

“People who do this job do it because they are passionate. They want to travel and they want to tell their story,” Marshall said.

Marshall moved from the United Kingdom to Italy in 1984, where writes about Italian people, culture and places. His work has been published by Conde Nast Traveller UK, The Daily Telegraph, where he is considered an Italy expert, and the Italian weekly Internazionale.

What is your goal when writing a travel piece?

I have a kind of reader in mind, who’s a kind of cultured friend, of either sex – I don’t particularly know if it’s a man or woman and I don’t particularly know where they’re from – but a cultured friend who is curious, interested in quality and wants to get away from the tourist pack. I always start with that in mind. I’m always writing for that person. Obviously it depends who you’re writing for as well. But 90 percent of what I write is with that imaginary reader in mind.

What does it mean for the industry that sites such as Trip Advisor are growing, but Frommer’s is back in print?

There is a shift happening which, at the moment, is difficult to read. It’s difficult to give an answer about whether it’s good or bad. I think we have to wait and see.

There’s a paradox that people want trusted information, which often comes from professional travel writers, professional film critics. Yet, the fact that they’re not prepared to pay for it, and want to go to aggregated sites, means that those professional film critics or professional travel writers are being paid less or being laid off. So there’s this great paradox that hasn’t been resolved yet. How do we guarantee the independence of those people that we trust?’ We guarantee it by paying them properly for the job that they do. But in this current transitional phase, we can’t afford to pay them properly. Nobody has worked it out yet, how to monetize it.

How has the rise of Trip Advisor and other review aggregated sites changed the way you’ve worked personally?

Today, there’s a lot of travel information out there for free. This means that  travel magazines, or travel sections of newspapers like the New York Times or Daily Telegraph, are simply not selling as much as they used to.

One consequence for me is that publications I work for, such as The Conde Nast Traveller UK, can no longer can afford to completely cover my expenses when I go to a place. In theory, this means that my writing may be less objective. I don’t actually agree with that. But from the point of view from the reader, this is a concern. The editorial office is also smaller and they are commissioning less. It’s a contracting market. I’ve been forced to look for new avenues.

It has also also changed my approach to travel writing. The kind of articles that I propose and the kind of articles I’m asked to write. I try and avoid writing the same kinds of articles you can find on the internet. I look for different angles, more specialized information. For example, I did a piece for a Toronto newspaper, The Global Mail, on cinema in Rome, which is not information you’d easily find.

By, Gina Mussio

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