What Google Wave taught me about travel writing

wave1Well, my invitation to Google Wave showed up this morning (if you’re on Wave, here’s how to reach me). Wave is described as an online tool for real-time communication, but I’ve been following its development since this spring, and for me, it represents more than that.

Wave is something of a metaphor for the changes taking place in journalism, and specifically in travel writing.

I just returned from the Society of American Travel Writers annual conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, late yesterday. I participated in two panel discussions that dealt with the future of travel writing. SATW is the largest and most prestigious organization of travel writers, and for the last year, I’ve been honored to call myself a member of the group.

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I brought up Wave at the end of one of my presentations, and mentioned the the way in which it combined e-mail, instant messaging, collaboration, and other as-yet undetermined functions, could change the way journalism is practiced.

But the truth is that when I logged on to Wave for the first time today, I realized that convergence has already happened. Maybe not in our minds — a majority of travel journalists, whose opinions I respect a great deal, still go to great lengths to point out the differences between, say, travel blogging and travel writing.

I can come up with a dozen important differences too, as a travel journalist.

But turn the equation around — look at this from the consumer’s perspective — and you find that people aren’t as discerning. Surveys suggest the playing field may be evening itself out, with online news sources rising in usage and mainstream media sources slipping. In other words, it’s all the same to the audience.

If that trend holds, then I think it’s also safe to say that another kind of convergence is going on: the one between journalism and public relations.

Audiences don’t seem as concerned about where their news is coming from, as long as it’s meeting their current information needs. It’s a far cry from a decade or two ago, when prestigious news organizations set the news agenda for America, and told us what was important.

One of the most revealing conversations I had about setting the agenda was with an editor for a prestigious newspaper, who told me she detested Google News because it allowed users to cherry-pick the news they thought was important.

“That’s our job,” she sniffed.

If a PR practitioner can write a compelling travel blog, and attract a real audience, then who’s to say it has any less credibility than something a salaried travel writer or blogger produces? (For a good example of a PR professional writing a lively travel blog, see Brian Ek’s Priceline blog, or Southwest’s body of work on its compelling corporate blog).

We as travel journalists care a great deal about the distinction between PR and “real” journalism, between blogging and writing. But where’s the evidence that readers put any less weight on a blog posting by Priceline or Southwest than they do on something I write?

Do travelers care if something was written in a newspaper or online, or appeared on the network news, as opposed to YouTube? I think they care less and less.

And that’s what Google Wave has taught me about travel writing: The differences are less important than ever.

Convergence isn’t the future. It has already happened.

Update: I’ve started a Wave on travel and customer service. If you’re on Wave, please join me.

(Photo: alifaan/Flickr Creative Commons)

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