Travel beat: Q&A with Spud Hilton

Spud Hilton is the Travel Editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Q: Describe travel journalism in your own opinion.
A: Travel journalism covers a broad range of types of articles: narrative destination stories, consumer aid pieces, services pieces, travel essays. Two things they all have in common: a) They’re about somewhere else; b) they require reporting. Travel journalism is reporting about somewhere else.
Q: Describe your current job and how you got there.
A: I am the Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, one of about 10 full-time newspaper travel editors left in the U.S. My primary job is to oversee the writing, editing and production of a separate Travel Section in our Sunday paper, which involves lining up stories and photos from freelance writers, as well as doing a little travel and writing myself, and editing the stories and making several other layers of decisions about story placement and how the section will look. I got into it through a total fluke. I had worked at small newspapers in Oroville, Sacramento, Vacaville and Tracy before being hired by the SF Examiner (back when it was an actual newspaper) as a copy editor. Because I knew Quark Express for page layout particularly well, when the Chronicle and the Ex merged, the travel editor wanted me in his section. Once in the section, I read everything he ever wrote and everything by any writer he likes (Bryson, Cahill, Newby) and then offered to go on an assignment. The strength of my pitch was in the fact I had a solid angle, not just “I’ll write about this place cuz it has neat stuff.” After that he continued to send me out, and when they cut the section from 4 people to 1, I was the last one standing.
Q: Do you focus on any particular topic or angles within travel journalism?
A: I focus on great storytelling, so most of my topics within a story are elements of a place (culture, people, music, food, architecture, etc.) and my angle is the window or context through which the reader looks at those elements and understands why this place is different from anywhere else in the world.
Q: What is the hardest part of your job?
A: Trying to maintain quality,  both of the section and of my own writing, with a limited staff and no one who better understands travel writing to give me feedback.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: Exploring places, especially at night, and finding things that defy people’s expectations of a place.
Q: Any advice for those interested in a career in travel journalism?
A: Marry rich. Seriously. There are very few full-time jobs and freelancing was no party even before 10,000 people woke up one morning and all decided they wanted to be travel bloggers. While there are some very talented writers in the travel blogosphere, the great majority are rehashing their diary on the road (which rarely has a point so it isn’t storytelling). The result has been a great dilution of the travel writing community that makes it difficult to separate out the talented folks from the hobbyists who are just looking for free trips. I guess if I have to have an inspiring answer it would be: Do your homework. Find the publication you want to write for, read every issue from a year or two, read everything the editor has ever written, write like him or her and be willing to work on spec (turning in full completed stories instead of pitches) for a while.


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