John Flinn: On Leaving the Chronicle

Travel Interviews: The veteran travel editor talks to Jim Benning about his plans for a gassed up camper van

12.23.08 | 2:46 PM ET

Those who write travel stories and revere newspapers and magazines that publish great writing know of John Flinn, or at least his work. For more than 13 years he has edited the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel pages, giving the city’s famously well-traveled citizens a section worthy of their Sunday morning time, packed with smart, engaging stories. Flinn is something of a rarity in newspaper editing circles: a gifted writer with a great sense of humor and a passion for serious adventure travel to the far corners of the earth. But Dec. 31 will be his last day at the Chronicle. When the newspaper offered buyouts earlier this year, Flinn accepted. I asked him about it this week via email.

Why did you decide to take the buyout?

I’d always planned to retire from the paper when I was 55 to focus on magazine writing and maybe take a crack at a book. I’m still a few years short of 55, but the buyout terms were pretty good, and I doubted I’d be able to get anything as good down the road.

Was it a difficult decision to make?

Sadly, no. Things are just so difficult in the newspaper industry right now.

What will you miss the most about your job?

Having the Hearst Corp. pick up the tab for my compulsive globetrotting is the most obvious thing, but it’s not the biggest thing. Because my section made tons of money for the paper, and was popular with readers, and upper management wasn’t terribly interested in it, I was given a remarkable degree of autonomy. I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted and write about whatever I wanted, in any style I wanted. As an editor I could assign and choose the kinds of stories I wanted to read with no almost interference from my boss. Essentially, I had my own little weekly travel publication to run as I saw fit. I don’t think I fully appreciated this until recently, when I started doing a little freelancing on the side and realized that for the first time in a very long time I had to please an editor other than myself.

Are there any sections you put out, or stories you wrote or edited, that stand out in your mind when you look back on your time there?

I can think of two. One was about a trip to the Kii Mountains of Japan with my friend Jim Sano, who runs the high-end adventure-travel outfitter, Geographic Expeditions. We had intended to follow some of the ancient pilgrimage routes and stay at the little pilgrim inns along the way, but we just couldn’t figure it out. I was desperate to come home with a story, and as a Hail Mary I latched onto the yamabushi, a group of semi-mystical Shugendo monks sometimes (inaccurately) called “mountain ninjas.” Jim and I ended up doing some of their “tests of purity,” which included climbing vertical rock faces unroped and dangling upside down off the edge of a 200-foot-high cliff. Considering I had to pull it all together on the fly, I was really happy with the way it turned out.

The other was something I wrote on a very tight deadline while I was stuck in England trying to get home after 9/11. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion showered on me by the British people, both on a personal and national level, and wanted to write an essay about it. Rallying around a friend in need is one of the best aspects of the British national character. Writing about emotional topics isn’t my strong suit—flip and snarky is my usual style—but I really felt I nailed it. Probably because I didn’t have time to overthink it—I just had bang it out in one take and send it off.

Where do you envision newspaper travel sections heading in the coming years?

There’s a sea change going on right now. All over the country, the newspaper travel editors of my generation—people who’ve been on the job 10, 15, 20 years—are leaving:  Tom Swick, of course, in Fort Lauderdale, but also Randy Curwen and Carolyn McGuire in Chicago, David Molyneaux in Cleveland, Harry Shattuck in Houston, Janet Fullwood in Sacramento, Allen Holder in Kansas City, Terry Tazioli in Seattle, Bob Jenkins in St. Petersburg, Amanda Miller in Atlanta and Howie Shapiro in Philadelphia (who’s shifting to theater critic), and I know there are several more I’m missing. If you go back a year or two, the list includes Catherine Watson in Minneapolis, Larry Bleiberg in Dallas (who’s now at Coastal Living magazine), Sue Hobart in Portland and Alison DaRosa in San Diego. Again, I know I’m forgetting a few. These are some of the most brilliantly creative editors I’ve known in newspapers, and some of the finest writers.

Unfortunately, these editors, who lived, breathed and bled travel, are often being replaced by utility infielders—generic editors who could just as easily be running the food or book sections, and in some cases are. That’s not necessarily the case at the Chronicle or some other papers, but I’m seeing it happen a lot.

In a few years, do you think newspaper travel sections will look like they do today?

I don’t think so. I think the longer narratives that were the foundation of most newspaper travel sections are starting to fade away. Papers want more “top ten beaches”-style content, and lots of “charticles.” That’s not always a bad thing—there’s a lot of information that can be better conveyed in a list or a graphic than in a narrative. But I think there’s a growing assumption that readers don’t have the attention spans to wade through an 1,800-word travel narrative, no matter how well it’s written.

What’s next for you?

A bit of freelancing, a bit of teaching, maybe a book. All my life I’ve fantasized about taking off on long road trips around the West in a VW Westfalia pop-top camper van. A couple of weeks ago I went out and bought one, and it’s gassed up and ready to go right now. So if you are in a national park this summer and see a relaxed, happy former travel editor in a camper van, come over and say hi.

Will do. Thanks, John.

12 Comments for John Flinn: On Leaving the Chronicle

michael McCrystal 12.23.08 | 10:41 PM ET

What will we do without John’s perennially-humiliatingly-enlightening GeoQuiz?

Nathan Kam 12.24.08 | 2:05 PM ET

Hawaii has been fortunate to have such great support from John over the years. Everyone here in the tourism industry will surely miss him. All the best John as you continue your great writing in other arenas. Aloha!

David Molyneaux 12.25.08 | 8:09 AM ET

John Flinn is one of the most talented travel editors and writers in America’s newspapers. The march of talent toward the exit continues.

Millie Ball 12.25.08 | 5:23 PM ET

As one of the two or three who still are hanging on - however tenuously - to a travel editing/writing job, I want to say what a loss it is for John to leave the field and to join the list of other talented editors he mentioned. It was a small, intense group to begin with; we met annually over a spring weekend, and grew close over the years.

As David Molyneaux wrote, John is one of the best writers of travel working today, and as great a person as he is a writer, with wit and enthusiasm and a touch that occasionally left me in tears (the column about his dog). Anyway, I didn’t know about this and feel sad, but wish John the best in his second career.

Nancy D. Brown 12.26.08 | 1:45 PM ET

I met John a couple of years ago at the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference.  Not only is he a great writer, he’s a wonderful teacher.  I could listen to John and his fellow panelists share travel stories all day long.

As a journalism graduate and freelance travel writer, I’m sad to see what’s happening in the newspaper industry and at my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle.

Best wishes to John on his second career.  Happy Travels.

Alison Brick 12.26.08 | 4:21 PM ET

What a shame. Really sorry to see the loss of yet another talented travel editor, but especially at my local paper. Best wishes, John.

Tim Patterson 12.27.08 | 12:41 AM ET

John Flinn was the first editor to take a chance on one of my features.  I’ll always be grateful and wish him the best.

John M. Edwards 12.28.08 | 6:53 PM ET

Hi Jim:

I think John Flinn is doing the right thing—bailng out of the newspaper editing world,  so he can drive around in a campervan and write and stuff. Maybe sleep late. Build up his pecs.

Similarly, I gave up a good job as an editor at Simon & Schuster Inc. in order to tool around Europe for, as it turned out, over two years! No regrets.

Eventually we stop traveling to collect places in order to write about them.

John M. Edwards

Jacqueline Harmon Butler 12.29.08 | 1:58 PM ET

I’m a member of Wild Writing Women and we have always claimed John as our hero because of his loving gift to his wife of one of his kidneys.  When we have a new man in our lives we always ask the question “would he give up one of his kidneys for me?”

Happy trails, John, until we meet again.

Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Ben B. 01.02.09 | 6:32 PM ET

John only ran one of my stories, but was excellent to work with.

Man, EVERYONE I have written for has taken the buyout.  Don’t forget John Deiner and K.C. Summers at the Washington Post, both great editors to work with, and neither at the Post anymore.

Mark Hodson 01.05.09 | 6:01 AM ET

Where America leads, the rest of the world follows.

Here in the UK, where our newspaper industry has been extremely strong (a long tradition of newspaper buying and a well-established stable of national titles, rather than local papers, as in the US), we are seeing the same pattern, with budgets being slashed and good people drifting away. It’s hard to know where it will end.

After some 18 years of freelance travel writing for nationals, I’m still hanging in there, but I’m also leveraging my writing skills and destination knowledge in new ways, such as:

Kevin Evans 02.12.09 | 12:00 PM ET

I also dismay at the creeping death of the well-edited travel section, but it’s not unique to travel rather a symptom of a more fundamental change in our media consumption (in my opinion). Blogs, RSS readers, Twitter, Youtube, newspaper websites, the BBC….we have more media at our fingertips than ever before, yet no more time to take it all in.

Add to the mix an economic downturn, newspapers struggling to find new business models and media bosses like John’s who were focussed on other parts of the business and you can see that travel writing would be one of the first to get the chop.

At we try to strike a balance - we publish Top 10s and other roundups for those people who like that style (or don’t have time to read longer pieces…) as well as longer, inspirational pieces. I think we’ve been reasonably successful at it, but we must remain mindful that our readers do fall into one or the other camps…this obviously impacts how the content is interlinked, site navigation, etc.

Best of luck John in your next endeavours.

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