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.