Why the New York Times Killed its Weekly Travel Essay

Travel Blog  •  Michael Yessis  •  04.10.08 | 5:43 PM ET

I lamented the loss of the New York Times’ weekly travel essay in December 2004, and, as with Salon’s late Wanderlust section, I’ve felt a little hole in my travel-essay-loving heart ever since it vanished. I’m not alone. New York Times travel editor, Stuart Emmrich, is answering questions from readers this week, and he fielded one from R. Davidson, who asks, “Your articles on the inside last page were often the most interesting. Why have you dropped them in favor of a huge photo and boring explanation of why someone travels to a particular place?”

Emmrich replies, “I have to admit that you are not alone in your nostalgia for the back page essay.” Dozens of readers, he said, asked that it be reinstated.

Still, Emmrich says he feels he “made the right decision to eliminate it as a weekly feature.” His reasoning:

Because I found many of those essays a bit predictable—discovering romance in Venice; finding solitude in the parks of Paris—largely untethered to the news and often only of real interest to the close friends and family members of the author. More important, I wanted to end the section each week with a visual punch, a photo that immediately captured the reader’s imagination and, yes, evoked many of the reasons for “why we travel.” Under the guidance of our photo editor, Lonnie Schlein, we have published more than 300 striking travel photos—like this one from Egypt and this one from Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon and this one from Iceland—and given them the prominence that they I feel they deserve.

Let the disagreement roll.

First, though, I’ll concede part of his point on the predictability of travel essays. Many travel writing themes, admittedly, are little well worn. Most writers in the Times, however, like many contributors to World Hum, were able to find interesting angles on classic topics, or to come up with fresh stories, or to transcend predictability through the sheer beauty of their prose. We linked to many of those essays back in the early days of our blog.

Which leads to my next point: Not for a second do I believe those essays were of interest only to “close friends and family members of the author.” Emmrich shouldn’t either, considering he received dozens of pleas (representing many who didn’t make their voices heard, no doubt) to revive the essays and is still receiving questions about his decision more than three years later. Not to mention people like me and the readers of World Hum, who looked forward to those stories every week. 

In the end, it’s his prerogative as editor, of course, to end the section with a “visual punch.” But talk about predictable. What mainstream travel publication doesn’t have eye candy everywhere? There’s a lot of great travel photography in the rest of the Times’ travel section every week.

The back-of-the-section essays offered something different, something few other publications offer: beautiful stories about the joys and pitfalls and lessons of travel. I wish Emmrich felt the same way.

5 Comments for Why the New York Times Killed its Weekly Travel Essay

Eva 04.10.08 | 10:51 PM ET

I don’t want to tell the man how to do his job, but… if he thought the essays were “predictable” shouldn’t he have just chosen different essays? I’m sure the New York Times, of all publications, could attract plenty of talented writers with the ability to make the well-worn seem new again.

The essays were gone before I started paying attention to these things, so I can’t share any fond memories. It’s a shame, though.

Ling 04.10.08 | 11:52 PM ET

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the NYT has a habit of taking a good thing and screwing it up. Their op-ed pages were probably the most visited and quoted pages on the net, until they came up with the Times Select firewall.

Julia 04.11.08 | 12:36 AM ET

I’m with you, Mike and Eva. Emmrich’s reasoning rings hollow. I now find myself anticipating the “Lives” and “Modern Love” columns more than the Sunday Travel section.

Julie 04.11.08 | 12:42 PM ET

Totally agree with Eva… the poverty of good writing can’t be attributed to the fact that there aren’t good writers.

The Sunday Travel section has become downright disappointing. The same places get featured over and over again—Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, for instance, has been featured twice in the past year—once in a cover story and once in the 36 hours section. The travel section increasingly reflects luxe travel interests. I’d love to see a total overhaul of the Times travel section.

HS 04.11.08 | 11:56 PM ET

Surely, the real reason for this permaspike is that no one reads essays any longer.  People just want to ogle big photos.  A travel essay has a reflective, even meditative, element, with which most of today’s readers are not in sync.

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