In an age of influencers and online reviews, do we really need The New York Times to recommend 52 Places to Go every year?

For the last 13 years, The New York Times travel section has kicked off its year with a Places To Go package, featuring destinations around the world curated to provide the most interesting experiences to travelers. Delving into the list can break your mind; small cities in the U.S. are given the same space as perennial vacation destinations like Las Vegas, the Setouchi Islands, and the Azores.

Last year the newspaper added a new wrinkle to its effort: It would actually send someone to write up stories on all of the 52 locations on the list over the course of the following year. The New York Times then touched off a marketing blitz, asking readers to write in about why they should be selected to travel the world.

This led to submissions from thousands of people, families, and sometimes famous personalities (like leather aficionado and author Buzz Bissinger) whose pleas and videos The New York Times decided to package to advertise the Travel section. They also ran a Q&A with themselves about the success of their marketing stunt.

“The qualifications are quite broad because I wanted to make sure that people who applied were not just travel journalists and not just writers, but people who are really good at visual storytelling,” said then-travel editor Monica Drake last year.

An experienced journalist from New York Magazine, Jada Yuan, was chosen for last year’s edition, though; the rigors of traveling constantly while producing quality writing on deadline is outside the skill set of most people no matter how much they would love the opportunity to travel the world.

It’s not traditional journalistic practice to entice your readers into applying for a job they will never be selected for, and then use their confessionals as marketing fodder. The New York Times Travel section went there for the last two years, though.

The New York Times routinely took to social media to continue to promote the experiment even as Yuan tweeted about the stress and challenges she endured from the endeavor.

 

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Sebastian Modak, this year’s selection, also happens to be an experienced journalist and veteran of the New York City media scene. This didn’t stop the paper from repeating the marketing stunt once again.

Same Old Places

It seems that the proper thing to do would be to send a writer to the destinations before releasing the list; who, then, is actually vetting these destinations for inclusion in the list?

Well, there are extensive criteria listed: The list is essentially crowdsourced from New York Times reporters and those working at its global bureaus, with destinations gaining traction if something notable is planned for 2019 or particular attractions are under the threat of climate change. So, at heart, the 52 Places are just suggestions from a bunch of professional journalists working a variety of beats, not picks from wisened travelers or a diverse set of globetrotters.

There is also the strangeness of encouraging consumers to travel to destinations that are the most at risk of an ecological catastrophe, particularly in an age of overtourism.

Breaking down the destinations selected shows bias toward North America and Europe, with African destinations, in particular, losing out. Gambia and Dakar, Senegal, made the list but no other African destinations made the cut this year. Perhaps leaving African cultural cities out has a silver lining: Cities like Akkra and Lagos burst with culture and not being included will thankfully prevent them from becoming the next Medellin or Tulum.

In 2016, Skift tasked a statistician to examine the destinations that had been chosen for the list over the previous nine years. The list has continuously had the same bias toward the Americas and Europe over the years, which is logical considering the profile of The New York Times’ readership and the background of its writers.

For what it’s worth, marketers and destinations love to make the list, for obvious reasons.

“I imagine any destination would love to be included in the 52 Places in the New York Times,” said Nancy Friedman, partner and founder of agency NJF, part of MMGY Global. “It’s exposure and an endorsement that lasts for an entire year. It both reinforces and introduces destinations to a wide audience of travel enthusiasts.”

Tour operators, too, see an uptick in business based on links included in the list.

“The list is one of the few pieces of coverage that Intrepid sees directly move the needle, both in terms of web traffic and direct sales,” said Darshika Jones, regional director for North America at Intrepid Group. “It’s one of the only news sources where we see users click on a link from an article and immediately book a tour. We’ve seen direct conversion within 24 hours of it publishing from first-time visitors to our site.”

Travel Media Reality

The New York Times itself has financial skin in the game; its Times Journeys site selling small group tours happens to include many options for bookings in the cities it puts on the list, although it doesn’t appear to link to its own co-branded tours in the list.

Luxury and travel sector print advertising has become a smaller piece of The New York Times’ business during a period of declining advertising revenue.

“Total advertising revenues decreased 3.8 percent in 2017 compared with 2016, reflecting a 13.9 percent decrease in print advertising revenues, offset by a 14.2 percent increase in digital advertising revenues,” stated the company’s 2017 annual report. “The decrease in print advertising revenues resulted from a continued decline in display advertising, primarily in the luxury, travel and real estate categories.”

It makes financial sense, then, that the organization would commit itself like it has to drawing attention to its travel coverage in order to attract lucrative print advertising deals from the travel sector.

But what about the hundreds of other travel stories The New York Times publishes each year? Well, the paper has a policy that travel writers who accept hosted or press trips from travel companies can’t write for the Times if they’ve accepted a trip in the last three years.

The reality is that it should be incumbent on a publication’s editorial staff to guide accurate and balanced coverage, and not ban talented and creative writers for other work they’ve done. Accepting a free trip isn’t the same as an influencer accepting money from a hotel brand to post positive things about their stay or a writer getting paid for a gushing essay about a trip placed in a sponsored content package.

Blowback on this policy culminated online late last year with Amy Virshup, editor of the Times travel section, asking writers to narc on their colleagues who have both written for the Times and accepted hosted trips for their other jobs. Plenty of people violate, and will continue to violate, the rules anyway.

 

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The policy and discussion around it display a naivety about both the state of travel writing today and underscores The New York Times’ inability to bring different voices to its travel coverage. Perhaps greater diversity in the Travel section’s writing staff would yield more interesting and varied destinations for the Places to Go list as well.

The deeper irony, perhaps, is that destination travel coverage in The New York Times is almost universally positive, even with its obtuse ethical restrictions that are supposed to yield more candid stories. The restrictions that ensure only a very specific type of person can write for the section, a person who is of course incentivized to write a very particular type of story if they want their byline in the Times again.

The Power of Suggestion

As consumer travel magazines have transitioned to luxury lifestyle magazines, and the rise of review sites like TripAdvisor have helped flatten the travel suggestion landscape, good travel suggestions have become harder to find.

At the same time, many travelers have turned to a form of experience collection as a badge of honor; getting that photo of a waterfall for Instagram or eating at the taqueria with hipster decor in Mexico City have replaced spending some time around another culture and immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the place.

The backlash to this trend is coming, but isn’t quite here yet. Long lists of destinations that meet vague criteria don’t do much to counteract this trend and help travel as a sector move forward.

Say what you will about Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List, for instance, but the magazine at least has a cohesive editorial point of view, even if most rich people don’t need to be told they should go to Paris and stay in a giant room with a canopy bed and pedestal bath.

As travel has become democratized, do travelers really need gatekeepers telling us where to go anymore? Nope.

Photo Credit: In this March 4, 2017, photo, tourists enjoy the popular Maya bay on Phi Phi island, Krabi province. Rajavi Omanee / Associated Press