“Traveler to journalist: how audience participation could become the new travel
Bryan Pirolli - Université Paris 3 Sorbonne Nouvelle
Proposition pour les SMC Research Awards - Décembre 2013
Tourism is continually shifting online, with physical travel agencies closing rapidly and
online operators increasingly organizing the major elements for consumers1. As such, the
process of deciding where to book is now largely informed by online sources, both
journalistic and otherwise. Traditional media are publishing content on the web, but
online content, like comments on booking sites and independent blogs, are also
supplying consumers with information used to plan trips. We can observe how travel
journalism and the discourse surrounding a location, once managed by institutional
media and tourism offices, are dictated more by audiences than by professionals.
While many journalism studies focus largely on general news, little attention is paid to
online journalism specific to niche media like travel (Bruns, 2011; Domingo, Singer, et al.,
2011; Rebillard, 2006). We argue that the travel industry deserves special focus when it
comes to agenda setting and information distribution. In 2012, the World Travel and
Tourism Council reported for the first time, one billion global travelers2. The spending
power of these travelers justifies close examination into how the information flows from
vendors to clients, and who influences our decisions.
Furthermore, travel journalism is complicated by an overlap between journaling and
journalism, between the author looking into a mirror and out a window (Greenman,
2012). Self-publication online is blurring the difference between the two. User-generated
content (UGC) like TripAdvisor and blogs could become agenda-setting players for the
tourism industry, while questions of ethics and transparency remain an issue for
professional journalists. Through a study of blogs in Paris and the public who reads them,
we can begin to observe how travelers are using various sources of information, both
journalistic and non-professional.
To understand how UGC is challenging established journalistic norms, we look at the
traditional top-down approach of institutional media. Historically corporate media have
controlled much of the information that has trickled down to consumers, be it via
newsprint, radio, TV, or web. Over the last two centuries, editors and journalists – the
professionals – have presented content to the public, acting as the gatekeepers of
information, a termed coined in 1940 (Lewin,1940). They were the professionals who
decided which content fit into the limited pages of newspapers and precious TV
airtime. Over the past few decades, however, this role of the professional journalist has
been challenged by the popularity of the web, where both journalists and non-
journalists can publish alongside each other.
Participatory journalism has managed to reach into niches too nuanced for institutional
media to penetrate (Gillmor, 2006). With major newspapers reducing staff, the potential
value of participatory journalism is increasingly clear (Gant, 2007). However, many
institutional news sites have not yet embraced contributions made by the public, as
demonstrated by Singer et al who identified a lack of participation in the creation of
online content across several national newspapers (2011). The public, instead, is more
often implicated in what the researchers call the “interpretation phase,” leaving
comments and sharing content.
Fortunately for the public, other sites have opened up access to their contributions.
Websites like TripAdvisor have become leaders in the travel industry, in the tradition of
the Zagat guides begun in 1979, based on user reviews. Other sites like Blogger and
WordPress offer free platforms for self-publication, leading to the now-pervasive
practice of blogging (Gant, 2007). The gate-keeping role of journalists, according to
some, is changing while navigating a sea of publications produced with varying levels
of professionalization. Jane Singer calls the journalist an authenticator, helping readers
identify trustworthy information (Singer, 2008).
Modifying the terminology, Axel Bruns suggests rethinking the gatekeeper role as a
“gatewatcher” role, curating and parsing through the flux of information that can no
longer be controlled. Before the widespread use of the internet, there were relatively
few outlets and much information that needed to be selected for distribution on the
limited pages of newsprint and timeslots on the evening news. Withe endless possibilities
for publishing content, users also have access to the same information that journalists
do, including press releases and public statements. Journalists, he says, “are engaged in
a form of internal gatewatching which tracks the outcomes of this crowdsourced
process of investigation to identify any particularly relevant, interesting, or outrageous
findings to be explored further through more conventional journalistic activities” (Bruns ,
2011, p 122). The process of gatewatching allows the public a greater say in what
headlines end up in institutional media, even if they aren’t producing content.
Various pureplayer sites – media websites exclusively online – and blogging platforms
are giving more of a voice to those who aren’t always connected to the big media
brands, but those brands are still major leaders. While audience-powered sites are
rewriting the rules, speaking alongside and often over the voices of professional
journalists, institutional media still remains some of the most viewed websites, according
to Alexa ratings, a trusted source for page rankings worldwide.3
Travel journalism, however, does not fit the same developmental patterns as hard news.
Dating back centuries to correspondence from travelers abroad and evolving over
time with ship logs, scientific journeys in exotic places, and private journals made public,
travel writing has its own peculiarities (Blanton, 1997; Marcil, 2007). Many of the earlier
formers of writing – think Flaubert’s exploits in Egypt – were not necessarily destined for
publication but were written as more intimate accounts. Over the years, the objectives
of such authors evolved, shifting focus more on information and less on reflection as
technology opened up tourism to larger audiences. As Catherine Bertho-Lavenir writers,
the 19th century bolstered the more objective travel guide with the advent of the
steamboat and railway, changes that would only further with commercial airlines in the
mid-1900s. She writes, “Travel narratives and then tourist guides teach their readers
systematically that which they should admire and how to conduct themselves" (1999, p
41). Guides like the Michelin Guides offered standard information from professional
source as the guide industry developed in the 1900s.
More recently, shifts in travel have changed as the modern tourist is looking for
something beyond the prepackaged tours popular in the first half of the 20th century.
Nearly 40 years after writing The Tourist, Dean MacCannell’s theories on the leisure class
3 While the BBC finds itself at number 52, CNN at 58, and The New York Times at number 107, pure players
and UGC sites are not far behind. General news sites like the Huffington Post rank at number 73 while top
travel related sites like TripAdvisor clock in at 198 with Yelp just ahead at 132.
and their quest for “authentic experiences” still resonates with travelers. Based in part
on Goffman’s stage theory, MacCannell describes how travelers want to go behind the
scenes, examining for example the “work displays” of daily life instead of just
monuments and museums (1976, p 36). A visit to the chic but industrial chocolate shop
by famed French chef Alain Ducasse in Paris, for example, puts visitors into such a work
display, surrounded by machines and kitchen equipment formerly hidden from view.
Such experiences attempt to create an authentic experience, but MacCannell
downplays their reality, calling it instead “staged authenticity,” evoking the impossibility
of truly living like a local. He writes: “It is always possible that what is taken to be entry
into a back region is really entry into a front region that has been totally set up in
advance for touristic visitation” (1976, p 101).
Despite the perceived impossibility, much of this quest is embodied in the lexicological
distinction between tourist and traveler. The battle to be a traveler and not a tourist
exists, even in French, according to Bertho-Lavenir (p 405). For Jean-Didier Urbain,
travelers walk among the natives, while tourists merely walk in the travelers’ footsteps,
reiterating a rejection of all that is touristic or touristy (1991, p 103). Travelers, in the
popular vernacular sense of the word, inform themselves differently than cookie-cutter
tourists – though regardless of the exact interpretation, this general notion is a guiding
principle in our research. We hypothesized that tourists would favor online content, and
in particular blogs for their access to these more “authentic” experiences, however
they be defined.
Field of Study and Method
With such predominance of web use, we are examining how this audience informs
themselves while executing a trip. We are interested in knowing what sources of
information travelers in a digital era use when planning their trips and if certain outlets –
specifically blogs – offer increased access to “authentic experience.” Additionally,
among these sources, do non-professional authors resemble their professional
counterparts at all? What journalistic standards can be observed in non-professional
Our questionnaire and interviews reveal that English-speaking travelers to Paris still
adhere to traditional sources, such as guides and magazines, but look to blogs for
insight into more “authentic” experiences, a debated notion discussed above
(MacCannell, 1976; Urbain, 1991). The very nature of such UGC hypothetically permits a
timelier, honest, and informed view into a destination, offering the “authentic” or
“local” aspect that a guide book, restricted by editorial constraints, may not. We
therefore explore where the agenda-setting comes from and what influence UGC
sources have, specifically blogs, compared to traditional journalists.
We also simultaneously studied the content that our audience was reading – blogs
about Paris. We developed a content analysis by constructing a checklist of common
journalistic practices used to evaluate a blog sample. Through the analysis, we
observed how these non-professionals might be acting like professional journalists.
Blog and content analysis
With an understanding of the evolving nature of online journalism and the amplification
of user-generated content in travel communication, we looked at both online users’
practices and the content itself. Our preliminary study in 2012 explored the
interpretations of blog readers by employing an online questionnaire followed by
interviews with individuals to understand how the public is using various media while
planning a trip. At the same time, a sample of eleven blogs written by English-speaking
authors in Paris was analyzed to determine the extent to which the bloggers adhered to
certain journalistic practices. The blogs spanned different themes, but all dealt with
foreigners living or traveling in Paris.
The blogs were selected using web cartography methods available online from a
French organization, WebAtlas. An application called a navicrawler, downloaded from
WebAtlas’s homepage, was used to scan the links found on a popular Parisian blog,
TheParisBlog.com. By reviewing the linked sites collected and continuing this process,
we were able to click through thousands of pages to find material available to English-
speakers about Paris. Most sites, like links to social media and vendors, were eliminated
from the sample since they did not contain content to analyze, resulting in about 160
actively maintained blogs. Using this information, we could visualize the blogosphere
using a program called GEPHI which creates a graphic depiction of the sites. Ultimately
we were left with Figure 1, from which we were able to isolate the most highly linked
blogs to choose from our sample (in green) at the center of the blogosphere without
including our starting point (in red) TheParisBlog.com, which simply aggregates blog
posts instead of creating original content.
Figure 1: English-speaking blogosphere in Paris.
Points denote a blog homepage.
We chose eleven such blogs for our content analysis, several of which also appeared
on the Tourism Office of the Ile de France website under a section called “Our Favorite
Blogs.” While not necessarily the most visited or most influential blogs, the cartography
provides a justification for the analysis of these blogs since they are among the most
referenced and the most active in referencing other blogs.
Then, a checklist of journalistic practices was compiled from several authors, allowing us
to investigate some general practices that have developed over the last few centuries,
helping journalists to identify with each other (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2007; Neveu,
2009; Zinser, 2001). Such practices included writing lead or introduction sentences,
depending on official sources, writing in relationship to news events, and avoiding using
the first person in the blog posts. The checklist was a sample of practices considered
standard for journalists and by no means exhaustive. The posts examined were those
appearing in each of the eleven blogs during February 2012, resulting in 95 total posts
Once the survey and interviews were completed, to be discussed in the next
paragraph, we were able to compare the results of the interrogation to the results of
the blog analysis. Essentially we could isolate certain features common to the blogs and
then discern which are important to readers, leading us to several conclusions about
how non-professionals, as opposed to professional journalists, present their content.
The survey and interviews
A main goal of this study was to explore how a specific audience informs itself before a
trip using various sources, focusing largely on blogs. There are several studies on the
consumption of travel information (Gretzel, 2007, Chhabra, 2010. Yagi and Pearce,
2007), but few are in the specific field of travel journalism or travel blogging. Our
questionnaire and more importantly, our interviews, look to enrich existing literature.
To interrogate an online public, we used the online questionnaire platform Survey
Monkey. We proposed four parts in the questionnaire with the possibility of free
responses or graded responses depending on the question. The questions focused on
general travel planning and a discussion of authenticity in travel. The questionnaire was
shared on Twitter and Facebook in early February 2012 with the help of Paris-based
bloggers that we would later study in the analysis.
Ten subjects were then chosen from the responses for face-to-face, in-depth interviews.
Our subjects were mostly North American, females, between 20 and 60 years old, all
living in Paris for varying periods of time. In general, the interview began with a
discussion of the respondent's online habits when preparing for a vacation. The
conversation focused largely the information they value, the blogs they follow, and
each person’s personal interpretation of an “authentic experience.”
The lack of many true temporary Parisian vacationers (as opposed to expats) did not
seemingly skew the results, as initial questionnaire responses were akin to those by the
dozens of questionnaire respondents who were not expatriates or long-term tourists.
Jean-Didier Urbain suggests, “An expat is just a traveler in an interrupted voyage : a
person living abroad, a traveler outside of his travels” (1991,p 273). For the moment, we
considered all non-French natives in our study, since travel information is not uniquely
printed and consumed abroad as before. The internet has opened local publications
up internationally, with The New York Times travel section as consultable in Paris as in the
Results and Discussion
Online users react
How do users’ comments help define travel experiences and do online contributors
hold more clout than journalists? According to our study, comments and other UGC are
vitally important to travelers who plan online, but they are not the only source. Nor do
they closely resemble journalistic content. In the free response sections of our survey,
when asked about sources of information that they trust, there was an unsurprisingly
large variety of websites, media outlets, and social networks (physical and virtual) cited.
With travel information available in diverse forms, respondents ranked newspapers
travel sections, magazines, guidebooks, travel TV shows, blogs, and online news sites as
more or less equally trustworthy when researching information. They make little
distinction in the dependability of professional and non-professional sources for basic
elements of a trip. Both travel blogs and travel guides were ranked exactly the same,
for example (see figure 2).
After introducing the question of authenticity, however, respondents ranked travel
blogs above other traditional forms of media for their ability to offer information
concerning more “authentic” experiences. We also asked the respondents to define
what they mean by authentic, which yielded results ranging from “local” and “non-
Figure 2 Trustworthy rankings (left) vs. Authenticity rankings (right) [blogs in green]
touristy” to “off beaten path” and “unexpected.” This range of responses further
emphasizes the lack of a unique definition of an authentic experience. Still, respondents
in the questionnaire and in the interviews attest that online blogs, as opposed to
institutional media, are more useful for finding that authentic experience in Paris. When
asked where they look for such experiences, nearly 80% said they take word-of-mouth
advice or suggestions from locals, helping to clarify why bloggers, as “local reporters,”
might be more attractive than corporate media and travel guides.
Bloggers as journalists?
While these bloggers may be more attractive sources for the online public, how
can we qualify the information they are disseminating? When analyzing the content of
the blogs, specifically looking for journalistic practices, it becomes clear that bloggers
do not adhere to most, at least not consistently. While by no means requisite, it is
interesting to observe how these sources do not adhere to similar practices while
audiences are increasingly looking to them for information as they once looked to
On one end, the content produced does not exemplify many standard
practices. For example, official sources are a mainstay of journalism, but only 19% of
blog posts analyzed referenced any human sources, while only 1% cited a report or
study (Neveu, 2009). Additionally, at least in many news sources, journalists avoid using
the first person, yet 73% of the posts were written in the first person narration. Given the
personal nature of blogs, this is unsurprising, though two in particular did write in a more
journalistic, distanced voice. In considering the journalistic principle of objectivity, an
ideal more than a reality, only 30% of the posts inserted facts, 34% had a concrete or
developed idea in their posts (as opposed to musings), and only 33% had any
relationship to news items or current events (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2001).
As far as writing structure is concerned, only about half of the posts featured
anything resembling a lead introductory sentence and only about a quarter gave a
news context via a nutgraf, a short paragraph early in the story that situates the reader.
Nearly all blogs contained different sections for their content, including 88% with links to
online social networks and 95% with space for comments. And nearly all sites contained
links to outside websites, blogs, or pages within the blog itself. Like most media pages,
95% of the blogs also contained advertising.
While people are increasingly looking to these blogs for information, our study
suggests that bloggers are a genre apart from journalism. Few of the bloggers studied
are actually trained professional journalists. By not adhering to certain journalistic
principles, we do not suggest that bloggers offer impertinent information, but this critical
look at certain practices stresses the need for further study of user generated content. If
bloggers are not acting like journalists through their reporting, are they adhering to
principles of transparency and honesty? Are they disclosing everything? Greenman
suggests that disclosure is essential especially for journalists who take subsidized travel
experiences or press trips. “Credibility with the readers is the most important reason,” he
says, to make disclosure a common practice (2012 p 143).
Journalistic sources persist
Are travelers looking for an online consensus while planning or instead for one
trustworthy voice? While the questionnaire demonstrated a plurality of sources, the
interviews shed light on how users rely on these sources. Some use guide books and
news sites as starting points, while others go to blogs. It depends on the traveler. For
example, a majority of TripAdvisor users report using it at the beginning of their planning
to get inspiration as well as in the middle to narrow choices (Gretzel, 2007). Few use the
site during or after trips. This detail helps demonstrate how the site influences buying
choices, playing a larger role before a purchase than after.
While tourists still use both types, sometimes reviews, both journalistic and non-
professional, may have an adverse effect on consumers. One interviewee stated that a
favorite Parisian restaurant became too popular once big-name blogs and the media
covered it, for example. The interviewees overall expressed a disdain towards travel
guides and brand name media for their effect on certain experiences that they once
Additionally, in terms of style and content, interviews revealed an aversion to
“professional” travel information, preferring the personal feel of bloggers. Many aspects
of the blog came up during the interviews, specifically the personal writing style, the
possibility of dialoguing in comments and on social networks, and the amateur-feel of
the blogs which aren’t as saturated with corporate advertising and design like The New
York Times. Again, this population of online travel planners reported depending largely
on word of mouth recommendations, and the intimacy of blogging helps attract
readers to such content. The results from the content analysis demonstrate, for
example, that most blogs employed the first person in posts, a practice that journalists
avoid in many forms of reporting, and interviewees report that they desire such a
personal writing style. Journalists, in attempting to be objective, do not always inject
their voice into stories, though travel writing seems dependent on more of the author in
the writing (Blanton, 1997).
Journalists, however, still have their place in informing travelers. As one respondent said,
“The Louvre is still the Louvre,” continuing to explain that certain experiences in Paris are
not going to change much, but need continual updating. She argues that guides are
still important for perennial information, to keep cornerstones of the tourism circuit fresh
and pertinent. In a way, institutional media works well to curate and maintain
institutional tourism through guidebooks and updates on the iconic experiences and
monuments that one will inevitably visit in Paris. A look at our study reveals that bloggers
don’t often cover topics that are considered “touristy”—Versailles, Notre Dame, the
Louvre. While a more in-depth look at bloggers’ motives could help shed light on this
point, our sample of 95 posts shows little attention paid to such topics.
While institutional media still has a grasp on travel information, even attracting large
amounts of followers on social media networks, these brands are not the sole purveyors
of travel information. Nor do readers want them to be. Our research shows that
travelers seek consumer feedback in addition to professional recommendations, using
both in different ways. While observing user generated content like blog posts and
review comments, our research suggests that such information is more pertinent to the
off-the-beaten-track experiences that travelers are looking for, and not standard
Journalists are still able to provide honest information, adhering to principles of
transparency and disclosure that non-professionals might not. Furthermore, beyond
looking for authentic experiences at a destination, travelers need other standard
information related to transportation, local customs, and news-related stories that
journalists are prepared to supply.
Still, travelers are relying on these comments and blog posts to help them decide where
to book a room and where to eat, two necessary parts of a voyage, in addition to
searching for other experiences. As Gretzel and our own study demonstrated, travelers
are increasingly looking to the multitude of user comments before making spending
decisions, looking less to professional sources and more to the personal and relatable
writers who give their opinions online.
Further study can investigate the practices of content creators, including bloggers and
comment writers in order to understand their methods. Also, how have social networks,
like FourSquare, Twitter, and geosocial networking applications responded to traveler’s
needs? This sort of hyper-local connection is creating an ever widening gap between
the professional and the destination in question, furthering opening up the conversation
over who is a travel journalist.
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