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Traveling violations in cyberspace.

Newspaper Web sites should pay more attention to travel coverage.

One of the biggest trends in cyberspace during the past six months has been the rise of Web sites that take advantage of readers' booming interest in travel. But you'd never know it by visiting the sites of almost any online paper.

That's a mistake. The market research firm Jupiter Communications estimates that revenue from online travel transactions is expected to grow from $827 million this year to $8.9 billion in 2002.

At the annual meeting of the Society of American Travel Writers in April, it became clear that, when it comes to newspaper Web sites, the travel section is just an after-thought--if it's given any thought at all.

Most papers don't even put the contents of their travel sections online.

Those that do make it nearly impossible to find. Even at such estimable sites as the San Jose Mercury News and the Seattle Times, users can spend hours on any given Sunday without being able to locate any travel news.

Papers that do run their print content online often resort to shovelware. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, merely pours its 100-inch-plus features onto its site without so much as a nod of recognition that the Internet is a different medium than print.

The vast majority of newspapers run travel stories with no photographs at all, flying in the face of the Web's very raison d'etre.

These are mortal sins in cyberspace.

At the travel writers' conference, I gave a presentation that pointed up all of these shortcomings. After my talk, a dozen editors shared with me their frustration at how their sections are given short shrift by their publications' new media departments.

"I've made the same pleas that you have," confided the travel editor of a large daily in the West. "The managers of our Web site just don't consider travel a priority."

Strange, given the recent boom in Web travel sites: Travelocity, Epicurious Travel, the Internet Travel Network, CNN Interactive, Mungo Park and Expedia (operated by Microsoft, my employer) are among the major players. Most of them let readers book airline tickets, lodging and car rentals or buy discounted airfares online.

Is the game over then? Hardly. Online papers have a built-in advantage over many of their rivals, even the ones with slick travel sites, like Conde Nast, Travel & Leisure, Fodor's and Frommer. Those magazines and books understandably don't post all of their content online; otherwise, a reader would have no incentive to buy the print product.

But a newspaper travel section has no such limitations. Users aren't about to cancel their subscriptions because they can read their travel sections online.

What, then, can newspapers do to make their online travel sections competitive?

* Simplify. Make it easy for users to find your section and navigate your site. Use a friendly URL, like www. herald.com/travel, rather than a convoluted address only a Webmaster could love. (Remember, not all users come through the front door, or main page, of a Web site.) Always include travel in both the index and search engine of your site. List it seven days a week, not just Sunday.

* Get interactive. Include the travel editor's e-mail address on the site, as the Houston Chronicle does. Hold weekly chat sessions with a local travel authority. Sponsor a travel forum, where readers can offer their own travel experiences and interact with other readers.

* Be timely. The new breed of online travel sites doesn't play by the once-a-week rules of Old Media. Put up travel news as it comes in during the week.

* Be timeless. Use each week's travel stories as an asset that remains on your site for years. Create online archives, as the Washington Post does. Travel stories have a far longer shelf life than hard news.

* Make the most of your site. Take advantage of the Web's bottomless news hole. Resurrect those sidebars you didn't have room to run in your print edition and put them online.

* Use multimedia. Give readers sound clips, QuickTime video and a foreign currency converter (available online). Next time a staff writer goes on a trip abroad, have him or her bring a camera or camcorder as well as a tape recorder and tape a native drum ceremony or an interview with a local.

* Build a network of trust. Serve your readers by enabling them to book a flight or make reservations. At the very least, link to resources on the Web--as the Miami Herald does--that help readers map out a trip, learn phrases in a foreign language or understand a destination's culture, customs, cuisine, history and entertainment.

* Lose the ink on-dead trees mindset. You're not a newspaper on the Web. You're an online publication. There is a difference.

J.D. Lasica is the copy desk chief for San Francisco Sidewalk, Microsoft' s online city guide. For 20 years prior to that, he was a reporter and editor for three daily newspapers. (e-mail: jd@ns.net)
COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Maryland
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lasica, J.D.
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Jul 1, 1997
Words:830
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