Larry Bleiberg has been travel editor of The Dallas Morning News since 1999. His travel section has won numerous honors, including being named best in North America in the 2002 Lowell Thomas Awards. The previous year, he won honorable mention as Travel Journalist of the Year in the Lowell Thomas competition. He also was a member of the Louisville Courier-Journal team that won the Pulitzer Prize for general news in 1989. Prior to Dallas, he worked as a copyeditor for the Vancouver Sun; editor and writer for the Canadian Press Wire Service and reporter for the Courier-Journal and Times. He received a degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
How did you get started traveling?
I didn’t travel much as a kid. It was mainly station wagon road trips up I-95 from my parent’s home in Virginia to my cousins’ home in New Jersey. I didn’t even take a flight until I was 17. But because I traveled little, I was drawn to areas far away. My travel breakthrough was a college hitch-hiking trip around Wales with a cousin — one of those cousins I had ventured up I-95 to see for all those years.
A year or two later, I was interning for a newspaper in Idaho and had nothing to do one evening. I found a small map of the United States and started highlighting the states I had visited. The total was about 30 and I vowed I would make it to 50. I finally did a few years ago. North Dakota is usually the toughest, but Hawaii was my holdout. There was no reason for me to go there for work. I can always find Hawaii stories from other folks. But I had a meeting there and finally made 50. I wrote a column about this accomplishment, extremely proud of myself. Then I learned about folks that make it a goal to visit every county and parish in the United States. I obviously am not as well traveled as I’d like to believe.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing for an audience since fourth grade. I remember reading a classroom assignment out loud and getting laughs at all the right spots. It was my first byline, the first time I saw the reward of writing for others.
My journalism path was fairly typical. High school paper, part-time job at local paper, J school and a temporary job at a daily, then a staff writing position. I had been focused on hard news, but always loved features. I see now that I was gravitating to travel writing even then. I was covering central Kentucky for a statewide paper but treated my territory as a travel writer would. Sure, I had to cover trials and meetings, but I sought out stories about old one-lane bridges, strange stores and rare spiders. I’ve stuck to that feature approach to travel writing ever since.
Then I moved to Vancouver, Canada for a year, which was instructive in so many ways. I worked for a wire service and got to cover an entirely different system of government. I also saw that a place that looks so seductive to visitors is much different when you live there. I got laid off, endured complaints about a U.S. citizen taking Canadian jobs and saw that Canada wasn’t perfect. It had flaws, just different ones from the United States. Pico Iyer writes beautifully about this type of thing, but it was odd to go through culture shock so close to home. I would have expected it in Vietnam. It caught me by surprise in Vancouver. Anyway, after a year, I followed my wife to Dallas, where she had found a job. I got a part-time position in the suburbs writing about education for the paper. A year or two later I started freelancing for the travel section.
Then I got really lucky. An opening appeared on the tiny travel staff, and I was selected. When the editor job opened, I was reluctant to take a step away from writing, but it has been a great experience. As any editor will tell you, being responsible for other people’s copy and a section is eye-opening. It’s much different from just having to worry about your own articles. And it makes you a better writer.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer? As an editor?
My first break came when I was 16 and hired by a small local newspaper to track down high school football scores on Friday nights. I mainly took calls from harried coaches and parents. It put me in a small, grimy, fluorescent-lit basement newsroom on a weekend night when I could have been out partying. It was fabulous. I was working with real journalists — and getting paid for it. (About $25 a night). It was small-time, but what a thrill.
About 15 years later, my first travel piece was about the Passenger Pigeon Memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo. It’s exactly the kind of travel story I still love. It’s unexpected. It’s not necessarily in an exotic place, and it tells an amazing story: Birds that once filled the skies by the billions were extinguished in a matter of years by humans. Now the extinct species is remembered in an obscure shrine in a respected but little-known zoo, in a pretty but often-overlooked city.
There was no “A ha!” moment as an editor. It’s a gradual process, but it’s rewarding to develop your own style. For better or worse, the section usually reflects my interests and take on things and places.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
It’s to be sure I’m getting the whole story. And the right story. Both, of course, are impossible to know. But I feel I should be working every second I’m on the road. So I’m out for long hours, sometimes shooting pictures at sunrise and working into the evening. And at times I’m not even sure what I’m chasing. Then I collapse in a hotel and get up and do it again. When I come home exhausted, it means I’ve been doing my job.
It’s also challenging to keep connected with my family. My son and wife usually can’t travel with me. You can call and e-mail, but it’s hard to keep on top of responsibilities at home and on the job at the same time.
What is your biggest challenge in the writing process?
It’s finding the focus or angle. Once I have that, everything falls into line pretty quickly. Usually.
What is the biggest challenge as an editor?
Finding stories that work for me and my publication. Often the people that pitch the best aren’t necessarily the best writers. Usually the tentative, quiet submissions offered without any fanfare end up working out best. But the sad truth is you have to be good at both skills: selling and producing.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
I’m a journalist, and most of my jobs have had something to do with writing. The toughest gig was working as a “casual” copy editor for a paper in Vancouver. That meant I worked whenever there was an open shift. The hours were from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and I never knew if I’d be working until I got a call in the evening. I was in a permanent haze, not knowing whether to sleep normal hours, or be ready for a night shift.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
It changes every day, but what they have in common is they make it look easy. Calvin Trillin and Tim Cahill are among the best, even though their style and subjects are so varied. Bill Bryson’s another annoying one because he’s so phenomenally good. I also like Eric Hansen’s work and Susan Orlean. There are so many good folks though. Just look at the people you’ve interviewed.
As an editor, what do you look for in a travel story?
Something fresh. A tight focus or angle.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Have an angle. Know your market. Research — the reader wants more than your take on a place. Tell them something new. Have a nut graf.
Don’t show off. With most travel publications, the story really isn’t about you. Even if it’s first-person. Arthur Frommer said it best: “Tell the reader about their trip, not your trip.” This doesn’t mean you need to write guidebooks, and that your story can’t have voice. Every trip doesn’t have to be perfect either. But for the most part, your job is to entice other people to travel. Some personal touches are fine, but when it becomes an essay about how you bonded with your son/mom/girlfriend/sister-in-law in Puerto Rico, I lose interest. Quickly.
What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer and editor?
Being able to learn about the world everyday — and sometimes even going out to see it.