Travel Writing In a Time Of No Travel. How This New York Times Social Editor Switched Strategy
How did the world’s most influential publisher pivot their social strategy to serve a beloved section and activity - international travel - that doesn’t exist anymore?By Sophie McComas-Williams
When Tacey Rychter moved from Sydney to New York to work as social editor for The New York Times travel desk, she had three hot months in the city before the pandemic hit. So, how does the most influential publisher in the world pivot their social strategy to serve a section and activity, travel, that just… doesn’t exist anymore? I caught up with my pal from Broadsheet days, where we both worked together as editors of our respective city papers, for a Facetime about how she and her team switched tack, then switched tack again.
You started at the New York Times Australia Bureau in 2017 as audience growth editor, when did you move to New York to work as social editor on the Travel desk? And how did you feel at the time, making such a big world and career move?
My husband Will and I moved to New York in December 2019. I'd been at the Times for a couple of years before getting this job in NYC, but this job and move were on another level of surreal. I’d always held the Times up on a pedestal. I remember a conversation with Will when we were living in Fitzroy where I said, “I wish I could write just one piece for the Times in my lifetime.” So I felt really lucky and mostly excited. I wasn’t nervous to go, just really ready for the adventure, I wanted to absorb everything. I was also really ready to not work remotely any more (LOL). The Sydney office was great and so much fun. It wasn’t purely remote, we had an office and a little team, but it felt remote from the greater NYC team. I just wanted to be in it. Considering how things turned out three months after we got there... The irony!
Are there any common notions about the Times that you’ve noticed to be untrue since working there?
It’s not an old timey movie, no one is running around with pieces of paper, a lot of the time it’s pretty quiet. People are plugged into their desks. It’s a big open-plan office but it’s a quiet atmosphere.
It's easy to be intimidated by the Times, so many people there are so incredibly high achieving and so smart. You’re constantly meeting people who have Pulitzers, it’s an overwhelming atmosphere. Everyone is hard working and capable, but they’re still people. Getting over that imposter syndrome is an ongoing process, but you find you can learn these things, you can keep up. People are really helpful, really collegial once you reach out. There’s a real culture of working together, people always say yes and are generous with advice and ideas.
What was the primary objective of your new role, at the start?
My title is social editor, but it’s not the best description of what I do. It’s more of an audience editor role. I help connect the Times travel stories to an audience, to help those stories find a home and make sense for different groups of readers using all the tools available to do that. One of those tools is social media and all the channels we have - be that our travel Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, what we call the “main” account channels too (@nytimes, for example). There are other ways to bring the stories to more people, SEO for instance, or using the homepage, and we need to make sure we’re writing the stories people are searching for in the first place.
I’m kind of an advocate for the desk, and work at building relationships around the newsroom, tapping people in a way that’s friendly... yet persistent... as well. I pitch stories for the homepage, follow up, and try to solve other people’s problems. The weekend editor for instance, I help serve them stories for their weekend line-up, or I spend time with the main social editors and make sure they’re supporting our travel stories. Then I find other ways to promote articles, like sending targeted alerts to phones. A lot of my role is getting readers to the story, and making sure they are the right readers for that piece. With travel we write a lot about destinations, so if we write about Hawaii, we want to make sure people who’re interested in Hawaii or live there will see it, that they’ll share it. It’s not a shotgun approach, we really work towards cultivating ongoing engagement.
What kind of content most engaged your audience pre-pandemic?
Some of the things you’d suspect do well were big performers - travel guides to well-loved destinations such as Paris and Europe - but also interesting stories that were a bit uncomfortable and stirred up conversation - one was this piece on women traveling solo, which got a lot of readership and discussion in March of 2019 about women who had experienced some really brutal experiences while traveling alone, and confronting the realities of that. There was also another story called If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay at Home? It really struck a nerve and created conversation.
What performs well now?
When COVID happened everything went out the window, all our columns like 36 Hours and all our traditional travel coverage just... went away. We leaned really heavily into what we call “service journalism” - news you can use. What people really needed to read were things like - How do I do anything? What is safe? How do I not catch COVID on a plane? How do I get a refund on tickets? We ran so many of these pieces that were essential to get through the time and understand what was going on, and they did really well for us. The demand for that was huge.
We paid a lot of attention to search trends. Google Trends is a free tool I use a lot to look at what people are searching for on different topics. You can dive into what’s rising in search over a specific period, to see what questions people were asking at different times, and making sure we were there answering them. We just kept doing it. We pivoted to thinking less towards social than before and more towards taking advantage of search because it was so powerful. Social can change so quickly, you invest all this time and strategy into something like Facebook or Twitter Live, and it can change overnight, so we found search to be a more reliable and powerful tool during this time.
What else changed for you and your role?
The objective didn’t change, but a bunch of other things did. We really had to work within some pretty crazy limitations, one being that for months we just weren’t sending anyone anywhere. We were using reporters who were reporting from home. We weren’t sending photographers anywhere, so there was no new imagery, so it was challenging to create stories that were visually engaging and still felt immersive. When I started, my main focus was building our Instagram channel, and suddenly the tap turned off with new imagery, so it was challenging to keep it fresh and interesting and not be tone deaf. I got burned a few times by not being sensitive enough, it was a really delicate line to walk to run a travel account but not ever be seen as encouraging people to travel. I had a couple of posts that were interpreted as too positive towards the idea of travelling. You can’t really argue with that. It was all about finding that tone.
What specific strategies did you adopt to keep the audience engaged about travel?
We experimented with different forms of content, such as text posts, some of which did super well. If you think about what Instagram is for, sometimes the purpose is driving traffic to the site, and sometimes that works well, but sometimes presenting posts that contain all the info within it achieves its goal perfectly well. We started running guessing games every Saturday, engaging the audience by getting them involved, using our archive imagery. There was this one week where we just had no new photos coming in, and I just cleared three days to dig through the archive and save hundreds of images I can use for Instagram, and now I just roll them out every week and it’s really fun.
We started leaning into reader-generated content and ran a couple of big projects that centered on it. When the pandemic hit and we had to pull our longstanding columns, one was 36 Hours - guides to a certain destination. We were just going to quietly pull it, and I thought that was kind of sad, but we ran one last hurrah called 36 Hours In... Wherever You Are. It was really cool, we did this big call out for activities that encompass the spirit of travel, we wanted ideas and photos, and we got around 1400 submissions. I read through all of them. We published that and rolled it out on social and it got really good engagement. The photos were not professional or high quality, but people loved it, they liked getting involved and loved seeing the Times open up in this way.
What were the biggest wins or gains of the period?
The standout was really leaning into service journalism, and leaning into search in a big way, that was the big win for travel. But also one thing that did really well on Instagram, for instance, was just a video of penguins running into each other. It wasn’t featured in an actual story, I just thought it was funny. Sometimes it’s the videos that give you a feeling that do the best. Sometimes for social you don’t have to think that hard about it - it’s an instinctive reaction. If you look at something and it makes you laugh, or tear up a little bit, or it inspires you, that’s all you need to know if you’re wondering if it will engage other people. If I'm looking at the posts on Instagram that had the most shares, it’s penguins that made me laugh, or an incredible video of a woman surfing an enormous wave, or a little boy in Nigeria dancing in the rain. If it makes sense for your brand, find things that make you want to tap someone on the shoulder and show them, that’s a good indicator that you have something impactful.
What was your favourite story published during the pandemic?
We started a weekly photo essay series that took you to different parts of the world, into different cultures, and we ran this one from this island of sheep in Maine, and it was just my favourite story of the whole year. There is this one photo of a lamb in a bucket that I want to print and put on the wall. I don’t know why, it’s just so cute! I love the idea that somewhere in the world where no one lives, there are just lambs running an island like a little lamb society.
Personally, how did your day-to-day life change during this time?
It was really challenging in a lot of ways, we moved into a new house with new housemates in April 2020 - new people we’d never spent time with before - and went from 0 to 100 with them. We were really lucky that they were amazing and it was a good experience, but we lost autonomy, we missed out on what was meant to be a certain time in our lives, but ultimately we were lucky and had a good year. I kept my job, we had great housemates and had incredible neighbours. We’d find any reason to have a dinner party with the bubble household next door and that was fun, finding a community while we couldn’t really do anything in actual New York.
As travel opens up a lot more now in the USA, have any changes you made to your strategy been permanent? Or is it back to business as usual now?
It’s really not back to biz as usual at all. We’re still very cautious, we’re still not really running traditional travel stories. We’re creeping into domestic travel guides, but not for international travel at all. We’re starting to run some more immersive features where we send a reporter and a photographer to Greece or Portugal to produce a story not about what you can do there, but what things are like there. People are really interested in what it feels like in Greece or Portugal. Being here or in Australia, you have this idea of what your world feels like, but we’re feeling disconnected from each other's experiences right now. Those pieces have done really well.
Any silver linings to this whole experience?
I think for the travel desk, it’s been a good shakeup. I think it really disrupted some structures that have existed for a long time, and really propelled the team to really commit to focus on digital. One really sad thing that happened is that last year we folded our Sunday travel section in the weekend paper. That got pulled in April or May last year. But all that time and resources for print got flipped and we committed to thinking digital first, which makes so much sense and it is so rewarding.
Any words of advice to social editors and managers during this ever-changing time?
Think holistically. My title is social editor, but it’s not the principal objective to post on social, it’s to connect an audience. It’s about constantly assessing if your channels are serving you in the best way. If Facebook isn’t serving you like it was before, it’s ok to spend time on another platform, or look into search or into email. Maybe newsletters make more sense. Don’t get stuck on one specific channel if it’s not helping you.
AB testing is fun too, test different sub-headings and pay attention to patterns of what’s working better. Is it writing that’s more personal? Short and sharp? In the past I’ve found that personal pronouns like “we, I or my” in subject lines drove a higher open rate in newsletters, for instance.
Have you started to travel again? What’s it been like? Where to next?
We just flew to Seattle in June and drove to LA over three weeks which was awesome. Things are starting to feel mostly pretty normal here. People are still wearing masks but a little less so, the only main difference was we were staying in a lot of motels and the breakfast buffets were closed, you’d get a grab-and-go instead, but things were open and normal, and even more so in July.
International travel isn’t on the cards for me yet, there are a lot of places we can go now, but it’s a messy time to travel. Things are opening up here in the States though, and I hope it stays that way.
Buffet can help connect your brand to its perfect audience. Contact us to see how we can assist you and your brand with social, editorial, EDM or creative strategy.
Sign up to our newsletter for more food, and non-food related things.
For more Back of House, click here.