Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics states that copy cannot be created or destroyed—it can only change form. I spent a decade of my youth scribbling equations on a chalkboard in my quest for this immutable cosmic rule, which explains why so many publications print the same story over and over again.
Publications usually don’t get caught, because they put a decent interval between repetitious articles. But this summer, the New York Times Friday “Escapes” travel section completely capitulated to the power of Shafer’s First Law, publishing three articles proclaiming the glories of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula inside of seven weeks.
Now, the Leelanau Peninsula is OK if you like scenery and dig cold water—which I do—but is it worthy of three takeouts bunched so close together?
First came “Michigan’s Wine Country Grows Where the Cherry Is King” (July 13), then “For Mario Batali, It’s Molto Michigan” (Aug. 17), and finally “A Lower Peninsula Spot Draws a Wider Crowd” (Aug. 31). The first piece astonishes Times readers with news that the locals now make wine. In the second, we learn that the TV chef’s vacation home boasts views just as purdy as the Hamptons and is easier to reach from Manhattan. The last one reveals that the Leelanau Peninsula town of Leland is both free of tourists and swarmed by them, that its real estate is both pricey and affordable.
In other words, it’s standard travel section crap that could have been composed by the local chamber of commerce.
One could have predicted that “Escapes” would have run up against Shafer’s First Law sooner or later. There are only so many places to send Times readers for quickie visits and only so many times you can compare the cost of second homes in different states before brainless repetition sets in. Cranberry festivals bleed into apple fests. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally echoes the Pontiac Aztek Rally. And after a while, “Escapes” makes it seem as if every two-bit city and resort town in the United States hosts a film festival.
Nobody can accuse the section of having ignored offbeat destinations since it launched in April 2002. It has even run a piece on the prairie potholes region of North Dakota, where you can get your two-bedroom vacation home in the hunter’s paradise of Wishek, N.D., for just $20,000. But the Leelanau threefer of late summer 2007 indicates that the editors of “Escapes” are so ground down by the section’s limitations that they don’t even notice the repetitions. The old freelance writer’s motto of “Write every piece three times” has been transmogrified by “Escapes” into “Publish every piece three times.”
“Escapes” faces a problem that haunts every genre of service journalism. Because most service journalism is conflict averse, its editors tend to publish articles that float on a mattress of comfort and cheer. Every destination mentioned in a travel section like “Escapes” is worthy of your visit, and if the local wine goes down like fermented raccoon piss, the section is just too damn polite to mention it. Instead, it suggests you plan an outing to the local winery for a tasting. If bad things happen to the writers as they report their “Escapes” pieces, we almost never learn about it from their copy. Show me a narrative that’s free of bruises and psychic contusions, and I’ll show you a slumbering reader.
The Times’ deluxe travel sections—Sunday “Travel” and the glossy travelmagazine—do their best to stimulate readers by sending better writers to more exotic destinations and investing in higher production values for the layouts. But plunges into the deluxe travel treatments only remind “Escapes” readers of what a tepid bath it is.
If “Escapes” exists to serve readers and not advertisers, why does it have none of the “without fear or favor” temperament that infuses the rest of the newspaper? I’m not asking for the section to refashion itself as a muckraking journal, but why can’t it embrace disputation as if it’s a sports section; hire conflict-seeking writers like Joe Sharkey—the Times business section columnist who documents the horrors of our lives as airline passengers; start rating destinations and travel services; or be a poisoned thorn in the side of the travel industry? CondéNast Traveler grew fat by giving resorts, car rental companies, airlines, travel agencies, et al., major grief.
The best way for “Escapes” to demonstrate a change in editorial direction would be for it make Shafer’s First Law work to its benefit. Send a team to the Leelanau Peninsula for one more visit. And then strafe it.
What sort of muck would you have “Escapes” rake if it became an ambitious muckraking journal? Would you read a story titled “Death by Luggage Carousel” or “The Satanic Hitchhiker of the Leelanau Peninsula” or “I Drank New York Wine and Lived”? Send ideas to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)