One fine day in November, Allison Busacca took the stage at Cinnamon Lakeside, Colombo.
Allison, the Editor of BBC Travel, was in Sri Lanka for TBCAsia: a combination tour / conference that brought world-class travel bloggers together for the first time in Asia.
Suffice it to say that her speech in itself would have totally been worth the high price of admission. BBC Travel is a sizeable name on the web, publishing a staggering selection of travel stories, usually playing the narrative angle, which makes for some beautiful reading. Using data and insights from BBC Travel, Allison explained how good content works and laid a few ground rules for how it should be managed, some of which I immediately put to work behind the scenes at Readme.
But rather than simply copy what she said there, I decided to capitalize on Cinnamon hospitality, and sat down for a chat with her to ask the biggest question on my mind: how does one get to be the travel editor at BBC?
From paper to page
Allison has quite a record on paper. At the bottom of her resume is a discreet list of awards: the Katey Lehman Journalism Award for long-form nonfiction, the 2007 Travvies award, a Keystone Press Award – years spent on both sides of an editor’s desk, before the big leagues came and swallowed her up.
In person, Allison is bubbly, alert,and quintessentially apple-cheeked; describes herself as a New Yorker at heart, and likes getting out of the city at every opportunity. She likes Humans of New York, Upworthy, and far-off lands. She thinks Times Square is overrated. (And for some bizarre reason, I can’t seem to find a single large photo of here without potentially getting sued by the BBC for copyright violations). Her journey, as she recalls, started with Pennysylvania State University, with a journalism degree. Allison knew what she was getting into: she wanted to be an editor.
First came the Daily Collegian, a university newsletter which, over a decade ago, boasted a circulation of 20,000 copies. From 2003 to 2007 Allison worked as a staff reporter and pahge designer, eventually editing the news and arts section, and ending up as Web editor. The Collegian was run very professionally, and included a daily print, a weekly entertainment magazine and a website. While here, she also wrote for National Geographic and Traveller.
Then, in 2007, she got to work at NBC’s iVillage.com, where she was part of a two-person team that ran the parenting, travel and fashion segments, working with a stable of freelancers.
“I loved writing, but the majority of my time as an editor was spent editing and uploading. I really don’t do a lot of writing: I prefer to be behind the scenes. We had to find things that we could put out there, on the web; so, for example, we worked with a fashion designer to create a digital interactive dressing room. I fully believe that the web is for interactivity: that’s what people come to the web for.”
The next break came sooner than she thought.
“I was at a job fair, and there was the New York times booth. They told us to go introduce ourselves to the job booths – and NO ONE walked over to the NY times booth. It was so bizarre. I went over, introduced myself, told them what I do, and they invited me to sit down for an interview.
“When I walked in for the interview, I had no idea what I was interviewing for. The process was intense: I went under a number of interviews by people across the company. At some point I had to say ‘I’m sorry, the recruiters brought me in, what am I doing here?‘ And my soon-to-be editor said ‘Oh, this is for the travel producer segment, didn’t you know that? You aced it.’
“The job was to get all the content from the paper and get it online – and to make it better. The first month was crazy. The digital work was easy for me: the greater challenge was the multimedia stuff on top of that. Right from the start we were doing audio, video, interactive maps – we could take a story and think ‘how can we make this better?'”
“That’s what I love about the web. There are standards, but not many rules. You can play with things, try out new stuff, and you can really give your readers something you never could.”
The next change came in 2010, when the BBC floated a job posting about a travel section. Allison found it exciting. In a sense, it was very much like a startup within the much larger shell of the BBC: they had two editors, over a 170 freelance writers and an incredibly broad playing field. Years later, it’s in this capacity that I met her. “We don’t have a single market audience, like most of our competition, so we can really tell stories from everywhere.” she points out. “Something on Mongolia is worth just as much as something on Paris.”
The Daily Grind
The average day at BBC Travel is broken into three parts: editing, commissioning – and brainstorming.
Allison writes relatively little. Rather, she spends a lot of time thinking about content and how to spin and amplify a story on the web. Part of the challenge is that the world’s media take a negative spin on almost everything, and as a result travel’s often seen as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. To create value for its readers, BBC Travel shies away from this. Paradoxically, they also stay away from the likes of clickbait top ten lists, which seem to be working wonders for other sites in practically every niche.
“It’s about the audience and what they like,” explained Allison, showing me how they correlated traffic stats and analysis to identify their reader demographics, then to pair that up with different content analysis to see what worked and what didn’t. She plays a statistician’s game here: it’s all about the traffic. “You have to run the numbers. A good article on BBC Travel gets 50,000 unique readers. An inspiring story gets over four times that. We did our content analysis to understand our readers and to understand what kind of voice they wanted to experience.”
“It’s also about being unique. At the end of the day, you need to give people a reason to keep coming to you. You need something nobody else has. Often you have to say no to certain types of content. Things like top ten lists and practical guides don’t work for us: stories about places do, because that’s what makes us different. Saying no actually gives us focus. We figured out what we were and what our readers wanted – types of content, destinations, voice. It’s been such a huge success, so now we’re growing on top of that. Now it’s about furthering that journey for everyone.”
When, on behalf of a legion of absentee bloggers,I asked for advice on content, Allison was adamant in her belief that being flexible is the way to go. “Try new things,” she urged. “It doesn’t hurt to experiment and think outside of what you normally do. Think outside of articles and blog posts. Do you want to have a twitter chat every weekend? A real-time tour on Instagram? A Google Hangout?
“And look outside of your industry as well, because you’ll learn a lot from looking at other media brands, regardless of what they’re doing. A good example is I look at upworthy, which not just does headlines, but has an element of humanity: content that appeals, is shareable. It’s not a 1:1 match, but you see different elements in different media properties. You can pick the elements for your content, too.
“But also: know what else is out there and what the holes in that operation are. If you think you can do better than a competitor, do it, but do it better, because otherwise the audience has no reason to read you.”
A bell tolled not too far away. Lunch was being served; it was time to pack up. When next I saw Allison Busacca, she was onstage at TBCAsia – speaking, as always, about content.