The Media Today

Q&A: Tariro Mzezewa on what the travel beat says about us

March 22, 2023
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There is an obvious upside to Tariro Mzezewa’s primary beat. As a travel reporter—she worked for the New York Times’ travel desk for almost three years, and now freelances for the Times, The Cut, and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications—her work sends her to lush destinations to uncover all the ways to enjoy oneself. She has whittled down the best pools in Miami for those who don’t like the beach; her recent reporting on Hawai‘i tested out more equitable and sustainable options for vacationing there. At the same time, her work has tasked her with uncovering the mechanisms behind tourism––the workers who most people, on an individual level, see once and never again.

Much of Mzezewa’s work at the Times’ travel desk coincided with the first two years of the pandemic, when the decision to travel carried high stakes. In addition to covering the everchanging updates for traveling and quarantine, Mzezewa reported on the hotel housekeepers and flight attendants whose jobs were in peril. Many of the idiosyncrasies of that period carried over into Mzezewa’s reporting. She wrote about the tension travel put onto personal relationships. She interviewed people who were taking sold-out “nowhere flights”––planes that circled passengers through the air before landing back at the same airport––because they missed the feeling of being in the air.

At a time when labor stories are on the frontburner and UN scientists are issuing a final warning on the climate crisis, travel, Mzezewa says, continues to be a unique lens to understand the world. Recently, I spoke to Mzezewa about how she came to be a travel reporter, and the beat’s many intersections with the environment, labor, and local communities and economies. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: How did you become a travel reporter?

TM: I didn’t plan on being a travel reporter. I wanted to be a reporter, period. I had worked at the Times for a couple of years as an editorial assistant, then an editor, and I’d just been trying to build up a little portfolio of clips and links––the whole thing––when I saw an opening for the travel reporter job [at the Times]. I only saw it because a bunch of people sent it to me. I applied, had an interview and a writing test, and ended up getting the job.

When I saw the job “travel reporter,” I was like, Wow, this seems like the dreamiest job ever. I can’t believe it’s actually open—like, will I just get to go places all the time? Obviously, that’s not quite the job, because it’s a reporting job. At the time, four years ago, it was based in New York, so I went into the office. I did get to travel quite a bit but I wasn’t jetting off all the time.

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At The Times, how did you decide where to go and what to cover?

The way I like to distinguish it from other travel jobs was that it was very much a travel reporting job versus a travel writing job. So the vast majority of the things that I wrote were connected to what was happening in the news at that moment. That often determined what I was doing. During the start of the pandemic, pretty much everything I was writing was about how that was affecting travel.

In terms of bigger features, it was usually a process of talking to my editor about different ideas; it was a really collaborative process of deciding what sort of big theme was interesting and why. For example, I did a feature on Airbnb in Miami early in 2019. My editor noticed that there were so many Airbnb fights happening at the local level––Miami was making short-term rentals illegal, and travelers were finding out by getting kicked out in the middle of their stay. So I went to Miami and talked to everyone involved. I wrote another story about dating and travel in Italy, where Black American women were finding relationships on their travels. Italy’s racism is often a concern among Black travelers. That was another one where I had just observed this thing that was so interesting to me, and talked to my editor about it.

How did the pandemic change your approach to the job?

I think I had a much more serious learning curve at the start, because none of us knew what was really going on. I did more reporting in those first three months than I’d ever done before. I was on the phone with so many different kinds of people constantly, working all over the world and in different parts of the tourism industry, like tour operators, pilots and flight attendants, hotel staff, people working on cruises, travelers. It was a crunch moment where I needed to talk to as many people as I could to try and understand what’s going on in these different areas.

Your travel stories often intersect with many other beats, including labor, business, and climate change. Do you find travel a useful way into looking at other topics?

Definitely. Covering travel taught me a lot about the industry. I really liked the labor stories, where I got to talk to workers, the people who are cleaning your hotel room, and ask, “how are they faring with all of this stuff?” There was a story where I looked into hotels that were reducing daily room cleanings to decrease the risk of spreading COVID, but this was negatively impacting the cleaning staff because now their hours were getting cut even though they still had more work to do. I think more about how tourism affects the people who make it possible and the actual places that to us are destinations but are someone else’s homes. There’s an inherent environmental point of view there as well. What we’re doing to the planet and how we interact with destinations once we’re there was something that was really fascinating to me. I think those stories were really eye-opening for me, and helped me in reporting about everything. It’s made me much more observant and open minded about how people move through the world.

Those dynamics played out in your reporting on Hawai‘i, which you’ve covered at various points. In 2020, you wrote about the connection between Hawaiians organizing against the building of a new telescope development on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and sacred area for many native Hawaiians, and the way it was connected to harmful tourism. Can you talk more about what drew you to covering the state and your approach?

I started reporting on Hawai‘i in 2019. I had seen the numbers for how many people had traveled to Hawai‘i the year before––almost ten million––and it looked like the number for 2019 was just going to be outrageous. That was what piqued my interest. I’d been following the Mauna Kea protests, and I wanted to look into the connection there between protests of the proposed building of a new telescope and tourism. What I ended up learning was the obvious––it was connected by how important the land is to Hawaiians and how people, whether on vacation or not, treat the land. The building of the telescope on Mauna Kea symbolized all of that, in a way. It’s always tricky when you’re not from a place to tell the story. I did a lot of reporting before I went, I read a bunch of articles and books. I was following people on social media who were actually at protests and reached out to a lot of people. So much of the leg work happened before I got there.

In one of your latest pieces, you wrote about less traversed but more sustainable and responsible ways to vacation in Hawai‘i. How do you think about stories like that when travel is so often at odds with sustainability?

I feel like anytime you write about responsible tourism to a place that requires getting on a plane and flying thousands of miles you’re already starting at a different place than if you think about the most responsible thing you could do. Because if you’re thinking about sustainability, we know the most responsible thing you can do is try to leave your home less and more realistically, keep it local. However, I think that people are going to travel no matter what and we know that because we see the numbers for how many people travel every day. The Transportation Security Administration publishes a list that shows the hundreds of thousands of people that travel every single day just within the US alone. As a travel reporter, I try to think about how I could help people do it more thoughtfully. Maybe that’s giving myself too much credit but that was the lens through which I tried to approach that story—understanding that the most responsible thing you can do is just stay home, but if you’re going to go—which you are, because again, let’s look at the numbers of how many people have traveled to Hawai‘i—then here are options for things that you can do once you’re in the place that don’t continue to harm it.

In one of your pieces about Hawai‘i prior to the pandemic, you discussed how the biggest trend in travel is in the search for authenticity. Do you think that’s still the case?

This might sound so condescending—and I don’t mean for it to, because I certainly fall into this category of people as well—but really, people just want to feel like the thing they’re doing is so cool and so different. It’s part of the fun to go on a trip and experience something new that you haven’t seen a thousand photos on Instagram of, and then to come home and describe it and talk about how amazing this experience was. So I think that search for authenticity still exists. It gets harder and harder to find those experiences, but they’re definitely out there. I think how people spend their money is certainly very telling of the state of the world. And so I think travel stories tell us a lot about the people around us, what people’s values are.

Other notable stories:

  • Last year, after James Gordon Meek, a national-security producer at ABC News, was raided by the FBI, a report in Rolling Stone suggested that the raid may have had something to do with Meek’s journalism—but Meek was later charged with possessing images related to child sexual abuse. NPR’s David Folkenflik investigated what happened inside Rolling Stone as its story was being prepared, and found that Tatiana Siegel, the author of the story, had been told by sources of the nature of the case against Meek only for Noah Shachtman, Rolling Stone’s editor, who knows Meek, to edit out the information. Per Folkenflik, the episode enraged Siegel, who since left Rolling Stone.
  • Wendy Lee, of the LA Times, spoke with Jesse Thorn, the founder of the podcast company Maximum Fun, about his decision to turn it into a worker-owned cooperative. Amid personal stress and turbulence in the podcast industry, “Thorn faced a choice: maintain the status quo, which was unsustainable; or sell the company, which didn’t sit right,” Lee reports. Thorn eventually opted for a cooperative model in the hope of “squaring the circle of how do I back off this stuff without selling out my colleagues or my friends that make the shows.” Thorn will now share ownership with fifteen other people.
  • The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reported yesterday that ESPN fired Rob King, the executive vice president in charge of the network’s journalistic direction, after he was accused of harassment in connection with his social-media posts; ESPN is in the midst of executing a round of cuts, though Marchand reported that these were not connected to King’s ouster. After the story was published, King appeared to dispute it, characterizing the decision to leave ESPN as his own. Poynter’s Tom Jones has more.
  • For the Middle West Review, Jon K. Lauck assessed a wave of recent cuts to local newspapers in the Midwest region. “The losses of reporters and the depletion of midwestern newsrooms are truly historic given the one-time centrality of newspapers to midwestern civic life,” Lauck writes. “Local news is vanishing. Much of the content of midwestern newspapers now comes in the form of national wire stories.”
  • And New England Public Media, an NPR and PBS affiliate in Western Massachusetts, became the latest public newsroom to institute cuts this year, announcing that it will lay off around twenty percent of its staff, according to WBUR. In last week’s edition of this newsletter, CJR’s Emily Russell spoke with the academic Victor Pickard about recent cuts at NPR and WNYC, and how public media might better be protected.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.