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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sydney beyond the cliches and hidden gems - not!

A travel story 'Sydney Beyond the cliches: Hidden Gems' is so not full of 'hidden gems' and is so completely full of cliches that I couldn't resist that little nod to American 80's humor (I just love that scene in the satirical mockumentary Borat where he's mislearning how to be funny). But what else would we expect from The Sydney Morning Herald Travel section which has only itself to blame for destroying the fine reputation it once had by publishing stories that seem to either have been penned by teenagers for school newspapers (read this gushy teen diary-style entry about learning to surf: am I wrong to think that the SMH's readers are mostly over the age of 15?) or poorly written pieces without narratives or angles. Take this one on Sydney, which, for want of a better angle, they lazily pass off as a 'going local'/'insider' take on the city. The amusing thing is that to a Sydneysider (I was born and bred there) none of these things are 'hidden' (but then the writer was a guest of Tourism NSW which leads me to believe she doesn't live in the city), certainly not Campbell Parade North Bondi (every backpacker in the world makes a beeline for Bondi Beach around the corner), definitely not Nielsen Park and Shark Beach, Vaucluse (which even Tourism NSW's site says is a popular family picnic spot; I hazily recall a night skinny dipping there some 16 years or so ago), probably not the 'swanky hotel' she doesn't name, and obviously NOT the Hilton hotel's Zeta Bar. It's the Hilton. That alone should preclude it from being a 'hidden' gem, especially as it's on the front page of the hotel website. The bar looks very stylish - it's designed by Tony Chi after all (which oddly enough she doesn't mention) - but don't call it a hidden gem. What's worse is the 'writer' goes as far as to provide a long list of the many celebrities (which alone can't make it a hidden gem) who have been there from the bar's website:

From the story:
"You never know who you might spot, the bar has played host to lots of celebrities, including Jessica Simpson, James Blunt, Snoop Dogg, Nicole Ritchie, Hugh Jackman, The Veronicas, Perez Hilton, DJ Samantha Ronson and Jimmy Barnes".

From the website:
"Zeta Bar is fast becoming a Sydney icon with visiting international celebs. Jessica Simpson, Kimberley Stewart, James Blunt, Nicky Hilton, Snoop Dogg and Nicole Ritchie have all partied there... And Aussie A-listers Jennifer Hawkins, Hugh Jackman, Ian Thorpe, and Megan Gale often stop by for a beverage..."

Now that's
really lazy. Hang on, let's give her some kudos for some research - it appears she asked the PR people for a couple of extra celeb names to drop. If these 'insider' secrets and the writer's local knowledge and travel savvy haven't impressed you enough already, read these priceless last sentences about the bar's cocktail list: "The extensive menu features everything from the classics, a pina colada in a pineapple topped with cream and a sparkler (p-lease! Was this the first time this writer ever looked at a cocktail list - or had even been to a bar?!), to a cool martini, and the more unusual. If you're really brave, try the bacon-infused cocktail. Tipped to be the next big trend in cocktails, it comes with a rasher on a swizzle stick and a maraschino cherry. It's odd. But it's interesting." What I find odd (but less interesting) is how these 'writers' actually get published. Could an editor have read this story and actually thought this is a good insightful piece of travel writing? I'd be asking for a re-write or an ending at least. What's happened to the Herald? Read Terry's more thorough analysis here: Sydney's odd unfinished weekend. Yep, this one's really had us scratching our heads this week - along with Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck food poisoning scandal and the even more scandalous media coverage of course.

Pictured? Not a hidden gem but definitely a local favorite, and it does do interesting cocktails: Tamanya Terrace at the Radisson SAS Dubai Media City.


Mark H said... home city. It does seem a strange approach and even a tad weird to have an outsider do a "hidden gems" story.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Mark

Yes, it's my home city too. It's been a long time since I've been back so I'm looking forward to returning.

It seems a very odd approach, I agree... makes me wonder what they were thinking... Tourism NSW, the writer, the Herald... did the writer give them that headline... she had a half-hearted 'weekend in' semi-narrative that went nowhere, so why didn't they just call in 'Saturday in Sydney' then or something like that? And ask her to add a dinner spot. Bizarre.

Do you remember when the SMH used to publish quality journalism? When did the decline begin, I wonder? Very sad. I'm really at a loss as to what to read while we're here...

David said...

Very interesting post. I think you should check what comes up at the bottom of both this and the surfing article though. Neither piece actually appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The secret Sydney piece (which is terrible) was done for AAP, and it looks like decided to use it - it's just online, not in print.

The surfing one was done for the Sun-Herald, but all content from the Sun-Herald (and the Age in Melbourne for that matter) goes up at

It's an interesting example of the conflict between the needs of a newspaper and its website. It could be argued that the website detracts from the paper.

That said, there has been some awful stuff in the SMH travel section of late. This piece on Buenos Aires really wound me up - it's horrifically pretentious:

Disclaimer: I do write regularly for both AAP and the Sun-Herald, and have written a fair bit for the SMH in the past.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi David

Thanks for your comments.

I subscribe to the Sydney Morning Herald's Travel online, so the articles I've written about in my post came into my In Box as part of that so naturally I'd assume they were published by the SMH.

Whether they're published in the paper or online - or by the Age or whatever - when they're published on the SMH's website it's naturally assumed by readers that they're published in the paper. Regardless of whether they are or not, even if they're only published online, they're still published under the name of the SMH, and therefore readers have a certain expectation in terms of quality.

Either way, there's no excuse for publishing something as an 'insider piece' that clearly hasn't been written by an insider, something that suggests it's about a weekend in the city when it doesn't even cover a day, and something that's generally very ill thought out, weak, and poorly structured, and poorly researched.

I just think it's evidence of a general decline in the quality of content of the paper's travel supplement and it's sad to see.

I'm sure your pieces on the other hand are a cut above these!

I've had pieces published under my name in the SMH and Age too - which I wasn't very happy about to be honest - because they were pieces that Lonely Planet merely put together from books we'd written, they made bad choices (didn't consult us obviously) and they didn't update the content. So the end result doesn't reflect us and our standards as writers. Now I'd welcome someone picking those apart so I'd have a case for getting them pulled down!

Now I'm going to have to check out this Buenos Aires one... it's a city I know well and have published on... I better get a glass of Malbec first...

Thanks for dropping by, David!