Atlas Obscura, a Travel Site Focused on the Weird and Obscure, Digs Deeper

When the pandemic hit last spring, Atlas Obscura had just received a $20 million investment

When the pandemic hit last spring, Atlas Obscura had just received a $20 million investment from a group of investors led by Airbnb. Atlas Obscura, at the time, was focused on building the “experience” side of its business — guided tours and classes — which it expected to snap into the giant home rental platform. (The New York Times is also an investor in Atlas Obscura.) But Airbnb gave up on the initiative as it scrambled to weather the crisis. And like the rest of travel media, Atlas Obscura has spent a year mostly catering to the fantasies of homebound travelers. That led, the company says, to record traffic and advertising revenue, as well as a new business in online classes.

Now, the travel media and the travel industry are bracing — and hoping — for a surge of tourism. Though few in the travel media have taken on re-editing of their product like Atlas Obscura, they’re also trying to adapt to a changed political situation, seeking to find nonwhite writers who live in the places they write about, or to have more diverse American writers tell the stories of destinations. Jacqueline Gifford, the editor in chief of Travel and Leisure, said the travel media was trying to ask itself, “Who gets to tell travel stories, why they’re telling them, and what’s the way we can be more representative of this country, of the world we’re living in today?”

But there are also built-in limits to how much you can revolutionize travel writing, said Rafat Ali, the founder of the travel business site Skift.

“It’s always going to be outsiders looking in,” he said.

The challenge for editors and writers across media is how to make journalism inclusive as well as riveting and provocative, rather than just a corporate media exercise in box-checking. (One top newspaper editor described that genre to me last week as “D.E.I. dutiful,” referring to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.)

It shouldn’t be that hard. Complicated, surprising stories are often the best ones, as illustrated by the superb “Reckoning With a Reckoning” issue that Adrienne Green, the features editor at New York magazine, put together last week. It sought, as the magazine’s editor in chief, David Haskell, wrote in an email, “to clarify stakes and also complicate them, to tell morality tales but avoid easy morals.”

Atlas Obscura, which also publishes magaziney features like the disturbing story of how a Black woman’s remains wound up on display at a Philadelphia museum and the secret queer history of Colonial Williamsburg, is another good example of how a publisher can meet the moment by deepening its content with an inquiry into, in particular, the violence Americans often choose to forget.

Indeed, Mr. Patel told me he’s not sure “decolonizing” was the right word for the project. “Decolonization suggests removal, and that’s not what we’re doing,” he said Wednesday morning, as we began our tour of unusual New York sites on the edge of the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. “Adding this kind of perspective to travel and travel writing makes it less boring.”

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