Asserting that 80-85 percent of travel writing is corrupt, retired Ledger-Enquirer president and publisher John Greenman, while teaching at the University of Georgia, wrote what is considered the first textbook about travel journalism.
Travel writing is essentially public relations, beholden to the travel industry, he contends. The antidote, he suggests, is applying journalistic standards for travelers to have a better chance of receiving accurate advice. So travel journalism must be independent, substantive and ethical, he insists.
"You pay your own way," he said. "You're not working for some destination; you're working for readers."
Having retired in August after 11 years as professor and Carter Chair in Journalism at UGA, Greenman, 66, has combined three of his passions -- journalism, travel and his adopted hometown -- to practice what he preaches. The result is another blazed trail, 36HoursInColumbus.com, considered the first independent travel website for the local area.
And it all started thousands of miles away.
From Cambodia to Prague
Before his stint at the L-E from 1995-2004, Greenman worked from 1985-1995 at the Akron Beacon Journal. He was part of the team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, helping to direct and edit coverage of the attempted takeover of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company.
His vacations usually involved travel journalism. He reported from five continents, visiting 25 countries in 20 years. So when he became a professor at UGA's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2004, he was committed to starting the study abroad program and the travel journalism course his department didn't offer.
Six years later, Greenman guided 10 students on a Maymester trip to Cambodia, highlighted by the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap. They reported and wrote to the level of integrity he demanded. "These kids knocked it out of the park," he said.
After another faculty member brought a UGA group to Siem Reap the following year, Greenman worked in 2012 to move the program to Prague, Czech Republic, where it was relatively inexpensive, had a useful public transportation system, an interesting history and famous beauty. There, in 2013, the 18 students launched 36HoursInPrague.com, modeled after the popular travel column in The New York Times. The difference, Greenman said, is that their website added multiple suffixes targeted toward a traveler's interest, such as "36 Hours in Prague: If you're a broke college student" or "If you're a bibliophile" or "If you can't get enough music."
"I wanted to build a site that's not just one way to see a town for 36 hours," he said. "There could be 10 ways or 15 ways or as many as you could imagine."
The website and the program's move to Prague were deemed successes. "The kids did a great job," he said.
Rediscovers the area
No wonder, then, as he mulled what he would do in retirement, Greenman realized he could establish a local version of the website idea. He could perform travel journalism with the joy of rediscovering the area -- and without the hassles of long-distance trips.
After he devoted about 30 hours per week to the project from August through November, 36HoursInColumbus.com was born. And it's a labor of love.
"It's a little more work than I thought, and it's going to be a lot more work," he said. "It takes a lot of time, but I'm loving it."
The suffixes Greenman has posted on the website are:
"If you are a fashionista on a budget." He credits his wife, Alice Budge, for reporting and writing that one.
She also helped him gather recommendations for the website's "Bookshelf" page, a listing of "15 works essential to understanding the origin and development of Columbus."
"One of the reasons I'm doing this," he said, "is to get to know Columbus better."
That's why he expects the website will prove useful to lifelong residents as well. Although he has lived in Columbus for 20 years, Greenman still gushes when he learns about about "hidden gems" such as the Lunch Box Museum at River Market Antiques and the Porterdale Cemetery marker dedicated by the surprising pairing of the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Columbus Black History and Archives to Winter Canty, a slave who saved his owner's life during the Mexican war, refused his owner's offer of freedom and defended his owner's wife and her valuables when Union troops arrived during the Civil War.
Coming next to 36HoursInColumbus.com, Greenman said, are:
" if you salute all things military."
" if you shop for antiques and collectibles."
" if the active life is the way you travel."
"This site is always going to be under development," he said, "but it's public."
It's also potentially controversial, if not downright and down-home blasphemous in one section.
Slams the scrambled dog
Greenman boldly wrote this about a sacred concoction on the menu of Columbus specialties:
"The meat's the key, critics say about Georgia barbeque, not the sauce. Same for hot dogs. The scrambled dog at Dinglewood Pharmacy may be famous for its chili and oyster cracker toppings, but the meat is inferior, and it's expensive at $5.75. What's needed in a hot dog is an all-beef, no filler, preferably Kosher, sausage. Try Nathan's at Bruster's, the Kosher-style hot dog at Five Guys, and the Chicago Dog at Sonic."
Greenman figures that entry might make the folks at the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau cringe, but CVB president Peter Bowden actually praised the website.
"I don't think people realize what a great site this will be," Bowden said. "It's part of a trend that's popular now, microsites within a community that help tell the story. John Greenman being the author of this, he's well versed and well traveled, and he knows how to tell stories and leverage the assets of our community in a fun and effective way."
Bowden also welcomes the independent voice of 36HoursInColumbus.com as the first travel website he is aware of that focuses on the local area. "What makes this a beautiful tool from the traveler's aspect, like Trip Advisor, is that it values more what the individual says versus what the organization says," he said.
36HoursInColumbus.com helps visitors venture deeply and efficiently, Bowden said.
"They are looking at where locals want to go, what they do and the cool places," he said, "especially when people are on a time schedule."
Out of the more than 1.8 million visitors to Columbus in fiscal year 2015, which ended June 30, Bowden said, 27 percent came for leisure and 24 percent came for business.
"Those types of people would look for this information," he said.
The website's categories mesh with another travel trend, Bowden said, called themed tourism.
"That's super hot," he said.
Compelled to stay
In about two months, the website has attracted approximately 1,000 visitors, Greenman said.
"It's going to take, I think, another six months to a year to have all the content, to have all of the promotion and then sort of see what the audience thinks," he said, "and I'll be curious to know."
Eventually, he might seek advertising on the website, Greenman said, "but I'm not doing this to make money."
So, besides keeping busy in retirement and practicing the travel journalism he advocates, developing 36HoursInColumbus.com is a tribute to the place that compels Greenman and his wife to remain despite opportunities to leave.
"We can't imagine living anywhere else but Columbus," he said.
Then he explained why.
"The scale is right," he said. "The people in town are so varied and so interesting. I don't think people typically apply the word 'cosmopolitan' to Columbus, but they should. Fort Benning has had this cosmopolitan effect on Columbus, bringing people from all over the world. There is remarkable history. There is such wonderful progress, especially in the last 20-30 years."
Now, there is an independent website that helps explore it.
"Declare your town to be a destination and write the definitive guide," Greenman said. "And I hope this is, over time, the definitive guide."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
HELP IMPROVE WEBSITE
John Greenman encourages comments about 36HoursInColumbus.com.
"I really, really want to hear from people - tips, suggestions, criticisms, all of that," he said.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. That's right. Not jgreenman but jgreenma.