Interview: Sana Butler

A freelance reporter and special correspondent with Newsweek International since 2000, Sana Butler's self-described "socially conscious" travel pieces offer readers a look at typical tourist destinations through the eyes of the people who actually live, work, and raise their families there.

A freelance reporter and special correspondent with Newsweek International since 2000, Sana Butler's self-described "socially conscious" travel pieces offer readers a look at typical tourist destinations through the eyes of the people who actually live, work, and raise their families there.

She spent almost a decade traveling through the US while researching her upcoming book, Sugar of the Crop: A Journey Across America to Find Children of the Slaves.

PRWeek: How did you get started in journalism?
Sana Butler:
I really like hearing stories and telling people stories. My first job out of college -- I was a marketing-econ major at Georgetown -- was at the Wall Street Journal, in the DC bureau. It was a news assistant job. I sorted mail, answered phones, delivered faxes to reporters. I could write if I stayed after hours to do it on my own.

PRWeek: How did the experience affect you?
It affected me completely. One thing I learned about writing was, when I got stuck with sentences, reporters would tell me, "Write it as if you're talking." It's the basis for everything I am as a writer. There are brilliant reporters there, but they're very humble in their knowledge. I came into work in the beginning wearing a skirt, shirt, and heels -- here I am, carrying this huge mailbag with heels on. And one day the news desk editor said, "Take off your shoes. If your feet hurt, take off your shoes." And I did -- then I realized everybody in the office had their shoes off.

The experience has also served as a baseline for my story ideas. You'd pitch a story, and if the editor had seen it anywhere before, he wouldn't take it. If he had seen it in some random local newspaper in Iowa, traveling with his family on Christmas vacation, [in a] picked-up paper at gas station --that's how remote a story could have been. He'd never take it, period. End of story.

PRWeek: You've also worked in broadcast journalism, including a stint at ABC's World News Tonight. What was that like?
I started off as a researcher, then an associate producer. I actually did interviews for "Person of the Week" with Peter Jennings. I really liked the way Peter spoke [on the air]; it felt like you were friends when he would talk. It's very hard to do that.

PRWeek: Are there any other journalists whose style you admire?
I love Ted Koppel's stuff on Nightlife. And Nancy Keats, at the Wall Street Journal. Her stories are fun, they're light, they're written as if we're talking over lunch. And they're original: All of her story ideas end up being picked up by other magazines a month later.

PRWeek: How did you develop your interest in travel writing?
My sister treated me to a spa vacation in St. Lucia about five years ago, and I wanted to have extra spa treatments. So I started chit-chatting with the spa guy, and mentioned to him that the guys on the staff seemed to know some of the tourists better than others. He said that's because some were regulars, had been coming for five or 10 years. I asked him why they kept coming back. It turns out the repeat customers actually had "boyfriends" at the resort. A lot of European women were coming down to St. Lucia and having sex with the locals.

So I started doing some research, and it turned out there is there is this whole female sex tourism community -- European, Japanese, Israeli, American women -- this whole thing that was going on that nobody had talked about. There were sociologists in London and Bermuda that specialized in female sex tourism, who had done all these studies, but no one had picked it up. I randomly called Newsweek International in 2000 and told them the story. They put me in contact with the editor I now write for. The special issue she was working on at the time was about women and traveling. It became a 1000-word story.

PRWeek: You refer to your travel pieces as "socially conscious." How do they differ from most of the travel writing you read?
Travel writers tend to stick to what's easy to write about, stick to a formula. I found it very interesting when I first started writing that most of the travel stories about Africa were about animals, safaris. Talking to people in the African embassies, they always talk about safaris. So I started asking, "Can you talk to me about culture? About stuff beside safaris?" And they all opened up, as if that's a question no one had cared about asking before.

PRWeek: Do any particular examples stand out?
The story I wrote for The New York Times on tourism ["Community Tourism Enters Mainstream To Benefit of the Poor," April 10, 2005] came as a result of talking to a tour operator in Rwanda after saying, I know you do great gorilla tracking, but talk to me about the people, not the animals. So we talked about Rwanda's people -- this was soon after travel restrictions were lifted by the US and Great Britain. With the war and travel restrictions, the country had not seen tourists for five or six years; tourists were just coming back in. But it was amazing. I was there for about a month, and everybody was nice. You're in a five-star hotel, and you're next door to people who have no running water. You're in a hotel where you can take baths, next to people who walk miles to get water, driving by in cars spewing dirt in their faces. And they're still smiling and waving at you. So in my writing, I'm trying to see countries in a different light, put them into places that you wouldn't expect, see places through the eyes of the people I'm interviewing.

PRWeek: And in the process, you come up with these nontraditional travel topics.
Yes. When I visit countries or write about countries, I always try to not stick with the traditional story. In talking about the Caribbean, I try not to talk about the beach and the sun and the sand. What else does the country have to offer? Another example: Every time you open a magazine, you see stories on wineries and wine tours. I like wine too, but I don't like wine as much as I like coffee. So I'm thinking, I wonder if there are coffee tours. There are wine vacations; there have to be coffee vacations. After making some calls, I found out that the Arabica coffee tree originated in Ethiopia. But I had to call the Ethiopian embassy three or four times to find someone who knew about coffee at all in Ethiopia.

PRWeek: So it can be difficult to gather information?
This is kind of the problem when you're writing nontraditional stories, stories that have not been repeated over and over again. The embassy knew about the stuff everyone else was writing about, but not about coffee. I ended up speaking not to a press or PR person, but to a commerce person, then to someone locally in Ethiopia, about a 12-day "origins of coffee" tour.

PRWeek: Do you often work with PR pros?
Butler: I work with PR and press people representing countries, focusing on particular destinations, tour operators. Working for a weekly, I pitch a story idea on Tuesday, find out if it's accepted that afternoon, and it's due on Thursday, so I have really only a day to make calls. I have a list of press people I can call after-hours, people who I know are checking their e-mail after-hours.

PRWeek: What are some of the challenges you've encountered working with PR pros?
It's very surprising to me to make a phone call to a PR agency, say I'm calling from Newsweek, that I'd love to profile a client, ask can you talk to me about XYZ - and nobody wants to return the phone call. I'm also surprised that when asked a specific, detailed question, they sometimes don't know the answers and take days to get back to me with the answers...

I spoke last year at the Education Tourism Conference, right after Peter Greenberg from the Today show. There was a room full of 50 people - NBC execs from around the world, reps from PR firms, andheads of tourism for certain countries - this was my goldmine, in terms of contacts.

I said: "This is my phone number and this is my e-mail; I'm always looking for story ideas. And you guys are doing me a favor if you talk to me. If you have an idea and you're not quite sure how it will fit, e-mail me, and maybe we can figure it out."

No one e-mailed me... I would love to have a Rolodex full of PR contacts - for business travel, tour associations. But I need them to help.

PRWeek: Do you think your travel experiences impact the way you view everything else?
My parents are from the South, and never really left the East Coast. I didn't travel at all when I was a kid, except for 12-hour drives to see grandparents. I really did not have a vision of the world. When I was at World News Tonight, I remember for Christmas, Peter gave me an atlas, a little pocket atlas, and said, "Have a good life out there." That was before I started traveling for the book. But traveling for the book really opened my mind to what was out there. And a big part of traveling is about being by yourself, being able to handle who you are, being able to handle being in a place for a month by yourself.

PRWeek: Very simply: Why do you do what you do?
I try to write stories on how to make the world a better place. It's all relative. People do it in the ways they can. But I try to do it in my story ideas. It's my little attempt to make the world better.


Name: Sana Butler

Outlet: Newsweek International

Title: Special correspondent

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