By the time Catharine Hamm turned 12, she had lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Hawaii and the Philippines. Her nomadic upbringing inspired her sense of curiosity and informed her decision to become a travel writer. After serving as managing editor of the Sun in San Bernardino County, Calif., in 1999, Hamm joined the Los Angeles Times. She is currently the editor of the LA Times Travel. Under Hamm’s leadership, the Times travel section has received several Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
In a phone conversation with Amma Bonsu, Catharine Hamm talked about her journeys and why she became a travel writer.
AB: What drew you to journalism?
CH: My romance with journalism began at a very young age. I come from a strong Irish family that celebrates a well-told story. Being a journalist allows me to continue the tradition of story telling. As a travel writer, the bonus, of course, is getting to inform people about things that affect their travels.
AB: What separates compelling travel writing from mediocre travel writing?
CH: That’s easy. It’s about three things: A. It’s about their trip, not your trip; it’s about the reader. B. All good writing begins with good reporting. If your story is well reported, you’ll find it easy to write and it will be easy to read. C. There is no such thing as good writing; there is only rewriting. People think travel writing is about sunsets and beaches, but there is a consumer aspect to it so you have to connect with your readers. You are influencing where someone goes on vacation and you are showing them how to spend their money well so you have to be convincing.
AB: Which of your articles are you most proud of?
CH: Last year, I had the opportunity to do a story about the 70th anniversary of the Bataan Death March . This story was important to me because when I was 10, I lived in the Philippines for about two years with my father, who worked with the U.S. Navy… Now, my father had participated in the liberation of Manila so I went back to report on the anniversary. But I achieved more than that – I was able to unravel the story of what my dad and others did there.
AB: If you could go back in time and revise an article you wrote, which one would it be?
CH: Several years ago, I wrote a story about visiting the Hawaiian island of Niihau, which is a private island generally reserved for people of Hawaiian ancestry. I managed to get on the island but I could not talk to people because I was afraid if they knew who I was they would bar me from the island. I feel the piece rung hollow because there were no legitimate voices. In hindsight, I wonder if I had revealed myself perhaps, people would have opened up and spoken to me.
AB: Can you share a story about a time when you were confronted with an ethical dilemma?
CH: As a travel writer you worry about how to maintain your anonymity and still deliver a story… A few years ago, I did a story about a place in Washington. I happened to be staying at a bed and breakfast and the owner of the B&B asked me the question that I fear the most: “What do you do for a living?” I told her I was teaching. It was the one time I said something that was not 100 percent true. Technically, it was true because I was also teaching a course in the area. But that was not how I made a living.
AB: Have you ever found yourself in a situation where there is a conflict of interest?
CH: Absolutely! Right now, I am working on a piece about travel insurance so I have been thinking about California Insurance law and how it impacts consumers. However, my brother in-law used to be the deputy insurance commissioner for the state of California so I wonder if my objectivity is going to be cast in the wrong light. Never mind the fact that he has been dead for over a decade… I still wonder if I am being objective… As a writer, you have to be above the appearance of suspicion. Because we are trying to represent the consumer we cannot be duplicitous. These things keep me awake at night.
AB: How do you approach an assignment about a location that has been covered many times?
CH: I either slice the pie more finely or I find a new way to present the information… Last year, before the Olympics, I was requested to do a story on London. Before I left, I decided that London was one “L” of a town so I wrote about only things there that started with L—Latino food, lugubrious walks (ghost walks), luscious London (a chocolate walk), low-cost London and so on. It was a different organizing principle that was fun. Well, for me anyway.
AB: What are your views on citizen journalism?
CH: I can distill this discussion to one thought and that is, credibility. I once asked Howard Tyner, the Chicago Tribune editor, about his newspaper’s greatest competitive advantage and he said, “The name Chicago Tribune.” At the time, I thought it was the most arrogant response I had ever heard but now, I completely understand what he meant. Whether you work for an organization or yourself, your most prized possession is going to be your credibility. The name LA Times gives me a lot of credibility because I abide by a set of ethical standards. There are lots of people who call themselves writers, bloggers, and photographers but not everyone with a camera is a photographer. What is important is that you present yourself on an ethical standard and you abide by the tenets of journalism so you earn credibility.
AB: Are you threatened by this new wave of journalism?
CH: No, because I know in the end there are going to be amateurs who are better than me and I am also going to be better than others. But I believe my institutional knowledge of journalism gives me an advantage and makes me stronger. Of course, I incorporate other people’s success into my knowledge… I look at how well they do things and I learn from them. I don’t plough the same path forever.
AB: What is next for you?
CH: Well, it has been a time of many surprises but the great thing is I am really adaptable. I am learning how to use video and visuals to tell stories… I will always be working on being a better storyteller no matter what platform I use.
Photo of Catherine Hamm: LATimes
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