Interview with Karen Fawcett, founder of Bonjour Paris

Written by admin on October 24, 2011 – 1:13 pm -

Journalist, editor, blogger, publisher, businesswoman, talent scout, Parisian and world traveler, Karen Fawcett is the president and founder of The Definitive Guide to Paris. I first had the pleasure of meeting Karen nearly 25 years ago, in one of her previous incarnations (and mine).

Attention writers: the lady knows her business.

Karen Fawcett

Laurel Zuckerman : How did you get into journalism?

Karen Fawcett : I fell into it though the back door. When I was an interior designer in Washington, DC, the editor of the Sunday magazine Home-Life of the Washington Star asked me to do some scouting. Fast forward: I became an ongoing features/cover story contributor who produced stories and entire editions for over three years.

The articles focused on profiles of people in their homes, and designers and architects who realized their clients’ dreams. I loved it. When the Washington Star folded in August 1981, I’d made more money as an ongoing contributor that year than I’ve seen since in all of my years of being a journalist.

After moving to France in 1988, I didn’t have working papers, so I wrote for numerous print publications. My favorite was the (now defunct) “Expat Abroad” column for the international edition of USA Today. While my husband was sitting in meetings in different parts of the world, I was out meeting and doing and asking so many “none of my business” questions. The articles were 600-2000 words in length. My (now deceased) husband earned considerably more money, but I had a far better time.

LZ : What writers have influenced/inspired you the most?

KF : I could say Paul Theroux and so many other great writers. The reality is the writers who’ve influenced me most were journalists who took an interest in my writing and who became mentors. Garry and George Clifford were friends and journalists who encouraged me when I was learning the craft. Bud Korengold was another generous mentor who opened doors in Paris and beyond in his role as the head of information for the US Embassy in Paris. Charlie Leocha, publisher of Consumer Traveler and director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, has taught me to be a more linear writer. Odile Hellier of the Village Voice bookstore in Paris has had a strong influence on my reading selections for the past 23 years, and reading a wide range of style and authors I hope has made me a better writer. I’ve also been inspired by attending many authors’ readings.

LZ : How do you apply your journalism skills to publishing BonjourParis?

KF : Today BonjourParis has an executive editor who oversees publication. She manages editors and writers who provide content that meets professional journalistic standards. I continue to write my column, news from France and occasional articles. I’m focused on the bigger picture these days, such as expanding our readership, business and of course maintaining my professional network built over “a few decades.”

LZ : How have you built a subscriber base?

KF : Our subscriber base has gown over the years and is constantly expanding. Clearly, people come and go based on their interest in or travel to France. New website readers are asked to subscribe to the free newsletter, which is a double opt-in process. Others receive BonjourParis stories as they are posted at the site via RRS feed or via our FACEBOOK page.

LZ: What is your business model?

BonjourParis has always been part of what’s new, which has required that we be very proactive and flexible to new developments in technology. In the beginning BonjourParis was part of the Internet from the day when AOL first allowed everyday users, not just techhies using code, to communicate. There were no templates for content management, which required us to hire professional code programmers. A paid staff provided content.

BonjourParis had very little online competition. AOL was the leader, the French were not at all engaged in the Internet (other than Minitel) and anyone who searched AOL Travel for information about France found BonjourParis at AOL keyword: Bonjour on the Travel channel of AOL and Compuserve. We were heavily promoted by both.

I hold journalist credentials issued by the French Government Ministry of Foreign Affairs and am a foreign press member. Not only did the French ignore the Internet in those early days, they did not recognize online news providers and sites that provided original content as legitimate news sources. I fought for BonjourParis to be recognized as a serious news organization, and subsequently BonjourParis was the first Internet site officially recognized by the French government.

Changes over the last five years alone have taught us to adapt quickly to change and be proactive when possible. For example, when organizations we work with—such as google—change rules and policies we must respond in kind. When technological advances such as apps, Smartphones and digital readers became increasingly popular in the past 5 years or so, we were forced to look at functionality as well as site design because such innovations affect how readers view our content.

Every business has what they define as limited resources and BP isn’t Fodor’s nor is it a blog. When family emergencies forced me to take a break several years ago, I was unable to make BonjourParis my top priority. I returned to find competition in blogs, true, but also a huge community of people so passionate about writing about France that they “published” their blogs even when their audience was a handful. And, surprisingly, many of our print “competitors”—some very fine publications—had folded because they didn’t keep up with the times.

We have some advertising and are grateful for it; we like providing info (even in advertising) that helps our readers find the best answers to their specific wants and needs. Our premium members pay $34.95 a year for their subscriptions and some perks. BonjourParis has affiliate relations that generate a modicum of income. Google ads (pitiful but something is better than nothing) and unless you’re a sex site, forget about making real money.

LZ : How do you recruit and keep talent?

KF : Our writers come and go; and over the years, over than 14 contributors have ended up publishing books because they were “discovered” on BonjourParis. Because BonjourParis is a well-known content site, many published authors and up-and-coming writers have asked to be showcased on it. We’ve found some very good writers in the blogosphere and twitterverse. But, we’re always happy to be approached by more.

LZ : What do you look for in a writer?

KF :  Writers really need to know their subject, their readers’ needs and interests and have an original voice. The best travel writers possess curiosity, intelligence and the ability to anticipate what a reader wants to know before they even know they need to know it. Each and every writer needs an editor and they must accept that our editors will change a story to enhance Search Engine Optimization (SEO) that increases the likelihood a story will draw readers—vitally important for both the writer and BonjourParis. At times our editor invests significant time in coaching writers on Internet writing techniques, which are different than writing for static print. It’s a definite art that involves strategic placement of optimized keywords and the like. We consider all of this in choosing writers and proposed story topics.

LZ : Can a writer learn style?

KF : A writer can learn style and technique but it isn’t accomplished in a day.  They must be willing to work on their writing as a craft and it’s not easy.

LZ : You are a political person, very abreast of current affairs, and yet you keep politics out of BonjourParis. Why?

KF : I am giggling here. You’re right, I am extremely political but I learned (the hard way) not to express my personal beliefs. When the US invaded Iraq, I expressed my opinion and we lost half of our subscribers in one fell swoop.

Today we focus more on presenting the news from France without editorializing. And these stories get picked up and repeated, according to our site analytical reports.

LZ : What changes do you see in the business? Advice for writers starting out today?

KF : Enormous changes are unfolding now.  As we go to the digital age, there will be fewer books printed. On the positive side, writers who might not have been published before will have a chance to have their work read because it can be downloaded on demand.

Writers (and most especially freelancers) will earn substantially less than they would have earned 20 years ago.

If you want to be a writer and have to live on what you earn, don’t give up your day job until you are certain you can generate sufficient income.

LZ : You were a member of the Editorial Committee for the Paris Short Story Contest.  What did you learn from the experience? Advice for future contributors?

KF : Laurel, being on the editorial committee taught me a lot. First, people would not have submitted entries had they not perceived themselves as writers, so it was a self-selecting group. A few stories were immediate toss-outs. But, others had a lot of merit and could have been excellent with editing. Advice for writers: Say what is essential, do not use complex words when simple ones will convey the point and don’t stray from your subject. Put the story away and return later to tighten what you’ve written.

LZ : How important is it to you to follow your own instincts?

KF : I’ve been doing it for a lot of years, which is one of the reasons BonjourParis has a real sense of community. But, no one’s instincts are infallible and it’s essential to listen to others— most especially as the industry is changing with such incredible rapidity.

LZ : Do you have a special work regimen? (Special schedule, special foods…)

KF : No, I wish I did.  ;-)

LZ : What do you hope to achieve as a writer and a publisher?

KF : My hope is that BonjourParis will be recognized as the foremost online magazine about France. I am increasingly proud of each and every article published, but this wasn’t always so. We are in the process of deleting those that don’t make the grade and rewriting many that need improvement.

LZ : Of all your achievements, of what are you most proud?

KF : That’s a hard question. I am proud of so many. When it comes to BonjourParis however, it gives me great satisfaction that I still feel so passionate about living in and writing about France. And after all of these years, BonjourParis remains a site that continues to provide information to our many longtime readers with the help of many others.

Karen Fawcett is accredited by the French Ministry of the Interior as a member of the Foreign Press, a member of the Public Relations Society of America, The European- American Press Club, The French Press Club, The National Press Club in Washington, DC and was a founding member of the American Institute of Wine and Food’s Paris Chapter.  She has been president and owner of Bonjour Paris since the site launched on the Internet more than 14 years ago.

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