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I’m in Vegas for Blog World Expo this week, so I’ll be devoting some time to talking about blogging and the travel industry. Here is my first installment.
The impetus for this post came from an off hand comment made by Jen Leo before one of our podcasts a few weeks ago. I mentioned that I was going to a trip sponsored by Princess Cruise Lines in November. Jen is an experienced travel writer who has worked in the publishing industry and currently works for the LA Times. She commented that I can’t take those trips if I want to write for the New York Times or the LA Times, because they don’t allow writers to take comped tours. What struck me about the statement wasn’t the ethics of taking a comped tour, it was that at no point in my life had I ever considered writing for the New York Times. Despite all the traveling and writing I’ve done, it never dawned on me that it is something that could do or that I’d even want to do. Writing for a major newspaper was something that just wasn’t in my universe.
This got me thinking about the differences between the established world of travel writing and the emerging world of travel blogging. The differences aren’t always clear cut. Bloggers obviously write and most writers have a blog. Some writers write for a blog. Nonetheless I think there is a clear distinction between the two if you consider it as a career path, rather than as an end product. Much of what I”ll be outlining here will have exceptions to it. Some people like Chris Elliott are excellent bloggers and writers. I’m also writing this to start a discussion with people in the travel writing/blogging world about where things are going. This is also not intended to be a “which is better” discussion, as the question itself is sort of meaningless. It will hopefully clarify things for those who want to try to pursue a career in travel writing/blogging.
The biggest difference between a travel writer and a travel blogger is where your money comes from. Writers, as I am defining it, work for someone else, either on staff or on a freelance basis. Bloggers work for themselves and they are responsible for their own income. Writing is a much more stable career if you can get a job. The barrier to entry is higher than blogging, but if you can land a gig(s) you can get cash money for your efforts. The barrier to entry in blogging is very, very low. It is very difficult to stand out from the rest of the crowd enough to make any money from it, let alone trying to make a living. Many people start blogging with the goal of getting writing gigs, not becoming a full time blogger. I think the theoretical income potential from blogging is greater than freelance writing, but it is much more difficult to do and takes time.
When I have this discussion with people there is a question I love to ask: “Name anyone who has ever written an article for National Geographic?” Most people come up blank and if they can name someone they are usually an editor or writer. Most people never pay attention to who writes the articles they read in newspapers and magazines. Editors and other writers may know who’s who, but to the general public they are interchangeable. When you read National Geographic, you are not reading it because of any particular person, you are reading it because of the brand they have established over one-hundred years. Unless you are a really good writer or have developed a good relationship, you probably don’t have a lot of leverage in negotiating with editors because you can easily be replaced by someone else who is more than willing to do the job. The only time a writer might develop a personal following is if they are publishing books under their own name. Bill Bryson comes to mind as a good example of someone in this category.
Bloggers are all about personality. Almost every successful blog I can think of in any niche has a name and a personality behind it. If you are reading this, you probably know my first name and at least the one sentence summary of what I’m about. If you don’t, you can figure that out in single mouse click. The whole point of a blog is to stamp it with your personality, whereas a writer will often write an article in a detached, third person point of view. If a blogger writes a guest article somewhere else, they might draw some of their audience to the other site to read it. There are few people who will follow a freelance writer like they will follow the Grateful Dead.
A writer will probably have a much larger audience for their work than a blogger, but that is due to the circulation of the magazine/newspaper not because of anything to do with the writer. If a writer is fired from a publication, their audience will probably not follow them somewhere else because they were never following them in the first place…and probably will have no idea they were even fired.
In the world of print there is no opportunity to respond to a writer other than through a letter to the editor. Even writers who work for online publications probably don’t have the same level of accessibility as bloggers do. I get emails every day from people who like my site or are starting their own trip. I meet with readers in most large cities I visit. Since my blog is so intimately tied to me, meeting people is an integral part of the business. Bloggers also tend to be much more active in social media because they have a much greater incentive to do so. Their target audience isn’t editors and publishers, it is readers.
While contracts can very from person to person, most writers who are writing for hire usually do not own the copyright to what they produce. It is owned by the publication which paid for it to get written. Once they finish a project they move on to the next one. If you are doing freelance work for several years, at the end of that time you might not have the rights to anything you’ve done. As a blogger I own everything. Everything I produce will keep brining in readers for years via search engines. I don’t have to worry about non-compete contracts and can work with whoever I want.
Many people think that professional writers are better writers. I think there is a great deal of truth to that. Focusing on a single thing, not having to worry about other aspects of running the publication, longer lead times, and having an editor will improve quality. I’m writing this in a Las Vegas McDonald’s and this will probably be online within an hour of having written it. I have no editors and rely on friends and readers to point out glaring grammatical and spelling errors. Give me a full week to rewrite and an editor and I’m sure the quality will improve.
A professional writer needs to network with editors and keep their resume unto date. Other than that, their primary job is writing. A blogger will often spend the majority of their time doing stuff other than writing. I do most of the technical work on my site, search engine optimization, promotion, spend time on Twitter and Facebook, and I do it all mostly out of hotel rooms without help from anyone else. Being a blogger means having to wear many hats and have several different skill sets beyond just writing. I think most people would rather just travel to exotic locations, write about it and get a check. Blogging and running your own show is a much larger commitment with many more responsibilities.
This part is all speculation.
Returning to the comment which spurred this post, I asked myself why I’d want to write for the New York Times and if I would do it if given the chance. The answer is yes, I would do it, but the motivation for doing it would be different from a writer. While any money gained would be nice, I’d do it for free if that was an option. I’d do it to help build an audience for my blog which is my end game. I’d exchange my talent and time for a sliver of access to the New York Times audience and a link. I think in the future you will see more types of these arrangements between old and new media. There will still be editors and staff writers, but it will be easier and cheaper to do these sorts of exchanges for freelance staff than will be to pay them a normal full fee. Instead of making $2,000, you might get $1,000 and a link.
This means that more writers will have to become bloggers. I don’t see any way around this. They will have to rely less and less on checks from media companies and more and more on their own wits. They will also have to take a greater role in building their brand and reputation with the greater internet audience.
Economics will eventually force media companies to stop looking down at bloggers and work with them. This could take several forms from the modified freelance system I mentioned above to full blown staff bloggers like what the Atlantic Monthly did with big time politics bloggers. They might use travel blogs as a sort of farm system for content.
As of today professional travel writers and bloggers are still in two different worlds, but I think that is slowly changing. Only in the last year or two has travel started to reach the levels in terms of traffic and readers that niches like technology and politics reached several years before. I’m glad to have a front row see to see how it all pans out in the next several years.
My name is Gary Arndt and I’m a travel blogger.