Last night I spoke at TravelBlogCamp #tbcamp12 in London on the theme of ‘Back To Basics’, examining some ideas to help us all reconnect with the reasons why we write about travel. It seems I split the room, deeply annoying some people, and deeply inspiring others. For what it’s worth, here are my speaking notes, as I bashed them out – raw and unshaped. Make of it all what you will!
How I got started
Feel like a fraud
not qualified journalist
losing excitement for constant travel
tend to feel that tourism industry – though full of great ppl – often does more harm than good in world
don’t make money from blogging
(barely make any money at all)
my living comes from print – guidebooks, old media – and PR-style editing/copywriting
here bc a region of world has become part of my life – Middle East
in 20s & early 30s spent 10yrs learning about region – writing bits & bobs but mostly just making ends meet
spent last 10yrs writing about region
visiting & revisiting & revisiting
I’m prob least well-travelled person in this room – haven’t counted, but 25 countries in total, maybe 30 – but I’ve visited some of them dozens of times – go to Jordan 2/3/4 times a year, perhaps 30,40,50 times in total. That’s my specialisation.
So that’s just to say where I’m coming from.
If had time again, what would I do different? 2 things:
1 – get training in (journalism), or rather independent, critical writing
2 – wouldn’t get involved with PR at all. Explain why:
What is quality writing?
V hard to define. Quality is unforced – feels natural, looks effortless, even though years of training & technique may have gone into it. Think Usain Bolt – you think he just woke up one day and could run like that? He trained for years and years.
Quality is also something you can see, even if you don’t like it – Paulo Coelho – may make you sick, but he can clearly string a thought or two together.
Often easier to define quality by what it isn’t.
PR is antithetical to quality writing.
Marketing slightly different – is about taking product/destination – find what’s good in it & tell ppl about that
PR – there doesn’t have to be anything good there. PR is simply about taking anything – a movie, a ski resort, the Bahraini government – and getting people to like it & (most important) spend money on it.
Here’s a truth, borne from experience: writing PR will seriously damage the quality of what you write for everything else. PR is corrosive. PR undermines independent thought and judgement.
There’s a reason why writers generally make awful copywriters – take a journalist or a novelist & ask them to write advertising, and it’ll be rubbish. The stuff they use is the same (ie words), but the reasons for writing it are diametrically opposed.
Quote from Orwell – “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is PR.”
Let’s take that & look at travel blogging now.
Are YOU publishing something that someone else doesn’t want publishing? If not – if all you’re doing is augmenting what’s already out there, you’re not a writer, you’re a copywriter.
That’s fine – there’s space for everyone, these are NOT value judgements – but you’ve got to look at WHAT YOU’RE IN THIS FOR. If all you want is free travel, to bop around the world at someone else’s expense, posting some nice pictures & a few hundred words a week on the stuff you see before you bop on to the next event or next bloggers meet-up – great, enjoy it, the world is full of opportunity and these kinds of chances didn’t exist before. But please get up now and walk out of this room, bc in terms of figuring out a future for travel writing on the web, you’re dead wood, and the rest of us have got more important things to discuss.
So WHAT ARE YOU IN THIS FOR?
Every person here can look in their hearts and know what it is they want to do.
Loving travel, my friends, isn’t good enough. Everyone loves travel – or, everyone loves going to new places, meeting people, seeing stuff, being free from daily routine. But WHAT’S THE POINT? Travel is not a career – we’re here to talk about a career, an industry.
Some ppl love the tech, building things that really work. Some ppl love the design, using a basis of technique to create something that looks beautiful and functions smoothly & elegantly. Some ppl love the images, evoking a place or an emotion through photography. And so on & so on.
And some ppl love the words. They love the feel of them, using them to create something bigger than the sum of its parts, they love weighing them and choosing each one so that it says the right thing in the right way. They are writers.
Again, this is not a value judgement. World needs designers & techie ppl & everybody just as much (probably MORE) than it needs writers.
I’ve had photos full bleed across DPS in global mags, but I KNOW I’M NOT A PHOTOGRAPHER. I couldn’t run a business if you paid me. I’m rubbish at PR. But most of all I don’t even WANT to do any of that. I’m a writer. I want to write.
What are YOU?
You might scoff at the hot metal world of print, but there’s a reason why that whole great corporate world of publishing developed in the way it did
People who were good at business created publishing businesses which made money by giving people things they wanted (or by stimulating demand). But they weren’t writers doing that – writers didn’t know how to. Publishers did. They employed people who were good at accounting to make sure their businesses weren’t losing money. They employed ppl who were good at persuasion to go out & market their products. But the publishers themselves couldn’t write for toffee.
And many of the people now blogging about travel also can’t write for toffee. They’re not writers. They’re really good at all sorts of things – marketing, or business, or tech, or something totally unrelated – but because they need content to work with, they just bang it out themselves.
That’s got two consequences.
It means the internet is full of samey, low-quality travel rubbish.
And it means writers are struggling to find work.
There’s a straightforward way to make money travel blogging – ppl in this room know how – Gary Arndt, Nomadic Matt, talk to Tom Brosnahan, Mike Gerrard
But way they’ve made money, I think, is not from the quality of their writing – again this is NOT a value judgement – it’s from everything BUT the writing – their blogs are generally either a sequence of bite-size personal experiences, informative travel tips, nice pictures, guest posts from others, and so on – but the way they’ve made money from it is through design, SEO, tech skills, advertising, SM promotion – it’s become a business, they’ve treated it like a business.
Unlike me. My blog doesn’t even register – it’s not even a blip – essentially has zero visitors, zero reach, zero everything.
And that’s where most bloggers are, too. Either struggling to bring in a bit of income each month, or essentially given up & gone back to blogging for fun.
And that’s why I’m asking WHAT ARE YOU IN THIS FOR?
If it’s to make money blogging – go ahead, that’s fine, there’s a path to follow, it may take you 2/3/5 years – but you’ll get there. Though you also have to give up the idea that writing well is going to get you there. It won’t. Other skills take priority.
A new idea of the moment – which maybe Jeremy & others will talk about – is, effectively, sponsorship. Travel companies, so the story goes, are realising the value of good writing, so they want to pay people to write for them.
What’s that about? It’s about companies that sell holidays trying to be publishers as well. And that is pretty much exactly the pickle that the mainstream travel press got itself into, when a generation or so ago it began to allow PR and advertisers to dictate travel content. Publishers have become shop-windows for holiday companies. That’s why the weekend travel sections look they way they do currently.
The reason why most of the Western world has a free press is because of a very thin, but very important line – between editorial & advertorial. Editorial is writing paid for by a disinterested publisher. Advertorial is writing paid for by a commercial sponsor. And in virtually every case, advertorial is unadulterated PR.
That’s why I went on about PR earlier on. Erase that line at your peril. Do so, and the world we all work in, the media, dies – it turns into the kind of media that exists in, say, most of the Arab world, or China, or Russia. The tail wags the dog. The media exists only to publish press releases from govt and major corporations.
Some of our mainstream media are already close to that line – not just travel, but fashion, music, all sorts of fields. And on the web, this new idea of travel companies sponsoring content also plays dangerously close to erasing that line. What are the consequences? Readers end up not knowing who to trust – so they stop trusting everybody. That’s part of the reason why newspapers are dying. And it’s also why we have two things in travel – firstly, the idea that all travel writers are corrupt (which leads to this insistence on ‘full disclosure’ and ‘no freebies’), and two, the rise of TripAdvisor and user-generated content as the only content people believe anymore.
You might think that this talk about a free press is getting a bit overblown. But blogging matters. This is not a game. Bloggers like you & me get jailed, or threatened, or killed, in places like Russia, China, Bahrain – and even in holiday places like the Maldives, like Oman, like Malaysia. Some guy in the Maldives, Ismail Rasheed, gets locked up for blogging about being nice to people and you want to take a PR-all-expenses-paid freebie there so you can blog about how great the hotels are? Come on.
So here’s a suggestion. Once a month – or 1 post in 10, whatever you like – go off-piste. Research something non-travel about the place you’re in, and write about it.
You’re going to Texas? Have a great time – then write about the number of people banged up on Death Row.
Switzerland? Brilliant place – do your bungy-jump in Davos, then find out why the Swiss president was forced to apologise to the Jenisch gypsy people who live nearby.
Jordan? Wonderful – but it’s the world’s 4th driest country, so where are all these spa hotels you’re being comped at getting their water from?
Pam Mandel of nerdseyeview went to TBEX in Girona, wandered off into the old quarter, and posted an amazing thoughtful piece about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Find it and read it.
What am I saying? I’m saying travel isn’t about you. You’re the filter, but you’re not the story. Add to the sum of human understanding. Be challenging. Be interesting. Like Orwell said, publish things that somebody doesn’t want you to publish.
Writers don’t need commercial sponsors. Writers need publishers. People who know tech, who know design, SEO, marketing, who know online publishing inside out and back to front.
There are hundreds of people – maybe in this room – who know online publishing, but who don’t have the content.
So this is a plea for specialisation.
I’ve always rejected the idea that travel bloggers are a ‘community’ – but if they are, now is the time to show it. Communities don’t have everybody replicating what everyone else is doing. Communities allow people who are good at something to flourish, with the support of that community.
Writers in the room – stop trying to be publishers. Publishers in the room – stop trying to be writers. Designers, forget about taking photos. Photographers, stop trying to do SEO.
If this is a community, then we should be helping each other for mutual benefit. And that doesn’t mean speculative, ‘ooh I’ve got a website, will you write for free?’ It means, making a solid business plan, learn accounting, work the numbers, perhaps even get a start-up loan, pay yourself, and then pay me.
The heyday of travel publishing – back in the early/mid 90s – was when guidebooks & newspapers were producing stuff that was both informative, lifting the lid, AND well-written.
At the moment, travel blogging is all about the former – and the latter is going by the board. That, I think, is limiting its ability to survive.
So writers you need to get better. Writers often scoff at travel-writing workshops, where you pay £100 to spend a weekend with a pro editor, learning the craft. Don’t scoff. You probably can’t bring someone in off the street and teach them how to write, but you definitely CAN teach a writer how to write about travel. Travel writing is a skill; it’s not hard to learn.
Learn it. Because then you’ll be a better writer. You’ll have higher quality. You’ll have better technique. And technique lets you fly.
You need to be going above & beyond TripAdvisor. “I stayed here & it was great” isn’t good enough. How does it compare to other places? What are its strengths – but WHAT ARE ITS WEAKNESSES? Turn yourself into an EXPLAINER. Don’t just tell me what you’re seeing – TELL ME WHAT IT MEANS. Sift through the mass of personally produced content and professionally produced PR to find – what? I hate to use a journalistic word, but STORIES. We all live or die on stories.
Before your next trip do your research. Find the places and the people who shed light on the destination. And perhaps they’re nothing to do with tourism (in which case the PRs won’t be able to help anyway). Find them. Talk to them. Dig a little.
Be MORE interesting and LESS wide-eyed about the world.
Travel writing for the web is in its infancy. There’s clearly a role for guidebook-style – dispassionate, informative. Guidebooks may be dying, but they are still a multimillion pound industry – people want that stuff. Bloggers – we’re out, on the ground, in every destination in the world. Individually, we flounder; together, we could be selling our expertise for profit. So, let’s collaborate.
But what’s bigger still, in the world of old media, books & magazines? Travel narratives. That’s hundreds of millions of pounds. People can’t get enough. They’re all over TV, radio, books, magazines. People might want information, but they REALLY want professionally produced stories, ideas, inspiration, travel tales.
If we’re a community, let’s work out a way we can give it to them.