by Monte Stewart
Mike Fisher has a decision to make.
He is among disgruntled veteran freelancers who say well-paying travel writing opportunities are becoming increasingly rare due to revamped newspaper travel sections with reduced budgets, the outsourcing of editing services, and the proliferation of online publications that expect free stories, among other factors.
“It’s getting to the point where I really have to question whether I can continue doing it,” said Fisher, a Calgary-based writer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years. “In my case, (travel writing) is in addition to a lot of other freelance work, too.”
Full-time freelance travel writers are few and far between. Travel writing, said Fisher, a former newspaper reporter, “has always been an aristocratic hobby to a degree,” but it is becoming more so as technology disrupts traditional ways of reporting and presenting a story.
“I know (travel freelancers) who are on social media platforms,” said Fisher, who has won a number of travel writing awards. “They’re expected to (post content) all day and all night, and it’s a tough gig. It doesn’t appeal to me in any way.”
Although online media outlets have provided more opportunities, he added, fewer publications pay for stories and those that pay less than they once did are disappearing. He believes that travel writing is easier for writers who are young and single, have a spouse who can help pay the bills, or are retired and looking to travel.
“My advice to myself and everyone else in my situation is: Put up or shut up,” said Fisher. “Just accept what’s happening and move forward and try to do your best in terms of earning money while still getting to write and travel – or just stop doing it.”
Akin to advertorials
One veteran Canadian writer, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from publishers, has essentially stopped writing about travel, because her opportunities have declined and she objects to the use of free content and publications’ reduced ethical standards.
“When I started travel writing, most of the content was produced or regularly gathered by journalists or people who had been experienced travel writers,” said the woman, who has written widely about travel for newspapers, travel and lifestyle magazines and websites. “Today, (the majority of published content) is not written by journalists or even writers. The public may not even be aware that the content that they’re getting is free content that, as far as I’m concerned, is akin to advertorials.”
She and other freelancers interviewed said many writers are willing to write for free in order to become online influencers and earn free trips funded by tourism groups. But the would-be influencers lack a journalist’s “critical eye.”
“Even the most seasoned writers tell me they are struggling,” she said. “Many, like me, are applying for part time (communications) gigs to pay the bills.”
Opportunities with tourism boards
Debra Cummings, a long-time travel editor and writer who now serves as the University of Calgary’s alumni publications editor, said markets have “really changed” and print-media travel writing opportunities have “really dried up.”
“I think it’s very tough to write for a substantial amount of money now at all in print,” said Cummings.
She said the online influencers have “eroded the whole (paid) system.” But a “whole new batch” of writers is getting assignments “and making money.”
“They’ve got huge traffic and they are being hired by the travel boards around the world, and certainly in Canada, to tell their stories,” she said.
Cummings has held editor positions with the Calgary Herald, WestJet’s in-flight magazine (through contractor Red Point Media) and Travel Alberta. She has also reported extensively on her own excursions for those organizations and CBC, which ran monthly features and a four-part series on the year her family spent travelling around the world.
She said online content, including tweets, blog posts and Facebook yarns for tourism groups are selling right now, and freelancers can receive for $5,000 to $6,000 for “whole packages” – including video in some cases. But such arrangements have resulted in many writers losing control over their content, which does not contain negative observations “or even brutally honest reflections or opinions on a place.”
“Travel writing has always been tricky because there has always been a lot of boosterism in travel writing for these free trips,” she said. “But, in the past, depending on who you were with and who you were as a journalist, I think, you had a little bit more control in your approach and in your integrity and in how you wrote and told your story of the place. I’d like to think that it’s still there, but I am seeing it less.”
Loyalty to readers
Noting she does not mean to be judgmental, Cummings said writers’ first loyalty should be to their readers – not tourism groups.
Writers can be assured that tourism boards awarding contracts do not expect any negative coverage – because those groups are footing the bill.
“That’s the difference – it depends on who pays for a whole pay-to-play,” she said. “The rules of the game have changed. I think a good writer and a good journalist can work around that, but it’s tricky, though.”
Cummings sits on the board of the Travel Media Association of Canada, whose members include travel industry and media professionals. She advises freelancers trying to break into travel writing to network extensively and join groups like TMAC, which require writers to have a certain number of travel stories published before they can become members.
“I’m giving my stories away”
Veteran Oakville, Ont.-based writer, Patrick Brennan, said his TMAC membership has resulted in many press-trip invitations over the years. But he might be an exception in that he is a highly experienced veteran willing to write free travel stories due to changing conditions in the media industry.
Brennan said The Toronto Star and Postmedia publications have stopped paying for freelance travel stories, choosing to publish wire and syndicated copy instead. He still submits free articles to the Star, based on a previous agreement that has enabled him to go on press trips.
“Here I am at the end of a good (career) run and I’m giving my stories away – because I want the travel,” said Brennan, a retired Star reporter and editor. “I don’t need the money, because I have a decent pension.”
But, he added, he is waiting to learn the fate of recent travel articles submitted to The Star as the newspaper finalizes the outsourcing of its travel section’s editing services. Consequently, he has not applied for press trips outside of Canada because he is not certain that The Star or Postmedia will run his future stories.
Brennan tries to combine press trips with paid out-of-town real estate, construction and development magazine assignments. In addition, he does a contra deal with Roadstories.ca, which runs stories about Canadian destinations, whereby the publisher provides complimentary hosting of his website as compensation for his articles.
But for most freelance travel writers with whom he is in contact, “trying to get paid is a big deal.”
“They’re having real trouble getting paid after they submit the story – and they’ve been told they would be paid,” he said. “There are so many publications that are just on the edge of disappearing. They’re still buying stories from people and then they don’t have any money when it comes time to pay for them.”
Love it or leave it
He said it’s best if freelance travel writers deal with familiar editors and publications with whom they’ve worked before. That way, writers will be aware of a publication’s payment procedures and integrity level. He advises travel writers to seek opportunities with professional-organization, sports, lifestyle and other publications that have travel sections.
In his view, young writers trying to break into travel writing should put more emphasis on getting published than getting paid. Published stories can be used as selling tools that lead to press-trip invitations, a strong reputation and lucrative paydays.
“The good magazines are still paying very well,” said Brennan. “But they’re using people that they’ve used for, maybe, the last six years – not fresh new faces. If you’re a fresh new face, you have to do whatever you can to get your name in front of the editor. Forget about the money. Just write the story.”
And Canadian freelance travel writers are not alone in their struggles.
Robert Moeginger, a freelance travel writer based in Munich, said similar conditions are common in Europe.
A one-time freelance news reporter, Moeginger has been writing books and articles about his trips for approximately 25 years on a part-time basis while keeping full-time jobs. Currently, he works for a global insurance company, helping sick and injured clients get home to Germany from abroad.
He warned that freelancers will not make a living by writing about travel exclusively – and are better off not trying to break into the field at all. He advised those who feel they must do so to pitch stories on their own travels first.
“Don’t start by going on press trips,” he said. “(They) will spoil you and will make you dependent. You don’t deliver, you don’t get (more) invitations.”
He offers blunt advice to veteran writers who have become disenchanted with travel writing.
“Love it or leave it,” he said. “And, get a second foot in the door somewhere else – or marry rich.”
Monte Stewart is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. He covers sports, business and other topics for wire services, newspapers, magazines and online media outlets in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. You can find him on Twitter at @MonteStewart.
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