Why I’ll Never Be a Professional Travel Blogger
There have been a flood of posts lately explaining why being a travel blogger is really, really hard. It isn’t, obviously.
It’s not subsistence farming in a drought. It’s not child protection or first response. It’s not labouring in the sewers, in a sweatshop, or on zero-hours contracts at the minimum wage. Nor is it rocket science, the SAS or brain surgery.
Further, there’s a phenomenally low bar to entry. You need a degree of literacy sufficient to hone such inadvertently memorable prose as “Climbing a rocky hill in the hot afternoon sun we met a friendly Boudin youngster desperate to sell us locally created paraphilia.”
You need some form of photographic equipment – delusions of grandeur strictly optional, though they tend to follow. And you’ll need the minimal technical knowhow required to navigate WordPress’ user interface.
Oh yes. According to the single most entitled GoFundMe appeal I’ve seen yet, you also need a MacBook Air and tech support, because otherwise you can’t get free stuff.
Yet… I am currently sitting in my garden, typing. That isn’t difficult. Admittedly, I honed my typing skills over 20-ish years as a jobbing hack, so YMMV. I may go out later and take some photos. That isn’t difficult, either (although, lord knows, my photography has some way to go).
So why will I never be a professional travel blogger?
You don’t just get a free trip, but you get paid to go on the free trip and write nice things about the organisation(s) that are paying you, and hashtag the living daylights out of it on social media for other shills to retweet.
Here’s the rub. It’s difficult for even venerable publications with top-flight writers and audiences thousands of times that of even the biggest travel blogger to make money online.
And travel blogging audiences are tiny. The overwhelming majority of “top-tier” travel bloggers are achieving between 30,000 and 100,000 pageviews monthly (members of the Professional Travel Bloggers Association, an organisation with which I was once involved when becoming a professional travel blogger seemed like a good idea, average under 30,000 monthly page views). As far as I know, not one travel blog, as distinct from travel websites, is hitting a million page views monthly.
So how DO they make money when, say, The Guardian is losing money? When even hugely popular sites like the wonderful The Daily Mash struggle to attract subscribers at a very few bucks a pop?
Besides paid links, the elephant in the room of travel blogging, the overwhelming “business” model at the moment is sponsorship, AKA content marketing. That means you don’t just get a free trip, but you get paid to go on the free trip and write nice things about the organisation(s) that are paying you, and hashtag the living daylights out of it on social media for other shills to retweet. Typically, a contract is signed, guaranteeing the “client” [sic], specific amounts of coverage over a certain span of time, agreeing to share and retweet content written by others working for the client, and establishing specific angles and key messages for the bloggers’ audiences.
Which strikes me as, ya know, a little dishonest for the reader. Isn’t it relevant that you are actually being paid to market the destination?
Practitioners typically spout acres of brain-shrinkingly tedious guff and reams of semiliterate pomposity about “editorial independence” whenever someone tries to point out that if you’re being paid to write about something by the place you’re writing about, there might be a degree of pressure to gloss over any negatives.
Said dishonesty has been the subject of much debate in what I can only call an “industry” by deploying factory-size scare quotes. Content marketing practitioners typically spout acres of brain-shrinkingly tedious guff and reams of semiliterate pomposity about “editorial independence” whenever someone tries to point out that if you’re being paid to write about something by the place you’re writing about, there might be a degree of pressure to gloss over any negatives, or even, heaven forfend, something in the goddamn contract, no?
The fact remains that I have only ever seen two negative writeups of a free trip. There was this one, where Adventurous Kate – whom I know and like – was on a free trip when her boat sank (whoops!), and this one, where Lauren – whom I also know and like – pointed out that, actually, the glow worms in Waitomo are much more magical if you crawl around looking for them with some mates rather than joining a group tour. I did mean to do one about a truly tedious group tour in Venice, but I was already several months behind on my life, and I hadn’t guaranteed coverage, so I let it ride.
I have NEVER seen a negative writeup of a paid trip (nor, for that matter, have I ever seen a disclosure to readers that the blogger is being paid to write up the trip). If you’ve spotted either of these rare, shy creatures, please do link to them in the comments – or spare me the editorial independence bullshit, because that weird buzzing you can hear is Ben Bradlee spinning in his grave. (Oh, and for a truly great press trip writeup, check this out.)
Someone once told me, à propos of hiring bloggers, “It’s like hiring a copywriter, basically, except they’ve already got their own Facebook following”. (Bloggers are also considerably cheaper and generally less precious about hotel rooms.)
But it’s not just that model that’s problematic for me. It’s the social media element, which is also central to content marketing gigs – someone once told me, à propos of hiring bloggers, “It’s like hiring a copywriter, basically, except they’ve already got their own Facebook following”. (Bloggers are also considerably cheaper and generally less precious about hotel rooms.)
Firstly, I don’t own a smartphone, I rarely wear makeup or style my hair, and I find selfie sticks intrinsically ridiculous. Secondly, I enjoy being offline and in the moment, rather than observing it, looking for the good angle.
I like Twitter and Facebook as much as the next person, and very probably more than most, but I tend to use them for catching up with my friends, chatting to interesting people and, well, ya know, bitching and occasionally fighting, rather than building my PERSONAL BRAND®. (Bad blogger!)
Further, my spawn is actively resistant to any lunch-photographing activities, and, while he’s good-looking and photogenic, using him as a tool to sell some kind of lifestyle dream sits wrongly with me. (Is there any child labour law covering this sort of thing?)
If you want to be a professional travel blogger, you really need to work social media. (And not just by gaming the numbers, a topic on which everything in this post from 2012 still stands, although the pseudoscience has scaled new peaks of delusion with the “measurement of online ROI”.)
And – while not hard compared to any number of things that billions of people do all around the world every single day – working social media is both time-consuming and intensely disruptive of normal life. (Think of poor darling Kimye, spending four days of their honeymoon retouching their wedding snap for Instagram, but without the multi-million dollar rewards, and in a hostel, not a mansion.)
“By the time we’ve taken photos of our lunch, updated facebook, tweeted, pinned and instagrammed the kids are running loose and our food is cold.”
One thread that stands out in all the “travel blogging is hard” posts is the sheer pressure of keeping up social media engagement while travelling and working, and, in the case of “nomadic” family travel bloggers, raising and home-schooling a child or children. (Or, of course, letting feral toddlers injure themselves or shit all over restaurants because mum’s stuck behind the laptop selling the family travel dream or asking Facebook why her kids seem a bit behind.)
Because – here’s the thing. Not only do these bloggers work long hours – which is a feature common to most fields of freelance endeavour, particularly those in which one can easily get distracted by the interwebz and the Daily Mail sidebar of doom, or sucked into the vortex of STFUParents.com, and OMG did you SEE the Irish Catholic interviewer’s face when Stephen Fry talked about what he’d say to God if he met him… I’m sorry. Let me take that one more time.
Not only do these bloggers work long hours… They are, many of them, constantly working, looking for the angle for the stunning selfie, or the next cute kid picture, or AN Other Google-sourced listicle that just might go viral – aspirants like this guy combine 40+-hour weeks with full time jobs, and, according to his website title, he parties hard too.
Or, as Craig from YTravelBlog puts it, “By the time we’ve taken photos of our lunch, updated facebook, tweeted, pinned and instagrammed the kids are running loose and our food is cold.”
Where is the space for unfiltered life? Life without the lens. Life without the audience. Just – ya know! – living.
And I suspect this, in the end, can become not just time-consuming but actively soul-destroying.
It’s the inability to enjoy a pretty sunset without snapping, processing, hashtagging and sharing, or go for a massage without shooting the goddamn spa. It’s putting on a full face of prom queen makeup to go hiking so you’re happy with the selfies. It’s spending a lovely sunny afternoon sharing content you’ve not read, and not taking 24 hours away from work for years on end.
Or, in the case of Gary Arndt, who sold a successful business to start his travel blog, it’s failing to find the time for even the basics of friendships, dentistry and eating properly.
Because amid this crowded social media schedule, amid the busyness of marketing a dream, where is the space for unfiltered life? For quiet family time? For a good book? For travelling, without a marketing angle? For a life without the lens, a life without the audience, for just – ya know! – living? I honestly don’t know.