Extended online report

Some mileage left in travel writing

Despite shrinking newspaper travel desks with fewer pages to fill, travel editors still "need freelances". Although these are difficult times, it is still possible to make money writing travel pieces for the print media (and their websites) or via some intriguing new i-Pad-age models for travel writing.

Travel writing was the focus of London Freelance Branch's April meeting. Our speakers were former Indy on Sunday travel editor Kate Simon, who now runs her own freelancing operation, and former Metro travel editor Keiran Meeke - now editor-in-chief of i-Pad travel magazine TRVL.

Kate Simon © Mike Holderness

Kate Simon

Kate, who was Mother of Chapel (NUJ rep at the workplace level) at the Indy, recalled how the IoS of the 1990s had a 12-page stand-alone travel section edited with the assistance of a part-timer: but "when I left I was alone on a three-day week on seven pages in the main section" - and more reliant than ever on freelances. The same paper in 1986 paid £190 a thousand... these days the rate for 1000 is £200 ". A decline in (print) advertising has shrunk the Observer travel section to "just one or two pages". And "getting the attention of editors" is hard too: they're "notoriously self-important and very busy. Even the mighty Telegraph has lost staff off its travel desk."

Nowadays, says Kate, travel journalists "could spend three to five days trying to sell on a trip that won't make you very much", while the best travel writers have to supplement their travel work with "another skill: architecture, nature, wildlife, food and drink."

In travel, Kate warns that many outlets now won't pay for copy. Travel assignments are often used as rewards in-house for "non-writing journalists... a little perk on top of your salary... Sometimes the secretary goes, they've never written before in their life. It devalues the business for everyone." Staff on a travel gig as a perk are not paid for their writing, and are increasingly expected to take those days out of their paid holidays. Kate recalls one travel editor briefly with IoS who told her to "fix me up with a ski-ing holiday" - the travel PRs who'd paid for it "threatened a lawsuit after he produced no copy."

Kate feels "we should be proud of travel writing and we must maintain or right to be paid for what we do. People often say it's their favourite thing to read on a Sunday."

But in such a competitive landscape, Kate warns you can't just pitch to an editor with "I'm going to Singapore, would you like something?" Your pitch and your piece need to be different, to "give a snapshot of an experience," she advises. Travel journalism isn't just about "turn left, turn right, it's about storytelling... Find a new story - via social networking locally, or by looking at local newspapers." And LFB member Hillary Macaskill - whose work includes travel writing - reminded the audience that "you've never sold an article unless you've sold it three times"

Kieran Meeke © Mike Holderness

Kieran Meeke

Keiran Meeke used to work for Metro. Why was it a success, he asked? Given away for free, easy to read (facilitated by a staple keeping it together), light-hearted but still a "quality tabloid", it helped force the Indy, the Times and the Guardian to go tabloid or Berliner. But, he believes, the "whole model for newspapers is broken" when it comes to the internet.

Newspapers are generalists, but "the internet is specialised. People want to do one thing on the internet, and do one thing well." TRVL is a free to download i-Tunes app magazine. It covers "one destination per issue... but readers have a choice of 50 destinations." Reports are 3000 words, with 40 photos and two videos. TRVL's team can tell from page-view data that people spend 25 minutes reading its "quality journalism." The magazine was an estimated three months away from reaching a readership of a million, at which point it expects to start making money through advertising. A man reading TRVL in China will see different ads than a woman in Singapore.

Testimonials claim readers would pay for TRVL if it wasn't free, but, says Keiran, "we know that's a lie - only five per cent would donate 99 cents (US) a month to charity as an experimental subscription." The magazine is "still at start-up phase", it's been going a year, with staff of ten based in Amsterdam and London. Now Keiran is working to "build a stable of writers who know their destination."

Why, he asked, are British journalists going to, say, Singapore in the first place? It's a "weird idea, why shouldn't people in the NUJ equivalent in Singapore, or Chile, or wherever, do it?" I-Pad readership is worldwide and there are six times as many readers in China as in Britain. Keiran believes "the future is in being a total expert in what you do... You need people who are real experts at seeing a place you don't live in."

TRVL was "set up by editor, an Apple geek and a photographer plus a tech guy". It "doesn't have editors who want to go on these trips." It's Kieran's hope that this model can "free up the writer". He related how journalist Henry Morton Stanley was sent out to Africa in 1867 by the New York Herald, with instructions to draw £1000 in expenses. "What happens that runs out?" he asked: "draw another thousand", he was told, and another, as long as he found missing explorer David Livingstone. That, said Keiran, is "our dream".

Last modified: 07 May 2012 - © 2012 contributors
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