When did blogging lose its soul?

With a small handful of worthy exceptions I rarely read travel blogs any more. Why? PR and marketing folks have firmly identified blogs as great places for them to promote their brands and their clients’ products. When writers (on any platform) get 5-star and Michelin-star carrots dangled before them, then the inevitable result is more writing that is shaped by their sponsors’ commercial objectives and less that is sparked by personal curiosity and strong opinion.

People taking free stuff doesn’t bother me – but when I see writing that’s blatantly written with more than half an eye on pleasing the sponsor (they’re often referred to as clients) without disclosing the relationship I quickly lose interest. I’m only one potential reader but I doubt I’m alone. And it’s certainly not restricted to blogging – if anything it’s more blatant in mainstream media and the disclosure more opaque (or absent). My disappointment with the state of travel blogging is that it has the potential to offer something different.

Is the world of PR responsible for turning so much of travel blogging into a tool for promoting others’ commercial interests? It’s certainly offered the bait, but I suspect they have merely exploited the fact that in eager travel bloggers they’ve found a medium through which they can show some impressive numbers to their clients for relatively little cost.

Ah yes, those numbers. This is something I really struggle with. Take this blog for example. According to the great G, in the last month I’ve had 32,000 page views from 10,000 visitors. Not world-beating statistics, but modestly respectable. I’ve been told several times I’m wasting an opportunity to cash in and make some money from the site.

But what do those numbers actually mean? Are 10,000 people really looking at my posts each month? I don’t believe it for a minute. If 100 people have any awareness of this site (beyond family, friends and fellow writers) I’d be surprised. If 20 people checked in regularly to see what I’d written (not much these days, I admit) I’d be shocked. I suspect this blog, along with many with similar traffic, has about as much influence as a tea bag in the Atlantic Ocean.

And yet the offers keep coming. I’ve had offers of free trips to 6 continents in the last year (501 Places is sadly not big enough to attract a couple of berths to Antarctica). I’ve politely declined in each case, but do wonder what the sponsors are getting from sharing their company profits with a random selection of travel-hungry strangers. Yes, they’ll get some impressive numbers – but what are they REALLY getting? I don’t know, but my scepticism grows by the day.

As for Twitter, my heart sinks whenever I see yet another promotional hashtag doing the rounds, whether it’s for a press/blog trip, a competition or just a PR-invented way of pushing their client’s wares. Just as with writing, when people are clearly tweeting with an eye on pleasing their sponsors it’s hardly surprising that the average observer will lose interest.

Anyhow, what do I know? I’ll carry on wasting the chance to make money from this site and let others take those offers of amazing trips and once-in-a-lifetime experiences in return for a pocketful of hashtags. If their readers (or fans as I see them referred to on bloggers’ forums without a shred of irony) are happy, then who am I to rain on their parade. 

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

54 Responses to “When did blogging lose its soul?”

  1. I disagree, the problem is not offers but the follow through. I would love to be in a position to be offered travel junkets, but I would write what I want. If the offers stop coming that is something I can live with but maybe you will be surprised? Am I very naive to think it might be about building community in the larger sense?

    April 11, 2014 at 8:34 pm
    • Hi Anna, There are trips where participants are left with the freedom to write as they want, and others where the level of direction is quite disturbing. If those who are selecting people for a trip actually did a little due diligence they would be able to find the bloggers/writers to fit their needs (and I wouldn’t get a fraction of the invites I get) – sadly this level of sophistication/common sense remains elusive. Community building requires some long-term thinking, beyond getting Twitter/FB impressions from a particular trip – for various reasons this seems to be harder to achieve than it should be.

      April 11, 2014 at 9:41 pm
  2. While I can’t answer the question of “when” blogging lost its soul, I do thank you a million times for writing this echo of my thoughts. I would direct you to a post I wrote on the topic, but frankly it’s not worth reading. I’ll summarize as best I can.

    I’ve never actually read travel blogs, ever. Why? Because I don’t like them. Once in a while, a Google search takes me to one. But the quality of writing and usefulness of information prevents me from following any. I believe the PR/marketing cheapens what is already just a bunch of shallow lists and shoutouts to other travel bloggers. Some blogs are better than others, but the audience, the activity, has become solipsistic. I am compiling a list of blogs I like, and I haven’t hit ten yet.

    The irony is that I’m trying to be a good travel blogger, and yet I have few role models given the way I feel about what’s out there. So I’m doubtful whether or not I will be able to create something of value. I’m also new to this game (blogging, not traveling). I’ve been one of those “digital nomads” for five years, but completely unselfconsciously and certainly inadvertently. I am a traditional freelance writer, and my blog was just for friends and family to live vicariously through us.

    Now I am taking a breather from incessant travel, and thought I would polish my blog so that it may serve as part of my professional portfolio. I have no readers or followers yet. If i hit 100 views in a day, I jump giddily. I just don’t seem to fit in to the marketing-style niche that has been established. I had no idea that was what one needed to do to gain respect or notoriety, which is what I want more than petty pennies earned here and there on junkets. It is discouraging to see that to gain exposure as a blogger, one needs to be shrill and catch the attention of PR/marketing teams.

    I do want more people to visit my blog, so I got active on Twitter. And that’s when it really hit me that I’m in over my head. I’m a writer, and we aren’t very good at marketing. And if I sell out, my blog will reflect that. My reputation is something I care much more about than being comp’d a stay at a resort. And yet, if I did get an offer…would that be a sign that I’ve “succeeded” in getting people to read my blog? Tough question to answer.

    April 12, 2014 at 1:19 am
    • HI Sunshine, Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. And don’t be discouraged – I guess I went the other way in that I started writing on the blog and did try to build an audience, then quickly found that I was happier writing for my family, for friends and most of all for myself. For me it’s a place to practice my writing (and to share Sam’s photography) with the ultimate aim of helping my freelance work. Blog to have fun with your own writing and if anything extra that’s unexpected comes out of it, so much the better.

      April 12, 2014 at 11:19 pm
  3. As to why people promote through travel blogs — they do it because it works as one of many avenues to promote a destination/product/company. Simple as that. I’ve done reader surveys of my audience and my site has inspired a good percentage of people to consider going to specific places they’ve never thought of going to before they were exposed to it there (and obviously this would be true for other well followed blogs/websites also). No different than reading about something in Conde Nast or National Geographic Traveler.

    As to blogging “losing its soul,” not sure I can remotely agree with you. It is becoming an actual profession, no different than regular travel magazines have been for quite some time. Frankly, I find a LOT more honest evaluation of a destination/hotel/or whatever in the typical blog than the typical travel magazine. When is the last time you saw anything remotely negative published in Travel & Leisure? Or pretty much any other travel magazine you can think of.

    Perhaps you should just get out and read more blogs. There are hundreds upon hundreds of them. I can suggest some of the ones that write for my site as particularly good: http://floratheexplorer.com/ or http://www.heleninwonderlust.co.uk/ or Ed Graham’s post on the dark side of travel on my site: http://www.goseewrite.com/2014/03/dark-side-of-travel/

    And lots more. Like anything else, there is a lot of bleh stuff out there, but given the emergence of travel blogs in the last couple years there is a TON of great writing and photography out there, if you want to look for it.

    April 12, 2014 at 2:04 pm
    • Hi Michael, I feared I was going to write an essay, but then I saw Pam’s comment and she’s spared me the trouble – I won’t duplicate her words. I agree that there are some good folks out there who can write well – I don’t want to compare with T+L or other mags, because honestly that’s not who bloggers should be aspiring to be measured against. The most exciting potential for blogs is to go where magazine editors don’t tread for fear of upsetting their sponsors. Perhaps I need to reassess my Twitter timeline, but of the ones I see pass through there aren’t many folks going out and producing the kind of stuff that would knock my socks off.
      Let me ask you this (and I’m asking with no intended prejudice – I just don’t know the answer). What are the new crop of bloggers interested in when they choose what to listen to at blogging conferences? Do the sessions on how to write better attract as much interest as those on monetising or on SEO? Is there an appetite among younger (I mean newer) bloggers to sharpen their writing skills? It would be great to know that of the hundreds out there starting their blogs each year, there was real enthusiasm to excel as writers. But as I said in the post, that’s just me. For other readers it’s the photos – and for others still, their perception of good writing is entirely different to mine. Hey ho…
      Thanks as always – we should knock this topic around over beer sometime…

      April 12, 2014 at 11:33 pm
      • What is exactly wrong with making a living?

        Let me tell you what I aspire to in my blogging career. I’d like to do something l like to do well enough to make a living at it. As a bonus, I do it well enough that I get to travel about 50 weeks out of the year, to some places I really enjoy quite a lot, and get to meet some great people all over the world.

        Blogging isn’t just writing. Bloggers are publishers, not merely writers. If I wanted to be a paid hack, I’d get some boring technical writing job, sit at my house somewhere, write crap I don’t give a shit about 45 weeks of the year, travel maybe 8-10 weeks of the year (a good number of those trips being sponsored, whilst I bitch and moan about others doing the same thing), publish some occasional travel articles in a few places for meager pay, and revel in the “real writer echo chamber” of comments on Twitter and my posts on my occasionally-read blog where I complain about the travel bloggers out there making a full-time living of it. But I think that job is taken.

        I’m not here to knock your particular socks off. Neither are the other bloggers out there.

        If you, or anyone else, don’t like travel blogs, then don’t read them. We have audiences, some of us fairly big and dedicated audiences, and we are writing and producing for them. If those of us churning out what you don’t want to read are the John Grishams of the world and you don’t cater to that sort of content… move along. But then again, I think in their heart of hearts, almost every writer scraping out a living pretending to be the next Gabriel García Márquez or Alice Munro (“I’m certain that a literary agent is going to sign me soon… I really have to be good enough to get a book published. I know I am”), would be quite happy to be Steven King or John Grisham and make a nice living doing what they like to do.

        Guess what? There are a number of us living pretty damn awesome lives where we get to do what all travel writers at least say they like to do… travel. We publish and make enough money from our efforts to do so permanently. Again, not just writing, but publishing. Is my particular magazine more like Conde Nast than the Granta? Likely. But then again, the publisher in me is happy that it is successful and allows me to make a living from it.

        But I’ll hoist that pint with you anytime. Of the real writer crowd out there, you are one of the few whose company I quite enjoy. Tell ya what, meet you out here on the road and I’ll buy.

        April 13, 2014 at 5:29 am
        • That description in the second paragraph Michael? Too close to the truth for comfort.

          April 13, 2014 at 8:30 am
          • You are never in my crosshairs, mate. And… beers on me next time, on account of getting me all riled up. 😉

            April 13, 2014 at 8:42 am
        • Nah well, some of rings true in any case. Will try not become too bitter in my old age. Aside from that, yes – there are readers for all types of content and if one type doesn’t appeal to me I can move on and the writers have millions of other potential readers to appeal to.
          Apart from those awful barely-intelligible link-stuffed guest posts that spamming SEO companies keep sending to me and asking me to publish on here – and which I occasionally see appearing around the web. Now I seriously find it hard to believe anyone finds any value in those. Another topic though…

          April 13, 2014 at 9:51 am
          • No reading value at all to those, but if they are publishing them in a manner where you run into them, they don’t know crap about how to run a website. Much better ways to do those and basically hide them away on your site, so normal readers never find them.

            And you will never be as old or grumpy as me, mate. You’ll never catch up on either score 😉

            April 13, 2014 at 1:26 pm
  4. I agree totally. But a little part of me is pleased. What do all these amateurs really know about travel anyway? Hopefully they will all wither on the vine and people will eventually wake up and realise much of the ‘travel blogger phenomenon’ is hot air. There’s a handful of exceptions, but a tiny percentage in my opinion.

    April 12, 2014 at 3:55 pm
    • Thanks Jeremy – and I’d love to see those exceptions rise to the top and the for the ones who give travel blogging a bad name to move onto something else. But for now the vine is still growing and for those that wither it seems new ones keeping joining the party. In an ideal world we can appreciate good writers and good photographers and not care less which platforms they use to publish their work.

      April 12, 2014 at 11:39 pm
  5. pam #

    Travel publishing has been on a slow decline for a decade and the rush to create independent work to fill what we naively hope is a “need” for better writing about stories is what motivates a lot of us. I supported Matthew Teller’s jump to Beacon (though they need to lower their pricing structure, sorry, 15/quarter for a website subscription is too high to maintain), I supported 99% Invisible, an independent audio project I just adore, and as much as sports writing isn’t my thing, I’m considering giving money to a project World Hum editor Eva Holland is involved with around that topic. I suppose the fact that I’m willing to give money to these things shows how much I “need” good writing to exist, but I reluctantly agree with Michael, above, who uses the worst of the worst, T+L, to illustrate the decline.

    But there’s a marked difference in how this stuff works. T+L is a large machine of a business, indy blogs are — were — scrappy, independents, the equivalent of heading down to the copy shop in the 80s to paste your newsletter together and Xerox 100 copies that you’d leave in the coffee house or… where ever because you so wanted your story to be heard. Emo kids everywhere loved the photocopier, and later, they loved Blogger and WordPress because it felt like it gave them a voice.

    Now, indy blogs want to BE T+L, they’re not a response to its existence. “That’s shit,” the blog author says, hurling down the latest spread on Santiago or Siem Reap, “I can do better than this.” But they don’t take the opportunity to do so. They use the exact same methods that lead to the creation of flaccid, uninteresting stories. Like big magazines, the motivation is economics over edification. Can I sell links? Can I get PR dollars? Can I get a day rate? Or they’re self aggrandizing — “I’m on a boat, motherfucker!” The emo kids are back under the bleachers (is that an Americanism?) while the ones on the field look an awfully lot like PR, so much so that it’s getting hard to tell the difference. Zine or T+L? How would you know?

    I have a good understanding of how this happened — distribution of tools, collapse of the travel publishing market, zero bar to entry (you can literally blog for free), digital photography, internet everywhere. I can — and do sometimes — bitch all day long about how unhappy it makes me that a medium I once loved has gone to the dogs. For every example of a good piece, I can present you with 100 that are tripe. Without trying. I’ve been trying to use search for a project lately, and I can’t find anything genuinely useful until page 4 or 5 of the results these days, so cluttered have SEO monkeys made the web.

    But I ask you, in all seriousness: What can we do about it? The rewards for generating traffic and being cozy and compromised with PR are high, the rewards for placing a firewall between sales and editorial, not so much so. Rock solid journalistic integrity makes it hard to pay the bills. I want — as much as anyone, maybe more — to see an end to this trend, but honestly, I have no fucking clue how to Make It Stop.

    A good friend — early adopter of social media in travel and who works in the space — made an observation I both hated hearing and think might be right. She said the indy web is dying. Do you think we can save it?

    April 12, 2014 at 4:38 pm
    • Not much to add Pam – you’ve summed up the things I wanted to say and didn’t. To you final(ish) point – what can we do about it? We can’t make it stop. The marketing machine needs feeding and there are enough bloggers supplying the fodder to keep it growing for a long time to come. All we can do is keep trying our best to write something that challenges/informs/entertains the folks who care to look at it. Yes we have to wade through pages of crap on Google but hey, I throw 90% of stuff that comes through my letterbox into the recycle bin without a second glance. That’s the world we live in. There is good travel stuff out there from folks who are not prepared to compromise their independence for the rewards on offer – I resent the fact that it’s getting harder to find in the mass of mediocrity but perhaps it makes it even sweeter when we do find it. Let’s not give up.

      April 12, 2014 at 11:53 pm
      • Apart from agreeing with everything you and Pam have both said, I’m so glad to have finally rediscovered Beacon. I only touched on it briefly last year but I’ve spent months trying to remember its name (I got it confused with Storify at one point) and openly asking Twitter to no reply. So thank you Pam!!

        April 13, 2014 at 8:32 am
        • Thanks Chris – yes, I’ve signed up to Beacon largely to read Matthew’s material and because the idea sounds like a good one. I’ll run with it for a while but I think they will need to serve up a lot more material from their writers to make it a long-term success.

          April 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm
  6. Thank you for posting this, although I’m not 100% with you I can still see your point. I’m just at the beginning of my travel writing and I have been reading near enough every blog I can find and the quality of content definitely varies massively. Some bloggers go out of their way to write engaging content and do very little advertising style earning whereas other blogs seem to be an advert for whoever has the money to pay them. I’d like to think there is a nice balance between the two that most bloggers can aspire to, which consists of great content and very few adverts etc and instead funding the blog through selling useful products for it’s readers. That way the blog remains true to it’s self whilst funding the authors lifestyle

    April 12, 2014 at 8:36 pm
    • Hi Jacob and thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your travel writing exploits. There is a balance to be struck and placing ads isn’t a bad thing in itself. As long as you’re honest about your arrangements with your readers and you focus on producing the great content blogging can and should be hugely enjoyable. The common advice is ‘Write for your readers’ but perhaps ‘write for yourself’ is more apt. If you have a warm glow of pride when you hit Publish and believe you’ve really taken the time to craft something special, then you’re onto a good thing. Enjoy!

      April 12, 2014 at 11:59 pm
  7. Hi Andy, Google Analytics will actually tell you what part of your audience is committed — you can break it down by visits per month, pages per visit, etc, and see who’s (eg) looking at more than 10 pages a month (or however often you post), or coming back more than 3x a month. And that’ll tell you how many of that audience are aware of you as a brand/individual and following you personally — you may well be pleasantly surprised by that.

    Must dash! Off to check my Klout score, join some Triberr groups, buy some Facebook likes and fabricate some “Twitter impressions”…

    Theodora

    April 13, 2014 at 3:34 am
    • Thanks Theodora, you’ve pushed me into having a decent look at my Google Analytics for the first time. The numbers are pleasantly surprising – very much so – and yet I can’t help remaining sceptical. I guess it’s all a bit anonymous for my comfort…

      April 13, 2014 at 12:58 pm
      • I wouldn’t be. You’re MUCH more likely to reach and influence people than someone with ostensibly higher traffic coming largely from nonsense like Stumbleupon 10-second clicks to “10 best sunrise shots” or “20 amazing beaches” or “99 inspirational travel quotes”. I’m sorry. I, of course, mean “viral, shareable content”….

        And now, I’m off to my book too…

        April 13, 2014 at 2:39 pm
  8. I somewhat promised myself not to read anything in regards to the “death” of travel blogs / journals e.t.c., about two years ago. That’s about the time I stopped reading them entirely.

    While 2009/2010 saw the proliferation of dubious text links in articles at least some blogs held out and actually wrote content around their $50 links to apartments in Spain.

    Since then the ubiquitous “guest post” took over and the story of interesting peoples journeys in the real world got muted by people trying to insert links and search optimisation into anything resembling a story.

    And the stories? Somewhere along the way the stories about giant hairy spiders in dubious hostels and dog burger diarrhea sessions got replaced by top ten lists and happy shiny inspired travel destinations. Or worse yet, what blogging conference they were attending next month.

    All the while the justification of better business practices and commerciality is thrown back at anyone still seeking out a good travel story with continuity.

    There are still some holdouts though! A wander over to Travellerspoint or TravelPod will bring you a bevy of random travel blogs from the real world. Yes Mom and Dad get a mention at times along with moaning Betty and dead end Joe but somewhere between all that we can pull out a story.

    A story about a traveler traveling … just that. Nothing more.

    Thanks for the headline Andy, it pulled me in. Now I’m going back to my book 😉

    April 13, 2014 at 6:25 am
    • Let’s not start on the guest post debate Dave – the bane of my Junk Mail folder. And you’ve reassured me that my regular posts about toilets on the road aren’t entirely pointless. Enjoy your book 🙂

      April 13, 2014 at 1:02 pm
  9. Beautifully reasoned piece, Andy.

    Not sure I agree with the headline. 🙂

    OK, caveat: I’m not a professional travel blogger, and I’m only sorta-kinda a freelance travel writer now I have a private consultancy business replacing that income. I’ve hardly worked with DMOs and my blog has modest traffic. All those things may make me unqualified to have an opinion, but in case that’s not true, here’s one anyway…

    I hate to see bloggers publishing stuff that doesn’t serve their readers with something valuable. I think readers come first, *including* when you’re working with sponsors, because those sponsors want access to those readers. Bad blogging doesn’t serve readers first. And that’s not throwing out sponsored work, that’s not dissing travel blogging as a travel marketing tool. I read blogs of people who are transparently selling things to me because they do so in a way that delights me and gives me something useful *even if* I have no interest in buying what they’re offering, or clicking through and doing the same. That is the very definition of professional blogging.

    I still read the travel bloggers who do this successfully. But more often these days, I’m reading outside travel blogging. I’m interested in people using new tools, or using old tools more effectively, for building an audience that cares. I’m interested in the people who have focused solely on their e-mail subscriptions and have treated e-mail as a blogging platform. When I started doing that at Christmas, I started getting regular clients. I’m interested in seeing people using Wattpad to reach an INCREDIBLE audience (20 million users now) and how they’re guiding those audience to their commercial writing. I’m looking at non-fiction writers using Kindle effectively. I’m looking at everything that’s working really well and at where the people are.

    Since doing this, I’ve felt more focused, I’ve achieved a lot more, and I’m happier. I’m still getting the indiscrimiate pitches in my Inbox and the requests to try out new platforms, and I’m still chewing my lip over accepting some offers that look sorta-kinda-OK-but-not-really (one of which you know about from last week, Andy, because you generously allowed me to pick your brains – thanks for that). But the more I look at what’s working elsewhere, the more I feel everything is evolving rapidly and that is getting mistaken for extinction. I don’t think it is. Good writing and storytelling is a basic requirement for reaching people – and also getting them to open their wallets. The words are just as powerful and the voices are just as strong. It’s the mediums that are changing. Nothing more than that.

    When I make my first $1m from my personal projects, or when someone in travel blogging does something so wildly effective that they make the same amount of cash, I’ll come back and say this is fact. Right now it’s just my best guess. But I believe it.

    The only thing I believe is truly timeless and changing is putting readers first. For artistry, for the thrill of it, for “give so that you shall receive”. Anyone who forgets to serve their readers first is strangling their own Golden Goose. Beyond that, I see lots of change, some of it bewildering – but the world is still ravenous for good stories and purchasing psychology is changing instead of dying.

    I don’t want to make anything stop, mainly because I can’t. I just want to focus on the things that matter to me and the things that will hopefully lift my writing to the audience I think it deserves. The other stuff may be annoying at times, but it’s like complaining about the weather. I’m not Kate Bush & Donald Sutherland, I don’t have a cloudbusting machine (anyone born after 1990, Google it). Nothing will change because I simple want it to change: I just want to either roll my sleeves up and experiment and try to do my bit, or I just shrug my shoulders and write it off as Other Stuff I Don’t Care About. That way feels like a signpost to job satisfaction, so that’s what I’m doing from now on.

    Somewhere in there, I hope, is a point. If anyone sees it, please e-mail me. Thx.

    April 13, 2014 at 2:22 pm
  10. Glad you’ve written this, Andy. As long as even a trickle of people continue to blog with passion and a sense of independence, I don’t know that blogging will every fully die, but I don’t want to take away from your main point, which is about the evisceration of the line between travel writing and marketing.

    This is the thing that I find personally so troubling. I can live with the intimate relationship between travel writers and the travel industry. “They” have products to market & “we” are here to write about them. But the invitation to visit/use/stay should be a test for the place/product/hotel, not a reward (and implicit marketing job) for the writer. The shift in loyalty from audience to client and lack of transparency around terms of engagement are both damaging travel writing, and right now, blogging is the arena where these trends are arguably most pronounced.

    And you know I don’t mind promotional writing. I just want such projects to be understood, packaged, and marketed as such!

    In standard travel writing I’d like to see us define our “clients” as our audiences first and our editors/publications second – DMOs should never be our clients, no matter how hard we’re rooting for them.

    I tried to get at some related themes a few years ago here: http://www.alexrobertsontextor.com/spendthrift_shoestring/2011/02/recently-i-have-noticed-a-handful-of-travel-writers-referring-to-both-outlets-that-is-publications-and-promotional-entiti.html

    April 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm
    • pam #

      “Readers are not well served by travel writers who are simply filtering the marketing priorities of hotels and other promotional entities into their published work.”

      What Alex said. Yo.

      April 13, 2014 at 5:40 pm
      • Unless the marketing priorities of those hotels and other promotional entities are smartly-designed enough to be exactly what readers are after.

        I know this isn’t usually the case, but isn’t there the potential there for smart marketers to offer bloggers something special that they *can* put in their published work, because it does a great job at serving readers with something valuable?

        April 13, 2014 at 6:09 pm
        • pam #

          I’m not sure this is what you’re talking about but there’s this very outdated way of doing travel writing in which you start with an *idea*. Then, you work with DMOs and PR to find the sights (sites?), stays, and stuff that support that idea. Crazy, right? “I want to write about the mole people of York!” “Excellent, you’ll enjoy our underground mole tour, plus, our museum of mole history, plus, there’s this new place, specializing in mole cuisine — you have GOT to have the grub sampler, let me get you a reservation!”

          So old fashioned, yet so much more interesting and focused than “We’d like to swan you and a bunch of media about Shiny Surface Land and you can write about how it’s awesome! Here is a best in house room, a fruit plate, and please meet us in the bar for complimentary cocktails at 4, wear something pretty!”

          April 14, 2014 at 3:18 pm
  11. I think a lot of the shift we are all seeing is a natural progression. In the good ol’ days, travel bloggers blogged for the pure joy of sharing their experiences with the world. Once those bloggers figured out a way to make some money doing it, their own writing changed and others jumped on the bandwagon. That’s pretty normal and to be expected.

    What we are seeing now is that the money is drying up. Bloggers who were in it only for the money are leaving. Those of us who are sticking around are reevaluating our motives and reasons for blogging. We are getting creative about what role our blogs play in our overall business plans. That’s all good.

    Where will it all end up? Who knows? This is all so new and ever-changing that we just can’t know. We just need to do what speaks to each one of us.

    April 13, 2014 at 6:58 pm
  12. I get dozens of emails each month from readers. And hundreds of comments per month on posts on my site. And have been doing this full time since 2008.

    The number of times an average (non-blogger/writer) reader has complained about a sponsored trip: zero.

    In fact, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of emails happy that I’m able to continue traveling full-time partly because of opportunities like this, and also happy that I’m able to write about things I wouldn’t have likely been able to experience without it being sponsored.

    Not like they are shy about complaining about other stuff, just to be clear. But do they care that me, or my eight contributing writers, take sponsored travel? Not a damn bit.

    Give people interesting stuff they want to read about, or in my case these days watch video about, and they really could care less if someone else paid my way there. Who cares? The travel writing/blogging echo chamber. Real people? They could give a crap about it.

    This discussion is a proverbial circle jerk among a very limited (completely irrelevant to your real readership) group of people… travel writers. Witness the comments on this thread. Nary a real person yet.

    April 13, 2014 at 7:43 pm
    • We’re not real people? 🙂 I need to tell the Inland Revenue so they can stop taxing me…

      April 14, 2014 at 1:03 am
    • Of course “average” readers are not interested in this debate. This is a conversation about trends and even ethics within a tiny subset of the larger travel media. Shop talk is rarely of interest to the general public.

      April 14, 2014 at 1:09 am
  13. Andy – good piece, this…

    It’s not a question of blogging per se, it’s actually all about content (yeah, that crappy word, I apologise).

    * Ridiculously wordy stories by folk who want the reader to think they a literary genius.

    * Dull, list-heavy guides to destinations.

    * All about me, me, me.

    * Unnaturally over-filtered photography.

    * No sense of narrative.

    The problem is just that so much of the content is just pisspoor, regardless of the channel.

    Mainstream media, specialist magazines, travel blogs, social media – there’s a ridiculous amount of turgid stuff out there which tries to get away with being useful, revelatory or brilliantly written, when the reality is sadly far from it.

    The reason travel blogs often come under the microscope (and frequently criticised) is that the industry has been told that blogging is the saviour of travel content for the past decade or so.

    It isn’t… And, come on, it was never really going to be…

    What is happening now is that the already slim level of quality that existed has gone down massively due to the large number of people claiming a position in the ecosystem with nothing but, well, crap content.

    It’s the same for bloggers as it for those writing for mainstream media – produce crappy content and nobody will read it.

    Both MSM and bloggers have a problem – the former’s editors are seemingly no longer strong-willed enough to throw copy back at the writer and tell them it’s shite, whilst bloggers are self-editing and don’t have someone guiding them.

    In short:

    Those writing blogs, alongside their mainstream counterparts, should just get better at what they do… and then hopefully usually genteel folk like Andy won’t be moved enough to rant away and upset everyone.

    Oh, and grow a thicker skin.

    April 13, 2014 at 11:05 pm
  14. Great post, Andy : ) I guess the world needs more of us bankers working full-time elsewhere and blogging casually about our holidays…

    April 13, 2014 at 11:35 pm
    • Yes Anna, I think there are few folks (including travel writers/bloggers I know) who travel as much as you do. I’ve just been catching up on your latest – you’ve been busy this year as usual. You’re a stand-out example of someone completely out of the travel writing/blogging circle who I met solely as a result of this blog – a good inspiration to keep going when I slack on my posts.

      April 14, 2014 at 9:57 pm
  15. Congrats on firing up such a lively discussion, Andy. Some excellent comments here too and I think Kev boils it down pretty well to the core point: isn’t it a question of quality above all else? If the content/writing/journalism/whatever you want to call it resonates and benefits its audience then it has done its job. Does the particular “business model” that enabled the content really matter?

    Both the mainstream travel media and indy bloggers are equally capable of producing excellence as well as dross, as has been pointed out above.

    We’re trying to highlight some of that excellence at http://outbounding.org/, and many thanks to the folks commenting here who have been helping us.

    April 14, 2014 at 8:31 am
  16. I’m a normal reader. I care about content. A single sponsored anything and I’m gone forever.Period.

    April 14, 2014 at 8:43 am
    • I’m a normal reader too – when I view another website what else can I be? I guess there are folks that care about sponsored content (I’m there with you), and I presume plenty of others that don’t.

      April 14, 2014 at 9:50 pm
  17. I totally agree. Even when links or sponsored pieces are disclosed to the reader, I still feel like the value of what I’m reading is inherently less genuine than a piece that wasn’t paid for. It’s a fine line to walk, though….I realize that these people need to make a living while traveling, and that people who don’t find a way to fund themselves for full-time travel are less likely to keep up with a quality blog in the first place. Ah, the dilemma!!!

    April 14, 2014 at 2:28 pm
  18. OK, let’s tackle this from the other way round.

    Say someone’s starting up a travel blog for the first time because he or she (a) wants to write/publish content about travel and (b) wants to find a way, eventually, to turn that into some kind of business.

    Personal advice, everyone?

    April 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm
    • First of all, thanks again to all for continuing this debate (and especially to Michael, Pam and Mike for each writing far more than I did in the original post – and there was I thinking that I didn’t get guest posts…)

      Now, to address Mike’s last comment/question. I’ve had folks ask me this question and I suspect several others in this comment thread have heard it far more than I have. I would throw dig deeper into the write/publish question – is their priority to produce the best writing they can and to use the blog as a tool for improving their craft? Then I’d say forget about making money with the blog, enjoy what you do, challenge yourself constantly, seek out constructive critics, sharpen your skills and join the merry band of folk who live from hand to mouth while trying to sell their words to the shrinking ranks of paying publications.
      If they want to produce a website that brings in the numbers and uses its space to monetise through ads, links, etc. – well, I wouldn’t know where to start. I’d point them to others who’ve done that successfully and wish them well. Two very different approaches for two very different activities, even though both involve having a blog.
      Helpful at all?

      April 14, 2014 at 9:47 pm
      • I don’t think that earning income from your blog and writing out of passion needs to be mutually exclusive. Your comment seems to suggest they are.

        April 15, 2014 at 4:18 am
        • Hi Camille, Not so much mutually exclusive as potentially conflicting. If someone has a passion to write about luxury resorts, extreme sports or food/wine tourism for example, there’s plenty of scope to commercialise this. If that person prefers telling stories of broken-down buses, encounters with warlords or visiting sites linked to a dark past, there are fewer PRs, sponsors and even advertisers who will be lining up to work with them. Perhaps I’ve used extreme examples, but I think there is some compromise to be made in most cases, depending on where your interests lie.

          April 15, 2014 at 10:48 am
  19. This post is SO timely as I’ve recently been criticized for not doing sponsored posts and trips through my own blog. My traffic is about comparable to yours, which I interpreted as quite small, though recently many others are telling me I’m missing the opportunity for free travel and sponsorships. For now I’m firm on my stance to keep my site ad and sponsor free, but like many other bloggers have already stated there is absolutely nothing wrong with earning an income from blogging. I believe the key is finding a way to monetize that adds actual value for readers. I’d be interested to hear how other bloggers have managed to do this.

    April 15, 2014 at 4:16 am
  20. Nice piece, and great comments. Thoughtful.

    I’m not sure if blogging lost its soul though, or if people who started out with good intentions just got too tempted along the way, and you haven’t edited your twitter feed lately.

    I started my current blog about a year ago, and since then I’ve seen a number of people I thought were “blogging with soul” change direction into PR and marketing. It always gives me a sinking feeling, them I have to edit my reader and find some new folks.

    And I agree that I don’t edit the reader automatically – some people write in such a way they’re able to get away with it, and have the best of all possible worlds. Mostly not, though.

    April 17, 2014 at 6:03 pm
  21. I love a good navel-gazing session as much as the next guy.

    But, as I’ve said in response other posts like this in the past, you could replace the word “Blogging” in the title with “Indie Filmmaking” or “Hip-Hop” or “Art” and find historical evidence that this same sort of discussion has probably been going on as long as mankind has engaged in creative endeavors.

    What we’re really talking about here is the commercialization and commodification of creativity, and the notion of “selling out.” The schism happening in the world of travel blogging right now ALWAYS happens when something goes from being a largely underground to mainstream phenomenon. Blogging isn’t special, it’s just the New Kid on the Creative Block.

    Think about when Nirvana came along and blew the lid off the burgeoning alt-rock movement. Cobain shot himself because he couldn’t deal, Grohl formed Foo Fighters, a million Candlebox and Seven Mary Three-like knockoffs got signed, and the entire culture was turned into one big f@#$ing cliché. Did that kill alternative culture? No, but it transformed it inexorably. There are some great alt-rock bands that became huge, and also some really crappy ones. A lot of the best, most pure, anti-sellout bands labored in DIY obscurity for years, only to eventually go the way of the dodo.

    The same thing will happen to travel blogging. We’re no different, and we’re not special. We’re just creating stuff– some of us because we’re truly passionate about it, some because we want to see the world, and some simply because we think we can make some easy money. There are as many reasons for blogging as there bloggers. And I see that as a good that.

    I do think it’s pretty sad and shitty that so many bloggers (including some in this thread) want to crap on other bloggers for being more successful. If they spent more time focused on their own business and craftsmanship and less time worried about what everyone else is doing, perhaps they wouldn’t be one of those doomed to toil in obscurity….

    Regardless, thanks for the thought-provoking post, Andy.

    April 20, 2014 at 11:50 pm
  22. Nick #

    I started my writing career as an advertising copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather as then was, straight out of university.

    Now obviously you have to please the client in advertising, you can’t write what you honestly feel about a brand or service or product. ‘Don’t buy this, it’s crap, ‘isn’t a career move.

    But I, and the talented, creative people I was lucky enough to work with, survived writing ‘lies’. We never felt people would die as a result, we did our best to create interesting, amusing TV and press ads that people might actually enjoy enough to at least give our client’s product a chance, If they tried it and didn’t like it then we had done our best, ‘you can lead a horse to water etc’

    So what I am laboriously getting around to is that I commodified my ability to write. I could perhaps have tried my hand at writing novels and remained pure but I didn’t.

    Like so many copywriters after ten years or more, I branched out into food and travel writing and restaurant criticism ( all those lunches and shoots in foreign countries had given me a taste for food and travel).

    If I go on a press trip, and I only go on ones that interest me, I write about what I see and experience honestly. Negatives as well as positives. That is partly a result of my copywriting training.

    Compared to copywriting I have a free hand in what I write, with the obvious caveat that if I slate something unfairly or with malice and spitefulness I know I wont be contacted by that PR company again. So I don’t unless they really, really really deserve it.

    If people want to run ads etc on their blogs to make money they are only doing what magazines have always done. It is not the road to moral ruin, it’s normal.

    All one has to do is apply one’s own limits and standards and stop worrying about other people’s.

    April 21, 2014 at 3:25 pm
  23. Incredible thread and happy to find it. As a writer first, podcaster second, my blog started as yours seems to have, Andy, as a way to get my work ‘out there,’ to practice my craft and find community. Today it’s a hybrid and I continue moving forward, seeking out ways to support my ‘habit’ and reach the standards, the audience, that I admire in travel writing, whatever form it takes.

    I don’t read as many travel blogs as I’d like – but there are only so many hours and so many stories one can create. I’m happy to have found the tribe that matches my passion for exploring the world and will keep working to get my head above water as opportunities open with attention to resonance (personal and outer,) and a nod to SEO. As a creative, I struggle with the business side of writing but juggling keeps one nimble!

    There’s no one way to do it ‘right,’ only narrower paths to doing it well. Keep moving and hopefully, forward.

    April 21, 2014 at 6:23 pm
  24. Late to the party on this, sorry – but wanted to comment anyway.

    I’m on both sides of the coin, really – on the one hand, for the last couple of years I’ve been working for a company which (when I first started) relied on bloggers to do sponsored posts in order to help our clients.

    Ironically I got hired because of my passion for blogging, and perhaps I was naive as to what the job entailed. It ended up revealing to me just how incredibly monetised the world of travel blogging was and made me question who they were all writing for, as someone above said, the audience rarely seemed to be Joe Public looking for holiday advice.

    When all that sponsored post stuff had to stop last year, no one was happier than me. It was my job to read and find blogs, and what I like doing anyway – but it was hard to find one I actually ended up following on a day to day basis away from work because I liked the content / personality behind it.

    On the other hand, I’m a blogger. It’s what I love doing. I’ve blogged since 2007 and haven’t ever really been interested in monetising any of them. I accept the occasional freebie if I think it’ll make a good story / angle, if I can make it funny, if it’s something that makes me go “yes” – but never taken money for content.

    I love reading blogs, love the community around them, love the opportunities and writing practice they afford. But I completely agree that it’s getting more and more difficult to find really good blogs to read that aren’t full of sponsored posts in certain niches – one being travel.

    It’s rare you see a blog improved by sponsorship and money – unless the person at the helm is a really excellent, honest writer, or has an interesting story to tell.

    There’s nothing wrong with earning a living from blogging – like Pam said, we all want to be the big deal one day – but for me, not if it means compromising the content that 100 readers who might come to my blog regularly like, in favour of getting 10,000 passing “hits” from a brand Twitter account who don’t ever come back again.

    Nothing wrong with those who do – they’ll find an audience too. It just won’t be me.

    April 23, 2014 at 3:44 pm
  25. Ian #

    As long as you fully disclose your relationship with the brand and don’t totally sell yourself out, I don’t see a problem with it…

    May 5, 2014 at 6:39 am
  26. Andy, this piece, and all the responses, have been so useful for me – thank you to everyone. I want to share a quick account of our failed foray as a ‘company’ into seeking a relationship with a travel blog. It was our first and to-date, it is also our last.

    She Loves London writes:
    “it’s rare you see a blog improved…”

    Well we certainly fell foul of this.

    We found a passionate, very individual travel writer and asked him if he would want to try out our new place discovery app (free), and if he liked it, to write about it. For which, of course, we would pay. We didn’t want to compromise the integrity of his writers’ voice, and we only wanted genuine advocates to write about us. This way we felt we weren’t advertising, but collaborating, and we were paying because it was only fair to exchange talent for money..

    The writer downloaded our app and used it on an upcoming road trip (we could see his activity). He said he (more than) liked it and the piece went ahead.

    But oh! It was quite unlike anything else on his website and it just jarred. We couldn’t stand to see it there. We fed back to the writer and were offered the chance to edit it ourselves, so we did and we of course made it worse.

    So did the writer really like the app, or did he like or simply need the money offered in exchange for his ‘vote of confidence’ in it. While there’s nothing wrong with that, his blog was tarnished by our piece.

    So we asked him to take it down with no hard feelings (fee still paid) and we learned that there is no substitute for genuine, spontaneous voices of approval and we went back to spreading the word, slowly.

    We actually don’t sell anything to consumers. All we do is free of charge to people like us, who travel and max their leisure. We earn from supplying our content to businesses. So for us it was a shame we couldn’t figure out how to work with this writer, and have since shied away from other travel and location writers who we enjoy reading and admire for their talent, passion and truth.

    I guess these are commodities you can’t buy! We should probably be thankful.

    Were we right to ask for the blog to be taken down? Would you have done the same as a company? How would you have reacted if you were the writer accepting sponsored posts?

    Thanks,

    Sarah

    May 7, 2014 at 3:24 pm