Strategies for Travel Journalist Survival in the Internet Age

By Lee Foster

When I rethought this subject again the last time, another blue chip magazine had folded. This latest casualty was National Geographic Adventure. This hurt me personally because I had five sales to the magazine in the previous two years for about $1,500 in income. Another incremental provider of income, another of the good markets of the past, was now gone.

Surviving as a for-profit travel journalist requires more resilience with each passing year.

Here are some of my strategies:

-Continue to work the top 100 magazines. I can still list 100 top target magazines that will pay me $1 a word for text and $250/quarter page for a photo. They are not difficult to find. They are the 100 large-circulation magazines that use some travel content if one would Google “250 top magazines by circulation.” However, even in this august group, the price paid for content is dropping. For example, a quarter page photo in Via, the Northern California AAA magazine, used to net me about $500, but now it is half that. There are also smaller regional magazines that pay less but can provide appealing layouts of your work and allow you to become a favored provider. Newspapers are no longer a viable market.

-Develop your own robust web site and go head-to-head with all competitors for the online portion of the 6.8 billion worldwide audience. Sooner or later this must be done if one wishes to succeed. The Internet offers special opportunities to compete on an even footing with all other providers, large and small. Niches can be developed. Travel planning sites can be especially profitable. Those who have Europe travel planning web sites are the most successful entrepreneurs in our tribe of Internet travel journalists. That’s partly because Europe is complicated and expensive, and people need help and want to save money, so tend to click on advertisers. Google Adsense Ads are a start. Further options are Commission Junction affiliate ads and private ads, when an entity wants to bypass Google to get to the audience you deliver. Google Analytics can give reliable information on how much traffic you get and what articles your viewers like. Develop a modern-looking site, such as my WordPress site at www.fostertravel.com, and optimize it for search engines. Content on your web site can be presented to the public and also be available for licensing to re-publishers in print and on the Web.

-Travel photos for sale are as valuable, or more valuable, than travel words. Travel photography has always been a commodity more difficult for buyers to control. Because photos were often unique and the demand for them was timely, a high price could be asked. This is changing, partly because of the plethora of images on the digital market and the ease with which the photos can be found. To succeed at travel photography selling, two approaches must occur simultaneously. On one hand, depend on selling photos directly. On the other hand, get some photos in the major agencies where photo buyers are doing most of their shopping. For the depending-on-yourself aspect of the strategy, you will need the most sophisticated photo-selling site now possible. Arguably, the best structure now available is provided by a vendor called PhotoShelter. See my site there at http://stockphotos.fostertravel.com. Your site needs to have the full functionality of a major agency. For the agencies, I have my work in Alamy and in Lonely Planet Images. Both are selling energetically, but sales become slightly more difficult each year. Parallel news on declining sales comes from my colleagues in Corbis, Getty, etc. Alamy is a major agency to start with because it is democratic and open, meaning anyone can join and present photos for sale there. Alamy’s only requirement is that your photos meet certain rigorous technical standards.

-Be alert to the new product categories for sales of travel writing and photography, such as apps and multimedia. I became involved in apps with the release in December 2009 of my first app in the Apple iTunes App Store. That app was San Francisco Travel Photo Guide. Now I have four apps out, including Washington DC Travel Photo Guide, Berkeley Essential Guide, and an ebook-style app of my literary book Travels in an American Imagination. The iPhone and other new mobile devices amount to a revolution with profound effects on travel content publishing. The iPad and other tablets/readers augment the electronic opportunities. Another major area to explore would be multimedia projects, involving video, still photos, and voice. The editorial market for this is still developing, but every Convention and Visitor Bureau, restaurant, lodging, and attraction in travel will need some kind of multimedia package for its website and Internet efforts. I began awhile back with Soundslides slideshows, but paused in that partly because I had to put much time into my website structural transformation. My path will continue to focus on presenting editorial content to consumers. However, other travel journalists now focus on creating content for travel providers and their web sites.

-Put a portion of your attention into travel books, and examine carefully whether you will be better off if you publish them independently rather than traditionally. Books are special because they are tactile. They are a physical object to sell when your social networking efforts drive someone to your website. I have written 10 books, including one that was independently published. It is exciting when you go to a book event and sell a book for $15 that you manufactured for $2. Working with a major publisher, as I did with my recent books on San Francisco and on Washington, D.C., can have some advantages. The publisher had the clout to get the books into the major bookstores. But the traditional publisher will probably not market my book effectively beyond that. Conflict issues concerning content, design, and marketing will only be resolved to your satisfaction if you publish the book yourself. Exploitation of your book content in print and Web situations simultaneously will probably only be fruitful if you control the book yourself. I refer to royalty books, of course, when making these comments. Be aware that many large players, such as Lonely Planet, offer only work-for-hire agreements. When you turn in your manuscript, your work is over. I generally prefer royalty book deals myself (with 15% of net about the best rate going).

-To flourish in a crowdsourced world, you need to have something to sell, such as books (to consumers) and the eyeballs looking at your work (to travel advertisers). If you have something to sell, then the crowds you can generate with social networking activity (on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) make sense. People will be attracted to your site, where they can buy a book or endure your ads, clicking occasionally if they see information on some product they might want to purchase.

(Note: Lee Foster presents several instructional articles on his web site. If you find this instruction useful, you are encouraged to make a contribution/donation of $1 or more to Lee Foster’s PayPal account at [email protected] Funds will be used to develop further such instruction.)

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