Inside baseball, friends. Not interested? Here’s a story about that time I went on safari in Tanzania. Man, that was amazing.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been culling a lot of my social media feeds. I’m unfriending, unsubscribing, unfollowing. The reason for this dieting? There’s been a marked shift in the tone of what’s broadcast through my online travel channels. A change of focus, of attitude, of goals underlying the creation of the “stuff” that makes up the corner of the web where I spend most of my time. Lately, I feel like bloggers about travel are driven by a marketing agenda more than a storytelling agenda. I don’t particularly like it.

Let’s cue the “Who are you to judge?” stuff right away, shall we? I’m your reader, that’s who I am. When I feel like you are writing for the marketing and PR department who sponsored your trip more than you are writing for me, your reader, I lose interest. When you are transparently writing for the Google monster and stuffing your posts with garbage that Google likes, I lose interest. When your blog makes me feel like you are more interested in the perks of being a blogger than writing good stories, I lose interest. When I feel like you’re trying to sell me something rather than tell me something useful or interesting, I lose interest. When you place junk links in your content and add popups that ask me to subscribe before I’ve finished reading the post, I lose interest. I am losing interest a lot, lately.

I am one terrifically snobby reader. I willingly acknowledge that you do not have to write for me, no sir, not at all. I also willingly acknowledge that a lot of the stuff that causes me to lose interest is increasingly popular because it leads to a certain flavor of success. That flavor of success is so attractive, too, it means plush hotel rooms and airfare to exotic locations and balloon rides over the desert followed by champagne brunches. It leads to a wallet that is not quite so empty, maybe to a book deal or a thriving business model. It is easy to understand why someone would want these things. Hell, I want these things, of course I do.

But pursuing those things looks, in my feed readers, increasingly like a shift towards sponsors at readers’ expense. Instead of asking “What am I giving my readers?” there’s a voice that says “What am I giving my sponsors and what am I getting in return?” Sponsors have become the audience. And the audience, instead of being a readership, has become a potential customer. It’s an extreme analogy, but there’s a creeping used car lot feeling about the travelsphere. We’ve traded in our excitement for personal experience and honest advice for checkered jackets with wide ties.  Travelblogging is for closers. “Let me tell you a story” (or share some great advice) has been replaced by “Let me tell you my sponsor’s message.”

It may surprise you to learn that I don’t think the problem is with sponsorships (or press trips). I think it’s with the work that results from those sponsorships. It’s in that shift from making readers happy to making sponsors happy. The problem is with pervasive creation of advertorial. With blog posts that read increasingly like brochure copy. I am glad you had an awesome time on someone else’s nickel, now, can you tell me something genuinely interesting, new, insightful, enlightening, peculiar, maddening… about the destination? Or am I just reading about you and your friends (or a group of bloggers) having a good time? Whose voice am I hearing when I read about your travels? Yours or a voice heavily filtered to please a sponsor? When you sit down to write, do you think about who you’re writing for?

It’s common, when casting about the travelsphere, to settle on a “popular” entity and think, “Oh, I want that job.” We think this because we’re focused on the trappings, the travel. It’s less common, I think, to say, “I want to write (or take pictures) like that.” I wince every time I hear, “I’m just a blogger, it doesn’t matter how well I write, I don’t have to focus on that.” (New rule: Anyone who’s dismissive of writing’s role in blogging isn’t allowed to use words anymore.) It’s pretty to imagine ourselves on a patio with a cocktail in golden hour light — the jetlagged writer pinned to deadlines and in difficult edits is not such an attractive image. Writing classes where a teacher nitpicks our grammar are considerably less satisfying in the short run than a check for a sponsorship with a company that will only correct us when we don’t use the product name in alignment with the brand guidelines. We want to skip straight to the comped meals and the view hotel rooms without learning about the Oxford comma or narrative arc or that service writing means it’s a service to the reader.

None of this is a particularly new conundrum, it’s just the media that’s newish, and the fact that travel, as a topic for bloggers, has grown enough to be an attractive investment for sponsors. I remember having a panel proposal for a major blogging conference rejected because travel was “too niche a topic.” Growth is good, though sometimes painful, and I don’t begrudge those selecting the marketing path as their direction; I just stop reading them. I also think it is possible to do sponsored content well. It takes a good relationship with the sponsor and a bravery on the part of the writer. I could point you to my role models for this, but you can probably name your own by asking yourself how you feel after you’ve read a blogger’s work. Do you trust them? Do you think they are honest? Who do you think they are writing for?

What I do regret is that this marketing shift seems to be the dominant method behind travel-blogging madness right now. I crave variety. I crave voices that focus on story, on experience, on the delight of perfectly chosen words. I’m going to name drop and tell you that I had the pleasure of spending time with Don George recently, and I’m also going to embarrass myself by telling you that I kind of whined at him. “I get lonely,” I said, “for the company of people who genuinely care about travel writing purely for the sake of doing good travel writing.”

Photo: Shift by Slack Pics via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Related must read: Among the Junketeers: 90 Hours in Vegas, Selling Out Hard. Freaking brilliant.

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99 thoughts on “Shift

  1. Thanks for saying what’s in my heart. It’s all about stories and that’s why I love what you do here. In fact, remind me to hit you up with a storytelling project that I’ve been working on.

  2. Totally agree with you. This is what I was referring to when I used the word “detritus” in my comment on the last post. I really miss talking to people about their personal, deep, experiences about travel – their personal discoveries. I miss seeing the light, no, the spark, in the eyes of the travelers I meet at our local get togethers.

    While most of my posts lately have been press releases for art exhibitions, even so, I do hope that my cultural travel readers appreciate my editing and translation skills. I cut out as much of the pr as I can, so that folks can actually learn about the artist, or the exhibition, or the whatever.

  3. Can’t thank you enough for your honesty here, Pam. You really nail it with lines like, “Lately bloggers about travel are driven by a marketing agenda more than a storytelling agenda.” It’s a huge part of the rub I often feel being part of the travel blogging world and sometimes I have to pull back and ask myself what I really want to be writing. Thanks again for this post and I hope your “diet” pays off!

    • Pruning it back has helped with my peace of mind tremendously, actually. I get sidelined by shiny things just as easily as anyone does and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I felt jealous over some of the things I’ve seen bloggers score. But I have zero desire to be a travel marketer. Let’s be perfectly clear here, I’m not saying travel marketing is bad, it’s just not my focus. You go right ahead, and hey, that’s where the money is. But I want to write good stories. When I remember that and use it as my guide to the travelsphere, I am much happier.

    • Totally agree. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I cut down my blogging frequency and also the number of blogs I read by a lot. I don’t particularly care to read about what 5 things there are to do in London, what I think is interesting is the people that you met and the experiences you had while doing those 5 things. I’m glad there are bloggers like you around who give me something interesting to read 😉

  4. Three things:

    1. I wish more bloggers would write great tight stories. Or wild tales of excess. Or things that made me smile. Or cried. Or puked. Or were just damned good. Fuck ROI . Fuck commerce (as tha director in Entourage said). Just write good shite.

    2. Time management is an issue is it not. Especially when one is in a band?

    3. Keep reading posts on 50 things bloggers should be doing NOW. Not one has said read EVERYTHING by Theroux, Kipling, Morris, Thubron, Lewis, Lee, Twain etc

    Just me being awkward,
    Bon chance

    • Fuck ROI, well, I guess the ROI for me is better on a lot of other things I do. Monetizing my blog like I’m a bazaar hawker would yield some ROI, but the ROI on selling a piece elsewhere or just on my day job in tech is so much higher than the ROI on much of what I’m offered as a blogger. So the commerce, in this case, just isn’t a good business decision. Plus, come on, if the commerce is the goal, wow, there are SO many better ways to succeed at making money than blogging about travel.

      On the sidebar, time management is a huge issue, a big one, but rock and roll, man, rock and roll. You make time or she doesn’t come back.

  5. I’ve felt the same way lately about some bloggers I’ve followed for a while, and couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t like their writing anymore. Thank you for articulating it so well: the sponsor has become the audience. As a new-ish travel blogger, I now feel lucky I don’t have any sponsors to please — and I’ll definitely be keeping this post in mind as I craft my future stories.

  6. Great post and I agree wholeheartedly. Despite being a travel blogger, I don’t read all that many travel blogs for many of the same reasons.

    I’m still quite new and only recently started getting sponsors or various things comped. I personally always try to tell a story, even when it’s in the context of reviewing something I got complimentary. When I struggle is when I visit an attraction or destination that I feel *should* be shared with my readers (regardless of whether it was sponsored) but I don’t have a compelling or interesting story to go along with it – I know those posts end up being a bit dry, which really doesn’t benefit anyone. Something to work on.

  7. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been traveling for 5+ years and have been writing for far more, but have only recently combined the two. And I find myself going through the exact same emotions when reading other people’s ‘travel’ blogs – I’m envious of the cool s**t playing the right cards can get you but, for me, I just want to try and write good (and hopefully occasionally helpful) stories.
    Because that’s what I want to READ. And, let’s be honest, there’s already enough useless s**t out on the internet. I don’t want to contribute to it.

  8. Yes. Very, very much yes.

    I like how you refuse to equate sponsorship with poor quality work. The critics of blog trips and sponsorship deals do that, and it’s incredibly sloppy thinking. What matters is the work. Or, if you’re me with my overwhelmingly compromised bias, the stories. Disclaimer: I’m just back from TBU Umbria’s conference and post-conference blog trip, and I’m kinda overwhelmed with gratitude for what the people there laid on for us. I’m going to write about Umbria because I genuinely feel it’s a fascinating corner of the world, and I have zero editorial constraints in doing so. So I’ll be saying what I think. I’m happy for someone to judge me a failure if what I write is unengaging, useless rubbish, but the fact my trip was paid for doesn’t automatically render my work such a thing. If it did, I’d have sold out. I don’t believe I have – because I’m still a small fish, and my reputation matters more to me right now than money beyond paying my bills every month, which I’ve got covered by other means.

    Travel bloggers also aren’t generally keen to throw away their reputations in search of a fast buck, as some people seem to imply. Without that reputation, they lose readers, their influence (which is a gift from those readers, born of a continual, meaningful dialogue with them)….and eventually they have no clout. (Or Klout). I believe this strongly. When I see someone sacrificing that relationship, burning that bridge, (as far as I can judge it), then it’s depressing but it’s also a sign that they’re not in it for the long haul.

    What does worry me is new travel bloggers coming along and being told explicitly or implicitly that they have to change their fledgling, developing, as-yet-vulnerable voice & presence to fit an existing model set up by someone else, without a proper push & pull dialogue going on first. I don’t clearly see that happening (yet), but I also don’t see it being discussed out in the open. And that, right now, is a problem. It needs discussing just as much as How To Work With x and How To Make Money With y. Because travel bloggers cannot sound like everyone else and still find work. There’s just too many of us. They need to innovate and to sound different and unique. They need to be guided by a culture of experimentation, not compliance, and they need to feel like they have as much a say as their sponsors – as you say, “a bravery on the part of the writer”.

    Personally, I’d like to see someone run blog trips where bloggers are just let loose. Out of cages. Let ’em run wild, clambering up trees, diving into rivers, and just tell ’em where they need to be, come sundown. And tell them they need to come back with the best story they can find. I think that would make something really special.

  9. I agree a little bit. First I think it’s important to note that not all travel blogs are 100% narrative, mine sure isn’t. Is that a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you’re looking for. Yes, people like my voice and my always honest interpretation of my travel experiences, but they also like genuinely useful advice. Looking at what people have read the most of on my site that’s clear and I enjoy writing those pieces.

    Do I write about comped hotel stays? Yup, I almost always write about every facet of every trip regardless of who pays. Are they almost always positive? Yup, they sure are, but it’s because they’re nice places. I personally don’t feel the need to be critical where it’s not warranted just to prove that I have integrity. I know I have integrity. ☺

    That being said, I don’t run my site for money and never have. Trips, yeah I’ve received those, but I haven’t been paid in cold hard cash. I started my site because my soul was desperate for an outlet, a way to be creative and scream from the rafters that “I am here!” It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made not for the occasional nice (and free) hotel room or super cool trip to exotic destinations, but for what it’s done for me personally. Writing and new experiences have made me a better person. It’s made me more reflective, more honest and more patient.

    Anyway, this sounds defensive but I don’t mean it to be. I’m always proud whenever I hit the publish button and if I send some praise to someone who gave me an opportunity AND if that opportunity went well, then I’ll share it. I also share when trip sponsors screw things up and turns out they love those pieces even more. Honesty is our currency and without it we are indeed poor.

    • Take another read and you’ll see that I have included genuinely useful service-y type stuff in things that I think are valuable. My criticism is for poorly rendered work of ANY flavor, though it’s no secret that my preference has always been for well crafted narrative.

      I also don’t think that criticism automatically = integrity. I didn’t make that implication in any way.

  10. We love a good story. And that’s why we read your blog. You inspire us to keep it real, to reach out to people in a meaningful way and always look to find that hidden gem in the everyday. When you and Sheila Scarborough spoke at SxSW, you gave every small person the courage to interact with even the largest people as long as it was real. That motivated us. And you continue to do that with this post. We often say travel makes the world a better place. It’s because of travellers like you. Thanks! Doug at the Authentic Seacoast

  11. Sometimes I’m really happy that I’m not “successful” enough of a travel blogger yet to get tons of freebies and press trips: I don’t think I would be able to give a truthful account of my experience in a place if I wasn’t the person doing the scheduling, the choosing, the running to catch a train and collapsing into a cafe on the street out of exhaustion. I do accept a freebie here and there (mostly a dorm bed in a hostel!) so that I can keep doing what I’m doing, and because I think that having honest reviews of accommodation and activities is helpful to my readers. But if I’m gloating about how awesome a place is, it’s because I honestly think it’s incredible–not because a tourist board/hotel/insert X here has made sure to fluff my pillows and comp my drinks at the swim-up bar. Excellent piece that echoed many of my sentiments, and reminded me why I travel and write: because I want to, not because someone is paying me to.

  12. YES

    Although, perhaps I should temper my enthusiasm as I am going to soon be writing a post about staying in a comped roomorama apartment. Ditto Mike’s comment and like you said, the problem comes from the work that results from the sponsorships, not the sponsorships themselves. Now to figure out how to write something interesting about this lisbon apartment. Maybe I will just write about the washing machine as I haven’t used one in about 7 months.

  13. Worth reading just for the Glengarry reference. 🙂 ‘Put. The Iphone. Down!’ Well doen also for the careful wording which avoided the hilariosuly predictable pie fight. Travel blogging is feeling a bit corporate these days.
    Maybe part of the problem is the inceasing ‘professionalisation’ or whatever you want to call it. Trav blogging confs are growing and so is the profile of some of the most successful bloggers. I was disheartened by a recent one at which the sessions on one day lent heavily towards sponsorship, making money, working the industry etc.
    Don’t get me wrong, I too need to eat my weight in chocolate buttons, scotch eggs and Scarborough Wig-whams (I know, we’re a crazy bunch here in Britain, look it up) just as much as the next guy, but there is too much craven shucking n jiving going on for my liking and I worry about the message it sends to the young bloods on the porch.
    Especially since some of the advice given by speakers frankly made me cringe. ‘Don’t say anything negative, PRs don’t like that’, stuff like that. I think the end result coud be a steady homogenisation, which as you say is probably already happening. to some extent..
    Blogging takes a mixed skillset, and naturally some folk are better at certain parts than others, so they play to their strengths, nothign wrong with that. But since when was it cooler to go to sales & marketing school than writing and photograph taking and making really nicely school (that is what they call it, isn’t it?) anyway?
    At the same time who wants to craft elegant prose that no one reads while floating around in a social meejah sea of popular mediocrity? You can see how people think ‘It’s not fair, I’m not getting anywhere, screw it, if I can’t beat ’em…’
    One man/woman publishing units are a tricky act to pull off after all. I say we go back to trad media roots and divide skills between us. Let’s team up on projects and stop kidding ourselves we can do everything well.
    My this was an awfy long little jibbet weren’t it? Can I claim my set of steak knives now?

    • 1. I don’t know what a Scarborough Wig-wham is, but I want one.
      2. Say it ain’t so. Say you did not hear “Don’t say anything negatives, PRs don’t like that” at a conference about blogging. Say it ain’t so.
      3. I wrote prose that I thought no one read for years. Though it turned out people were reading it, and then, they hired me to write prose for them. I am a regular contributor to Conde Nast Traveler and Gadling, and I get paid to write prose elsewhere, too. So it’s not the worst plan, you know. It’s a long haul, but it’s not so bad.
      4. You can have steak knives when you close. Steak knives are for closers!

      • Oh it’s so. And I think I heard worse too, but my memory banks must’ve erased it for the sake of my soul…
        But the steak knives were for the losers, the closers got a brand new Cadillac – where’s me knives? I’ve earned them Godammit! How will I slice up me Whigwham now?

  14. Coming from a pretty easy position since I don’t get any freebies offered to me, I completely agree with you. Then again, if someone was like “come to Fiji for free and all you have to do is write about it,” it would be so darn hard to say no.

    • Let me state this again: I am not against sponsored travel. I take sponsored travel, lots of it, and I too, would have a hard time say no to a trip to Fiji. What I don’t like is reading posts that are practically indistinguishable from advertising.

  15. I agree with pretty much everything you say, but from a big picture perspective travel blogging (or blogging in general) is pretty much following the exact same pattern as every form of media that has ever been created.

    As a professional freelance writer who’s covered a vast array of topics over my 19 years in the business, I’ve heard these same arguments made about music, film, TV, modern art, books, magazines, etc. It’s the commercialization and subsequent dumbing down of (popular) culture, and it’s an epidemic, no doubt.

    However, as someone who’s been studying that culture relentlessly for 30-some years, I would argue that there are just as many great bands, movies, TV shows, books and, yes, travel blogs, as ever. It just becomes more difficult to find them in the vast array of noise that is society’s current information overload.

    I see plenty of amazing bloggers telling amazing stories, but most of them have very small audiences, like that great indie band you love so much you can’t wait to tell your friends about. But since they’re not as shiny as some of the more polished blogs, and they haven’t been in the game 4 years like some of the veteran blogs, hardly anybody is aware they exist.

    The prospect of finding that next undiscovered gem and perhaps helping them find their way is a big part of why I love reading new blogs every single day.

    • Yeah, I kind of love your comment, Bret with one T. “I used to love Death Cab, then they got all commercial.” Or, whatever band/author/TV show you want to put there. You’re so right on with the greater context. I probably could have distilled this down to “I used to love the travelblogging scene, then it got all commercial.” That would have saved me a lot of words, but then I’d have missed out on the interesting discussion.

      • Strategic marketing can make a mediocre blogger (or band/movie/TV show, etc.) become popular. Talented writing (or songwriting/acting/directing) can make a mediocre marketer become popular. But what happens when you combine great talent AND great marketing? Well, then you have a solid business.

        A million years ago, I majored in Music Business only to drop out of the business because, you guessed it, IT GOT TOO COMMERCIAL (you should see the list of too-cool-for-school hipster bands in my 3000-CD rack: I see your Death Cab For Cutie and raise you a John Zorn’s Masada). When we started our site, I tried the “I’ll write great stories and everyone will just find me” approach, and we barely got 5000 page views a month after a year! The idea that people will just stumble upon great writing in today’s crowded market is a myth.

        So now, I still write my ass off, but I also market my ass off, because I know this is the only way this will ever be anything more than a hobby. I mean, I could keep writing for mediocre magazines at 50¢/word for the next 40 years, but I’d rather make less money and write stories I’m passionate about for my own site. The marketing (and the money) is a necessary evil, but I’m hoping to use it to help other great writers find ways to self-publish for profit in the future.

        What the blogosphere needs is more great content curation sites…

  16. Thank you for this. 🙂 It’s about time people traveled and wrote about it for the sake of living and not gaining profit or spamming us with which hotels, restaurants and haunts give the best freebies. I miss when the adventures were grand and we could come along even if we have 8-5 shifts that allow nary a break so much as some leeway to be free to explore. oh boo.

    • I’m good with writing for money, it’s how I make my living. I like profit. What I’m looking for is the distinction between marketing and storytelling/service; a lot of what I see lately is written by people who really don’t seem to know the difference.

  17. Well put. As a full-time freelance travel writer who both blogs ( and goes on hosted media trips, I must stress to travel bloggers how important it is to remember that you’re there on behalf of your READERS, not the PR company hosting you. It’s easy to “go native” in a sense by feeling that you’re on the same side as the nice PR folk, but you’re not – you’re first and foremost on the side of the reader who might want to travel to this place you’re visiting.

    To their credit, I find that most PR people understand this too and don’t put undue pressure on the writers being hosted to write positively – though of course they’ll present their properties in the most positive light possible.

    Good PRs also realise it’s necessary for writers to have some free time and deviations from the itinerary to have the best chance of finding good stories, and will accommodate this. For example, I’ve just placed a piece on Ayutthaya, Thailand that came from me excusing myself from the set itinerary and going off in a tuk-tuk to check out a quirky sight I’d researched.

    Just keep in front of you the firm thought that you’re there representing your READERS, and you’ll feel empowered to politely negotiate with media trip hosts on behalf of your readers’ best interests. Good PRs will understand this and work with you.

  18. “It may surprise you to learn that I don’t think the problem is with sponsorships (or press trips). I think it’s with the work that results from those sponsorships.”

    This is really the key. (Yeah, Mike addressed this above but I’m gonna say it again.) People get hung up on the freebies – the issue is the RESULTS, whether service or narrative. It’s possible to write warm, funny, illuminating, practical, tear-jerking, scathing, hell, even legitimately fawning stuff about comped travel. But the rote promotional regurgitation routine? It doesn’t make for good reading. (Which, by the way, does not make it good marketing, either… A sponsor is better served with a compelling read than a blah one. Sez me.)

    Look at what resulted from Pam’s Antarctica and Tanzania trips, or some of her Hawaiian travel. Those pieces made me want to go to those places – in the most mercenary terms, it made me want to buy that product – without ever veering into shill-land.

    Shameless promo moment? This essay series was based on a partially comped trip:

    This one was based on a full-on junket:

    I would submit that neither of these reads like marketing copy.

  19. I may be cutting my nose off here, but at best the PR is someone you tolerate the presence of because they can help you get at good material.

    At worst, they’re the enemy getting in the way of you getting at that good material. They’re definitely not your friend – they have their own agenda. Sometimes that dovetails with yours, often it doesn’t. Changing your agenda to fit theirs is a nasty, sewage-filled slope.

    You may like them as a person, you may like what they’re promoting, you can have a fabulously cordial – and often mutually beneficial – relationship with them. But if they’re the person you’re trying to please, then there’s something very wrong.

    My New Year’s Resolution was to stay out of the whole travel blogging debate and do my own thing to the best of my ability. And, in the spirit of this, I’m not going to say that travel blogging is drowning in a tide of effluent. I’m also not going to say that this tide of effluent is being pumped by Machiavellian people whose only real interest in travel blogging is making money from deluded travel bloggers, or see deluded travel bloggers as a cheap way to foist what they are promoting on the world.

    As I say, I’m not going to say that – and not just because the people who’d take instant offence to it are exactly the people that fit the categories described above.

    Enough of me not saying things. Thanks for writing this Pam – it’s bang on target.

    • I don’t think PR is the enemy, not at all, and I’ve felt lucky to do AMAZING things with the support of PR, just mind blowingly awesome stuff. And they’ve pretty well left me alone to say what I want to say, too. But while I’m acutely aware that sometimes I’m stepping on their toes with my tales of apocalyptic tour guides or raging fevers or praying to be out of the Drake, I remain ever aware that THEY ARE NOT MY AUDIENCE. They already know the destination, don’t they? I don’t have to tell them it’s great.

      • Not the enemy (necessarily). Not the friend either. In an ideal world, somewhere nice and civil and symbiotic in-between. But the different goals and agendas should always be in mind, even when they neatly coincide.

        • The thing is, as Eva said above, good, unique content that gets eyeballs *is* in everyone’s best interests because if it’s done in a pragmatically crafted way, it gets traffic and gets that traffic to participate in what the post is saying. It doesn’t get traffic by resorting to one-shot spammery, hosing enough people that the small percentage who uncritically click through amounts to a good turnover. It gets traffic by enduring, because it’s good, because it’s useful and because people respond to it like human beings and reward its author in all the myriad powerful ways audiences reward who they’re reading, whether with clickthrough conversions, comments, shares, word of mouth, etc.

          Things that go massively viral are usually offering something in a way that hasn’t been seen before, whether just an incremental spin on an old theme or something really wildly new. And every single sponsor wants to commission content that goes viral. So that’s where there’s an interesting aligning of goals and a huge creative dialogue waiting to be had, in my opinion…

          Oh, and kittens with lightsabers. That *always* works. Throw a few of those in with everything you write. Trust me on this.

        • I have to say I disagree. For me, PR people are the gatekeepers who grant me access to the stories I want to tell, and I am EXTREMELY appreciative of their efforts.

          Case in point, I just got back from a fully comped trip to the Peruvian Amazon in which I got heat stroke after fishing for piranhas, hung out in a village with the cutest Peruvians kids you ever saw, got blessed by a shaman, and got to help release a poached baby manatee (rescued by park rangers the day before we arrived) back into the wild. None of these experiences were sanitized for my protection, and these stories will stay with me to the day I die.

          I’m a freelance writer: I couldn’t have afforded this trip to save my life! But it’s not like I have to lie in my stories (or obfuscate the truth) in order to appease the PR rep. Our trip was extraordinary, as were our other recent press trips to the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone, Bermuda and Panama. And if they hadn’t been, I’d say so in the story.

          This is why carefully choosing the companies you work with is of utmost importance… so you don’t NEED to lie!

  20. David’s put it well there. As he says, hosted media trips are at best a necessary evil. I look at them as giving me access to material which I couldn’t afford to access at my own expense; along the lines of a car company lending a new car to a motoring journalist which he/she then honestly reviews.

  21. Thanks for writing this Pam, it reads like a wake-up call to me.

    It’s probably easier to go down the slippery commercial slope than any of us think. One minute you’re grinding your guts out with your dog-eared copy of The Road to Oxiana propped up beside your computer; and the next minute you’re writing about the size of the bathtub in your comped suite.

    But I think the most important point you made was contained in that magical little word: story.

    Story is what distinguishes a bad/mediocre writer from a good/great writer, in my mind.

    You could re-write this as a passionate diatribe about the importance of finding and telling stories, without touching the topic of commercialization, and it would still be as strong, as telling and as important. Hmmm. Maybe if you don’t do it, I will.

    And I know Don George would agree.

    Thanks, again Pam.

  22. Great article! How I long for the good old days when travel stories that told a story as opposed to the Ten Top Tips market we have now! I recently went through a watershed of this kind of description, it’s much more satisfying to spend time on crafting than marketing!

  23. I think when you’ve got very high profile travel bloggers saying in their media kit that their content can be “easily tailored to your liking” it is easy to think the wheels are falling off somewhat.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a flat out shill – I mean obviously I’m not going to read it – but it is annoying when it gets called writing.

      • Yes, it’s a thing, Pam.

        And, yes, you can see the requirements coming out of specific press trips: with everyone doing a post on how X made you feel safe and welcome, or Y has amazing food, etc. etc.

        And, you know what? You go to a lot of these places independently, and you will find that neither X nor Y is true.

  24. “The problem is with pervasive creation of advertorial. With blog posts that read increasingly like brochure copy.”

    Exactly. Just *because* you write doesn’t mean you are good at it.

    I have both a travel blog and a food blog and I’m seeing the same shift in both in the past couple of years. I’ve stopped reading so many blogs because they’ve just become one big commercial for whatever freebie product some PR person has sent them, or free trip or service they’ve been given. If every aspect of the trip has been sponsored by a different provider, how am I to know if you would have done all those same things if you’d had to pay for it yourself? I don’t and therefore I don’t trust it, and at that point I’m gone as a reader. This is happening more and more with long time, “location independent” travelers as they struggle to support their lifestyle.

    As for sponsorship, I think you’ve handled your sponsored trips well.
    I just said this to someone today about food blogs, but it applies to travel blogs too, “After a while the disclaimer of “Company X gave me this, but all my opinions are my own” starts to ring hollow. How objective can you be when everything you get is “fantastic”? ” There’s been more than one travel blog I’ve stopped reading because of this. And dozens of food blogs for the same reason.

    Along these lines, about a year ago, I got really fed up with all the “top 10” rehash posts on travel blogs (lazy writing, the equivalent of junk food) and wrote my own rant post about the lack of content in travel writing ( Most people were very supportive, but some were clearly defensive. I’d like to say I’ve seen fewer Top 10 posts as of late, but I think that’s just because I’ve stopped reading the blogs which post them.

    I say we should reward the blogs with good content with the only currency we as readers have; leave a comment and tell them so!

    • Totally agree about the lazy top ten posts.

      Quite often the lists are places the author has never even been to, so how can they honestly include them in a top ten list? They’re usually nothing more than space filler with a few facts pulled from Wikipedia about each place and photos taken off Flickr or even just lifted from a Google search.

      This isn’t just confined to travel blogging though – travel magazines are just as guilty of it.

      • Let’s just say lazy, period, and not single out the top tens, okay? I have an editor that is always on the hunt for clever lists. He’s stuck with the format, but he lets his writers come up with ways to use them that aren’t your typical hotspots, best, blah blah blah yawn. It can be done.

        Filler indeed. Perhaps, when it comes to the modern web, filler is a better word than content, no?

  25. I used to have (still have) a lot of travelblogs on my feed reader and almost without exception i go from ‘well, well, yes, meaning no of course, hmmm, skip skip skip’ as I continue to sip from my coffee fighting against a mild nervous breakdown, wondering what went wrong in their head to make everything seem like a Brady bunch trip.

    Sponsorship trips, advertorials, ‘superstar Ah! and Ooh! destinations posts’, ‘I am a travelblogger but believe me it’s work too!’, I can live with it, but when withering in with armchair travel daydreams I want a real (take the piss) story to occupy till MY next trip.

    I am babbling. Never a proper writer. Oh my bad. Oh shut up now.

  26. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for saying what so desperately needs to be said. What happened to traveling for the love of travel and writing about it to share an awesome experience.

    I’ll admit that I’ve never been on a fully sponsored blogger trip – just done some small things here and there that fit in with my premise travel plans – but I’m now looking at all sponsored posts with my head cocked to the side. Who are you really writing for? And, for goodness sake, is someone else is paying you MUST tell your readers that. Put it out there, don’t dance around with phony one liners snuck into the middle of posts.

    And, geeze people, proof read and spell check. It’s simple.

    Rant over – thanks for the excellent thoughts.

    Christina (aka @MiddleSeatView)

  27. I heartily agree with you here, Pam (which you knew already), and would have attempted to make the same supporting points Mike and Eva made (only less eloquently) had they not already made them.

    I think the key here, the question we should all print out & tape to our monitors, so we don’t forget when we’re in the midst of writing, well, anything, is this: “WHO IS MY AUDIENCE? WHO AM I WRITING FOR?”

    If we have trouble answering that, whether we’ve been on a hosted trip or not is SO not the issue.

  28. I totally agree with this. I stopped reading someone after he began publishing a whole series of blog posts which described the conversations he had with the “attractive and friendly hotel manager Ms. X” or “our delightful tour leader Mr Z”.

    It’s ridiculous. That’s not why I read travel blogs. I don’t care how some bloggers get to travel so much; I’m envious of course, but I want them to tell me something of substance, especially since I’m new to this.

  29. 1. I may notbe best placed to comment because i also killed most of my travel bloggy feeds
    2. But i think as an earlier poster said (on phone so not sure who, sorry) this ‘dumbing down’ and commercialisation has been happening right across the media/infotainment/consumer complex.
    3. Seems particularly inevitable in travel blogging –so many people are chasing their own dream of location independence (which in itself is very interesting) and it’s gotta be financed some way; travel is inherently ‘marketable’. the internet is a big place, and unfortunately there is room for x billion evergreen articles on ‘how not to get sick in india’ or whatever.
    4. I sense from the comments a false dichotomy being set up between marketing toss (bad) and narrative/story (good). now, my preference *is*for stories, but that doesn’t mean service/destination/review pieces can’t be well written and enjoyable to read as well as informative, or that stories are by definition good. I’d actually rather see more well written service pieces and fewercrappy

  30. (Damn phone!) …fewer crappy ‘applause’ stories.
    5(?). But i guess bottom line is write what you want for who you want in whatever way you want for whatever reason you want, and best of luck to ya. Just don’t expect or take readers for granted.

    • Yes, to the notation about the false dichotomy. Yes. That. I hope it was very clear to you that *I* did not make that distinction. My distinction is around WHO we’re writing for and the results of that, not around the structure of what’s being written.

  31. Couldn’t agree more! More and more it seems blogs are just oriented at making, keeping, or generating a sale. I like traffic and money just as much as the next person, but I read blogs because I want people’s experiences, their personal story, the uniqueness of their particular voice and journey. I can get marketing all over the place.

  32. Thank you thank you thank you. As I foray back into “travel blogging”, which includes publishing content and reading what else is out there, I have been pondering this problem.

    I’m inclined to think that the mixed bag of quality out there is a matter of intention. Are you intending to be a writer, writing for the love of it, or intending to be a blogger, putting out content for a business purpose?

    I’m waffling between the two conceptually, since I’d like to learn more about SEO and monetization, but in practice I find myself utterly unable to keyword load titles and posts just for the sake of being found.

    I want to be *read* and to have my readers get something rewarding out of the time they spend with my words.

    And, god, I just love to share photos and art. But lists? Perish the thought.

    • My pal MJ, in a discussion about lists, once said, “The Ten Commandments were a list.” I had to hand it to her, regardless of how you feel about them, they comprise one seriously memorable list. That made me rethink the list as a format. I’m really a “content” girl, meaning if the material is solid, I’m not going to dicker about the format it takes.

      Your remarks about intention are well taken. Though I do think the term “blogger” is still misused. See above under format. A blog is a format. What you put on there and use it for is up to you. I’ve been a narrative driven blogger my entire ridiculously long career, and without my blog, my career would not have this longevity. I tend to be, um, defensive about devaluing the format or pigeon-holing it because it’s defined by the user.

      • Love the 10 Commandments point. I of course meant lists for lists’ sake, as in those who use that format simply because posts of that format get clicked, but then don’t make the effort to fill the list with content that rocks. Which, takes us back to your post’s original point about the decline of content quality!

        My blog’s YEH-MEH-NAH travel guide posts are essentially lists — of hotels, restaurants, and site reviews. But, I review everything I experienced, not just the folks that throw me a bone. And I’ll give a MEH or, worse, a NAH, to things that suck and tell you specifically why, sponsor or not. Even there, I try to be funny and interesting. If I am not, it’s a failure of personality and caffeine.

        And apologies for the mental shorthand between “writer” and “blogger.” Lazy translation of thinking to comment on my part. I mean no disrespect to the format of blogging. It’s a wonderful venue for practicing and producing narrative.

        But producing mediocre content as mere holder for keywords and sponsored links….sigh.

          • I’ve clearly had my coffee today!

            And ugh, this discussion has reminds me of a travel blogger I met recently who, when I asked her who she asks to edit her posts when she has something important or difficult she’s trying to write, said “Oh, I don’t worry about it. It’s fine if there are errors.”


  33. Take the words ‘travel blogger’ and replace them with the words ‘food blogger’ and the issues are the same…and I’m doing the same you are. What used to be a fun community on Twitter is now just one ‘giveaway’ after another. Don’t get me wrong…I’ve done a couple; mostly books that friends have published, but I recently agreed to do a post for a big brand and I’m done.

    ‘Suggestions’ for phrases to include, the disclaimer word for word dictated to me and maybe worst of all; review of my copy before I could publish it. I won’t say what it made me feel like but I will tell you this…not again.

    Not that I will never do another sponsored post but I will most certainly be more cautious about what I think I’m agreeing to. My blog is my story; period. If I can incorporate a brand into my story, maybe, but when the story becomes about the brand…well, it doesn’t feel like my blog anymore and I’m not willing to give it up that easily!

  34. I’m so glad I found this post! I too get lonely for good writing in general, authenticity, and the craft of storytelling. All too often the writing I come across seems like someone spewing thoughts onto a paige and not even bothering to proof read their work. Also, I think it’s odd that most people don’t read those paid advert story sections of magazines (do they?) but people think we’re going to enjoy that kind of writing as a blog post. When I start to realize a post is sponsored, I immediately bounce.

  35. Saw this thread circulating on Twitter, and took a look. People have made some very good point. But it does remind me of the mommy wars I’ve been unfortunately privy to in my parenting life. There’s the stay-at-home moms who think working mothers are sell outs. The breastfeeders who believe formula feeders are poisoning their offspring with inauthentic milk. Never before have I seen so many blog posts (not just this one) these days dissecting what other writers do and why they do it. The overt scorn of the Top 10 List. The bashing of a post that has one too many positive sentences, god forbid any one has a good time on a trip. But why are lists so popular? Because editors ask for them, people. So is your beef with the writer or the editor? But hey, editors feed my family, and my family doesn’t ask if the meal on the table came from narrative or list $$. And last time I checked, those criticizing loudest about list work aren’t hiring at a working wage. If people don’t want to read lists, that’s fine, but to bash the author? What ego boost are you getting? Do you feel superior now? Are you a real journalist? Yeah, I’ve had that discussion with the 20 year old who refuses to do anything but “important work”. Okay, miss. I’m happy for you. But this US vs THEM thing, for lack of a better word..blows. You don’t have to put down anyone else to big up yourself. I have managed to stay 15 years in the business writing a variety of stories from narratives to top 10s and all the stuff in between and have done it without slagging off someone else’s hustle. Being elitist and snarky is a trend I’m hoping will end someday.

    • I’m a little confused on how to respond to this. But I’m going to try to parse it.

      1. I was on Blogher when it first started, I’m familar with the mommy wars. I think your analogy stands. Absolutely. Different topic, same tone, same pains.

      2. Sophisticated thinkers will take their beef to the top, to editors and publishers who publish the content that annoys readers. Though when it comes to indy blogs, it’s a clear who that leadership is, isn’t it? I didn’t scorn the Top 10 list in this post, though, in fact, I defend lists in the comments, here. []

      3. Author bashing is one way to put it, but there’s no author bashing here, not in the original post nor in the comments. It’s commentary on a trend. It’s trend bashing, if you like.

      4. I hate the “Are you a real journalist” argument as much as the next person. You do your homework or you don’t. You strive for quality (narrative, list, service, otherwise) or you don’t. There are good “real” journalists and bad “real” journalists.

      5. Elitism. Um. Elite means the best stuff. I appluad the pursuit of the best stuff. I don’t think writing driven by external marketing agendas is the best stuff. Saying that isn’t particulaly elitist. I do fess up to my personal bias and snobbery early on in this post, but also, I state explicitly that no one need to write for ME, do they? I’m pretty aware that my opinions are not worth the ones and zeros they’re made of.

      6. Snarky? Ooo. I can’t give that up. I just can’t. It’s too much of who I am. But I was only truly snarky once in this post, when I said this: “New rule: Anyone who’s dismissive of writing’s role in blogging isn’t allowed to use words anymore.” That’s pretty snarky. But I’m not sorry because I’m sick of hearing, from people that work with words, that words don’t matter.

      Weirdly, I don’t think we’re in disagreement on a top down philosophical level.

  36. Didn’t mean to confuse you. My reply wasn’t totally directed at you. It was just a response after reading everything including the feedback. I do think we are pretty much on the same page, though. The “mommy war” mentality has been on my mind of late, I’ll own that. I’ve seen it so much, and people are getting attacked who don’t deserve it. Yes, some people are crap writers, and others are struggling to survive, working with editors who don’t pay travel expenses and offer $25 a post. All the while stating “we don’t owe you a living” or passing off the fam trip as the “payment” at forums like the NYT Travel Show and the like. And for a lot of folks, they think this is all that’s out there anymore.

    • Aye – I have a problem with the phrase “selling out” for this reason. It’s an easy label to slap on someone, and it’s a judgement. It has a role, yes. When someone does something they know is sacrificing the quality of their work for the sake of money, they’re edging in that direction. And I’d argue everyone has felt that tension in the field of writing, or, well, everything. Compromise is life itself. But it’s a phrase that gets flung – “you’re a sell-out” – far more than it’s felt – “dammit, I’m a sell-out” – because in the pragmatic day to day, it’s easy to change your standards to suit someone else’s agenda when they have what you need to survive, ie. money. And that’s what this dialogue are for, not to sling mud and character-assassinate, but to champion both sides equally.

      In this case, I’d argue, champion the unique voice/angle that an aspiring professional writer with a blog develops for themselves as they go along, ask them to consider it a vital part of their business model, and to open a conversation with potential sponsors that shows that having the best of that unique voice/approach come through is the way to get readership buy-in, so it’s important not to swamp it.

    • The industry is full of that kind of BS — passing off the FAM trip as payment — but rookies are taking it. And there’s an endless supply of rookies who want it, too, so if you say no, some newbie will come along and take “credentials” plus some stuff someone else has paid for purely because they can.

      I try not to focus on this. But also, I’m super realistic about the industry and I haven’t quite my “day” job (in quotes because I’m freelance) as a technical writer. This keeps me in enough writer kibble to choose who I want to work for and allows me not to compromise in my arrangements as a travel writer.

      Interestingly enough, I recently landed a gig that pays me 750/feature. That’s a LOT of 25 dollar blog posts that I didn’t have to write. It’s totally possible to make decent money without compromising your standards, but it’s a longer haul.

      • Yes but one doesn’t generally start at $750 a pop. What we’re seeing are novice writers declaring $25 (or whatever) isn’t enough and that as they have a family to feed taking the junket is a requirement. It’s not. Don’t quit your day job, be patient and establish your voice, cement your writing ability and then decide if press trips are for you.

        • Sorry, point badly made. My point is that I have been picking up more and more really great gigs, and that it’s possible to grow a career over the long term without writing heavily compromised material.

          You know what those 750/gigs are? Reprints of stuff I wrote originally for my blog. I kind of can’t get over it, I’m so psyched about it.

  37. Interesting and timely post, Pam.

    Only one thing to say really:

    Travel bloggers/writers, call them whatever you like (*yawn*), are infinitely more interesting when they concentrate less on the process of what they’re doing and actually more – shock, horror – on presumably the reason why they decided to throw themselves into writing in the first place.

    You know, the travel bit. What they see, what they experience, etc.

    And, yes, one last thing: more disclosures needed. That also goes for the so-called traditional travel trade media, too, which is equally as junket-tastic as the blog world.

    • Disclosure doesn’t save bad writing. You see a disclosure on some fawning story about a trip and you think, “No fucking kidding.” You don’t see one on a post that has you biting your nails or genuinely engaged and you Do Not Care.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against disclosure; it’s the right thing to do. But we get bogged down in that as the problem. I don’t think failure to disclose is the problem. Failure to remember who you’re writing for is.

      I pitched “How To Write Up a Press Trip in a Way That Does Not Suck” to TBU, but they didn’t bite.

      Junket-tastic. I’m usually pretty cranky about made up words,but this, I like.

      • yeah, agree…

        disclosure wasn’t the main part of my comment. My primary point is the first bit.

        Please bloggers, get over the mechanics of what you do and impress me with your WRITING and IMAGINATION.

        Of course, I want to see a line in there somewhere about who paid for it (if appropriate), but that’s it.

        Oh and the endless blogging about blogging…………………………… It’s now just a channel like any of the others, get over it.

  38. Totally agree. I’ve been asked to do sponsored posts, and a couple of times inserted links into my writing and got paid a little for it. The links were completely unrelated and I felt like I was betraying anyone who was reading my blog by doing it. I stopped.

    I can think of a few travel bloggers who do sponsored posts very well, and I can think of a few who don’t. I don’t think I’m creative enough to drop holidays in Spain into the content of a blog post about Korean food, for example.

    I had someone contact me to write sponsored posts on my blog. They linked me to their work. It was terrible. Zero sensory detail, information pulled from Google, and it was quite clear that the writers had never been to any destination that they’d written about. I’ve seen a few blogs feature stories like this – I unfollow immediately.

    Lots of interesting points here, and all very well made. Interesting comments, too.

  39. Really interesting and thoughtful post that I found spoke to me a lot as a travel blog reader (and a recent writer). My husband and I just started our travel blog to document our RTW trip, so that we can document everything we see and share it with others. But it’s quite obvious to me that there are several bigname travel bloggers who blog, not because writing and photography is their passion and they want to give back, but because blogging has allowed them to get things like free trips or lucrative sponsorship deals. I had to stop following one blog because literally every post they wrote was sponsored. That type of content is not interesting to me, because while tips and tricks from fellow bloggers are useful, I’m also interested in that human connection and personal experiences. Isn’t that why we long to travel in the first place?

  40. As a blogger who’s newish to travel blogging, the best things about this discussion are Pam breaking it down with inimitable style, respecting each others’ viewpoints in the comments, and finding other bloggers who think storytelling is the most important thing about what they do. Thank you.

  41. The stories of travel are everything. I completely agree. I do wish more sponsors and travel bloggers/writers would value that story. I am not inspired to travel if the writer doesn’t pull me in and tug at my heart strings with a good story. I have received a few hotel nights and tours for free but I couldn’t be dishonest to my readers if there was something I didn’t like. It’s not in my redheaded nature I guess.

    • Practical advice is useful for people in the nuts and bolts of planning, so I want to be sure we’re not dismissing service writing, even though, as I’ve already stated, my personal bias is for story. But no matter what the approach, it’s key to focus on the audience.

      Service isn’t useful for the reader if it just regurgitates the PR message. What’s the point?

      Also, I don’t know that I’m saying writers are lying, because I can’t confirm or deny that. What I’m saying is that I think they’re letting the message be too tightly dictated by sources that have a transparent agenda to sell the reader something rather than inform or inspire them.

  42. Wise words and insights, Pam. Wish I had time to scroll through all the comments your post generated. I agree – storytelling is a worthy goal for travel writers. As you say, there’s nothing wrong with writing marketing copy. Just be clear in your own mind who you’re writing for.

  43. A most thought-provoking post. If you are ‘a name’ and have a following I guess they will stay with you no matter what. Glad to hear there are folks like you out there reminding us of the importance of writing and subject matter not just money generation and fame.

    • I don’t think people will stay with you no matter what, actually, I think they will flee when you lose — more to my point — or sell their trust. I like generating money and I probably wouldn’t say no to a little fame (which is different than notoriety, eh?) but not at the expense of my readers’ trust.

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