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The First Rule of Write Club is Don’t Talk About Write Club

I was excited to get a positive response.

The editor at a major publisher said yes to a story idea I’ve been pitching for at least a year. It had been rejected repeatedly for being too weird, too niche, too insider, but I didn’t care. It’s a good pitch, it’s got food and culture and colorful characters all in a sought after destination, and because I’m me, which is handy, I’m the perfect writer for the story. Every time it was rejected, I’d think, “Oh, you’re just the wrong editor for this.” I never took it personally, I just put it away until I found another place to shop it. I knew someone would say yes eventually.

“This is a great idea,” the editor said, “can you make it first person experiential?” There were some samples. They reflected almost exactly the style I had in mind.

§

I quit my gig at Conde Nast Traveler Online about a year before the site underwent a major overhaul. My editor was a delight to work with but we were at an impasse. I had run out of raw material. She could not take story pitches from me, she had no feature budget, and management would not allow me to solicit support from tourism bureaus for my travel. They had worked out a sleight of hand to avoid the question of sponsored travel. I could take it and I could write stories based on the trips I’d done after the fact, but I could not go into a trip with the merest suggestion that I might write something for Conde Nast Traveler.

Or I could pay for it myself.

“So you’re saying I  pay for my own travel and you pay me $75.00 for each story I produce as a result of that? Am I getting this right? You get that doesn’t cover my expenses, right?”

“I know,” said the editor, “we are losing all of our writers.”

My editor doesn’t work there any more, she quit a little while after I did.

§

With the initial “Yes” locked, I was ready to move into details. Timing. Travel. That sort of thing.

“How’s the middle of September? Will that work? I just need to get the travel sorted. What’s your policy on press support?”

For those of you wondering how things work in the world of travel writing, my gigs look something like this… I pitch a great idea and land an assignment. I’ve yet to write for anyone that covers my expenses but I have worked with publications who allow writers to accept support from local tourism boards. Once it looks like the assignment is go, I contact the local tourism board at my destination. I introduce myself, provide information about my assignment, offer to connect the dots to my editor (so the tourism board knows I’m legit), and ask what they need from me to help with my travel costs — airfare, hotel, rental car if needed. I am typically on the hook for fuel and food. If I know what attractions I want to visit in advance, often the tourism boards will arrange for passes.

If I’m working on a full feature assignment, I do okay, I might clear 800 dollars, 1200 dollars. I get to see some cool places, stay in some nice hotels — and some very mediocre ones, too — and I get to write a good story. I love getting to write a good story. I’ve got one client who pays me .70 a word, another who pays me 750 for an essay of about 1000 words. I’ve got some lesser paid projects too, maybe 200 dollars a pop, and I try to double those up with bigger fish. Four days of travel, even with most of my expenses paid can easily run me 50 dollars a day, so it’s not great economics.

“Sorry, we don’t allow our writers to take freebies of any kind. You can arrange a second assignment with a different publication and write our story on the back of that one, but you can’t let the local resources know you’re writing for us in any capacity. We offer support in some very rare cases when it’s not within reach for the writer to get their on their own.”

I can take sponsored travel to write a story for you as long as the sponsored travel isn’t for your story?

Wait. Let’s try that again.

In order to get support for the story I’m writing for you, I have to land a second assignment that’s not for you?

Gee, thanks.

§

I did the math for this story. I looked up airfare (low season, coach) and rental car (compact) costs. I gave myself a mid-level per diem based on the IRS guidelines for what was reasonable to claim. I calculated fuel costs and I eliminated accommodation entirely by assuming I could stay with a friend who lives in the area.

The bottom line? I would lose 900 dollars writing this piece. That’s after I’ve been paid.

I’m not sure how a 900 dollar price tag is “within reach.”

§

Dewey Bridge Fire

Dewey Bridge Fire via Wikipedia (Creative Commons)

“I’ll be the first to tell you our policies are Draconian,” said another editor I know, “but also, I have to enforce them; it’s my job.”

I want to be very clear on something. I do not hate these editors, not at all. Each one I’ve worked with has been amazing — and I don’t tend towards hyperbole, editors don’t like that. I loved working with my editor at Conde Nast Traveler and the new-to-me one in this mess? All my friends tell me this editor is aces. This isn’t about the editors; they are merely stating the policy defined by their management. “Here’s the rule book,” they’re saying, “and if you’re going to write for us, you have to follow it.”

This is a legitimate request — writers must follow the guidelines laid out by the publisher they are writing for.

  1. We will not pay your expenses, nor will we allow you to solicit for those expenses to be paid by others for a story you’re writing for us.
  2. You can participate in supported travel if you do not mention our publication.
  3. If you’re on assignment for someone else and you do our story on that trip, that’s fine, even if the travel is sponsored.

It’s not the editors that are the problem. It’s the rules. They’re bullshit.

§

Writers rebel against this by lying either directly or by omission. They do this not because they want to lie, but because they need the work. They lie because if they don’t get support, they won’t work, there will be no paycheck. They lie because the rules are insulting both to the writers, who can’t be trusted to express a single untainted idea from the comfort of their subsidized hotel room, and to the editors, who can’t be trusted to screen for shameless promotional content.

The irony of these rules coming from publications who are also rolling out sponsored content programs is almost too much to bear.

The rules favor certain subsets of people. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get good work under these terms. Gap year travelers, expats, hobbyists, those already holding assignments from secondary publications, these terms aren’t restrictive to those types.

But they’re also not restrictive to the rich, who can afford to drop 900 dollars on a plummy international byline. They’re not restrictive to junketers, those happy to go from plush organized trip to plush organized trip, generating stories that are the byproduct of a PR agency’s tourism agenda.

And they’re not restrictive to liars.

§

My story is dead in the water again. I made the mistake of contacting the tourism office before I knew what the terms were for the publication. “Hey, I have a potential assignment for [Publication Name Here],” I said, “can you tell me what you’d need from me for support?”  What a rookie mistake, being all candid and upfront like that, I figured I’d go in knowing what they wanted by way of credentials.

It’s too late now, but I’m wondering if I should have said, “I can’t tell you who it’s for. Is that okay?” Rather than, you know, lying.

They’d have been completely within their rights to say, “What, are you high? You want us to back you and you won’t tell us who you’re working for? Aren’t you funny!”

I’m not a spy. I’m not a hotel or restaurant reviewer. My story is a history and culture story; there is no sales angle. While destinations always benefit from positive stories about their region, there is no commercial angle beyond “This is an interesting thing that happens in this place. Here’s some history and some people who know all about it.” What, exactly, is a risk by having the tourism department pay for the travel the publication refuses to cover?

A relationship with tourism allows me to write this story, that’s all. Without financial support it will not get written. Not for these guys, anyway.

I’m confident I’ll find another home for the story. This editor wanted it, another one will too.

I suppose knowing who not to write for is as important as know who to write for. Right?

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40 Responses to “The First Rule of Write Club is Don’t Talk About Write Club”

  1. Thank you for this. And for the record, they could give you a pink pony and I would still hang my hat in every word you wrote.

  2. Kyle Ellison says:

    This. Is. Awesome. Three cheers for transparency!

  3. Bret says:

    I know this doesn’t help with your current situation, but this is what has worked for us (your mileage may vary)…

    We have established ourselves as people who work like dogs to find coverage for destinations we visit AFTER the fact. We promise Tourism Boards coverage on GGT and in INsite Magazine (which I run) up front, and we tell them we can almost always guarantee major outlet exposure on the back end.

    When we went to Galapagos in 2011, we did it for GGT and INsite. In the 3 years since, we’ve done Galapagos stories for United Airlines, Men’s Book Atlanta, Travel + Escape, Manhattan Magazine, and World Wildlife Fund. We have case studies from other trips that show similar results. We still get rejected for press trips by tourism boards on occasion, but not as often as we used to.

    The publishing world is brutal right now. So I guess what I’m saying is that maybe by maximizing coverage of press trips you’ve done in the past, you can use your results to get press trips on your own merit in the future, with PR reps understanding that it’s the Wild Wild West out there for freelancers these days.

    Like I said, I know it doesn’t help in this case, but maybe it could help in the future. Sorry you’re having to deal with the catch-22…

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I, too, have multiple publication credits for single trips. I, too, have sold stories three years after the fact. I, too, have received support under my very own merits. I, too, work hard to place stories. While we’re sharing our successes, I’ve been rejected exactly never from tourism boards I’ve approached for assistance.

      Were I less thick skinned, I might think you were implying I don’t know how to do my job. Good thing I’m not that person. And also, none of that is relevant to this situation.

      So, yeah, this *isn’t* helpful. But, uh, thanks?

  4. Stuart McD says:

    When I saw you tweeting about this earlier this morning, my immediate thought was “get more stories out of the trip”. I often see other travel writers (David Whitley is a good example) tweeting about lining up a bunch of commissions in advance of a trip — as it’s a straightforward method to dodge the overwhelmingly difficult math of making a profit on a single story trip. Particularly one that involves going anywhere near an airport (or car rental agency for that matter). Perhaps your story, destination and/or timeline wouldn’t accommodate that.

    “The rules favor certain subsets of people. I’m not saying it’s impossible to get good work under these terms. Gap year travelers, expats, hobbyists, those already holding assignments from secondary publications, these terms aren’t restrictive to those types.”

    Totally agree.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      It *always* makes sense to get more stories out of one adventure, and David Whitley is my hero on this. That doesn’t change that if a place commissions you, they shouldn’t have that project’s completion contingent on a third party. Their rule book is messed up, multiple commissions or no.

      • Theodora says:

        My initial thoughts were the same as Stuart’s – that you need to spin more stories out of the trip. I’m just starting to navigate this maze, and it’s tough (even working for publications that allow comps). But, once a flight’s involved, and even once leaving the island is involved, I want to place a bunch of stories to cover that.

        That said, the policies you cite are ludicrous. And, to be honest, to work as a travel writer, a lady’s first career step should probably be “marry rich”.

    • My ears are burning…

      I totally agree that “no comps” policies are bullshit. And I don’t think I’m currently writing for any publication that has one (I stopped writing for the publication in question here for other reasons – and I think this particular publication is an interesting case, as the no comps is not about the travel side but protecting the media organisation’s overall rep).

      Basically, though, there’s no way round it unless you’re prepared to lie (preferably by omission) or can stack up other commissions first. I try to do the latter – there’s always another story nearby, someone might need a guide-style piece etc, etc. (Incidentally, I almost always end up paying for my flights – they’re usually too much hassle to try and get comped – and I’d much sooner pay for my own meals that sit through interminable hosted meals with a PR).

      More than that, I try and pick destinations to go to based on what I know the editors will think is a good hook in a few months’ time. (ie. I was in Belgium in Feb, as anything with a vague Flanders Fields/ World War I link is an easy sell right now. Similarly, picking Lisbon in March was largely based around Lisbon hosting the Champions’ League Final in May). Downside of this? I’m not necessarily researching the stories I’m most interested in, or going to the places that excite me the most – it’s all based on a fairly cynical calculation of what will sell.

      In a nutshell, that’s how I answer the “how do you make it pay?” question – work out what will sell, pitch what will sell, do what will sell.

      But that’s not really the point. The point is that if you’re going to have ludicrously restrictive policies such as this, you’d better be prepared to pay real good. And I’m yet to encounter a publication that does have such policies which pays well enough to counteract them, to which I just say something rude and write them off as a potential outlet.

      As for bias issues, what Gary says below is right. The arguments generally bark up the wrong tree. It’s not that by being hosted by X, the coverage of X will be promotion – it’s that the writer/ publication will choose to write about X, knowing hosting/ ad dollars will be forthcoming. It’s a selection bias.

      • Pam Mandel says:

        In this particular case, it’s too late to lie (By omission or otherwise) and because I already outed myself to the tourism board, I’ve violated the publication’s rules. I suppose I could go back and say, “Oh, never mind, that’s not happening, sorry, but I have this OTHER thing…” once I GET that other thing. But that’s lying to the tourism board, isn’t it. No harm, no foul, and all, but I could have saved it had I not said anything about who it was for.

        Question for you, David: At what point do you seek outside support? Do you land a cornerstone assignment first and book the travel, or do you make sure you have a stack of assignments lined up before even thinking about getting the travel lined up?

        • It’s slightly different every time. I’ll generally research a few potential ideas, then pitch them all out roughly at the same time and see who bites. The pitching success rate has got higher with experience, partly because I’ve a pretty good idea which editors will take which story. And, for the formatted stuff (48 hours in, six of the best in etc), I’m pretty anal about checking A) which cities they’ve done before and B) which have an upcoming topical hook. “Don’t suppose you need an Xville city guide?” has a much stronger chance of success when they’ve not done a guide to Xville in their regular format, there’s a new direct flight route launching there and it’s hosting a big sporting tournament soon.

          I guess it’s generally about getting that one cornerstone commission first, though, before approaching. That’s not necessarily the best payer, but the one that’ll most likely get help with accommodation. City guide-y stuff is best for this – if you’re there for four days researching a guide, anything you do with another story in mind can fit inside it. ie. I might include the food truck tour, the newly opened hotel and the river surfing spot in the guide . But I’ll also be trying to sell separate pieces on the food trucks, new hotel and river surfing scene elsewhere.

          Sometimes I’ll approach the tourist board first and ask what new stuff’s happening in the area, and then pitch. But I never ask for assistance until I’ve got at least one story in the bag.

          Sometimes three editors will come back with a yes within a day or so of the initial pitch (and I can go to the tourist board with more than one in the bag). Sometimes I have to tweak an angle and try another editor with it. Sometimes I add somewhere on nearby. ie. I knew one outlet had never done a Dresden city guide and would take it, but that I’d struggle to sell anything else on Dresden and it wouldn’t be worth going there alone just for that city guide. But tagging it on to Prague and (especially) Berlin, where there are loads of stories (particularly with the Berlin Wall 25th anniversary in November)? That becomes a handy extra commission to tag on to the trip (and, who knows, I might be able to sell something about Dresden somewhere else a year or so down the line).

          Hardly sexy, living the dream stuff. But a Machievellian approach helps in terms of making a living from it.

  5. Kristin says:

    It appears travel writing is a profession one pays to be in, so why not write for your blog? You have a top-rated blog, a huge social media presence, and respect in the industry. Why do you need the big pubs as an outlet for your story? They certainly don’t want your story enough to pay actual money for it.

    For bucks, companies can ask for sponsored content on the blog, but nerds eye comes back with “I don’t do that but you can buy a 300×250 ad in one post at $x CPM to a very targeted and engaged audience.”

    Or maybe there are pubs that are part of new media and publishing travel stories, and (gasp) pay for stories to try. Just some thoughts.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      Nerd’s Eye comes back with that regularly and gets … no takers. None. So thanks for the flattery, perhaps you’d like to be my ad sales rep? 15%? Is that fair? Have you been following the data on the demise of banner ads? I have.

      As for paying to be in this profession, my failure to be born to or marry money is a serious obstacle to that approach. ((Reconsiders life choices.))

      Here’s a crazy thing — I LIKE writing for third party publications. They pay considerably more than I pay myself. I also like new editors, I learn from them, and new readers, they send interesting email and feedback. I’ve been writing for my blog less this season and you know why? Because I’m getting decent money to publish stories elsewhere. I don’t need to write for big pubs, but over the last few months, they’ve paid my bills, and I need to do that.

      There *are* plenty of other paid markets, and if you read to the end… forgive me for quoting myself: “I’m confident I’ll find another home for the story. This editor wanted it, another one will too.”

  6. Sharon Miro says:

    What Kim-Marie said. These people are living in some very rarified air, if they expect you to pay for the story. Or perhaps helium. Yes, they live on helium.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I don’t think they expect me to pay for it. They expect me to get someone else to pay by commissioning additional work. I’m not against finding other markets, in fact, if I knew for sure I was heading out to write this thing, you can bet I’d look for additional work. But you can see the chicken/egg thing here, right?

  7. Gary Arndt says:

    This is a very long comment rant….
    ————————————————————-

    The more I have learned about the travel media industry, the more I have come to the conclusion that it is a massive scam, at least with respect to how they treat writers.

    Every editor I’ve spoken with at major magazine and newspapers KNOWS that their writers lie to them. When I’ve asked people in SATW, pretty much every single person knew of stories from press trips which ended up in publications which don’t allow them.

    It is the dirty secret of the industry.

    The ‘ethics’ these publications put forward are really just for show. In reality the policy is, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.

    §

    I used to provide a weekly travel photo for the Today Show website. I didn’t get any money for it, but I was happy with the arrangement because I didn’t have to do any real work and I could put 3 links under the photo. That had a lot of value for me.

    One week I submitted a photo from a press trip and disclosed the fact. They told me they had a rule against taking any content from sponsored trips and wouldn’t run the photo….AND THEY WERE PAYING ME NOTHING! It was a photo with nothing more than a caption of the place it was taken. There was no opinion expressed at all.

    Their ‘ethics’ required me to not just earn no money, but actually take a loss on everything I published for them.

    There seems to be a direct trade off at many publication between journalism ethics and business ethics.

    §

    Having come into this industry with no knowledge of freelance rates, I was shocked when I found out how much a newspaper would pay for a feature story. It was 3x less than what I would have guessed.

    Travel is unique in that it is a big ticket item that is non-returnable. The automotive section of the NYT doesn’t buy a new car every time they do a review. They get a loaner, put it through its paces and then return it. Tech reviewers do the same thing with computers and gadgets.

    Movie reviewers get to watch films for free, but it doesn’t cost a lot of money, so no one really cares. Roger Ebert could have probably paid the $5 to attend a matinee if he had to. Same with sports writers who attend sporting events for free.

    Travel is the one thing which is both expensive (like cars) and non-returnable (like a movie). You can’t give back a flight or a night in a hotel room, yet a trip can often run into the thousands of dollars.

    Of the journalists I’ve heard complain about sponsored trips, I have yet to have anyone come up with a working model for how to cover travel absent working for a multimillion dollar publication.

    §

    Speaking of multimillion dollar publications….

    Conde Nast Traveler likes to boast about their ‘no freebie’ policy, but last year when they sent a writer to cover a $45,000/night resort in the Caribbean for 2 nights, they worked a deal where they only paid $1,000…..because spending $90,000 was just too much.

    So, their ethics have a price and that price is $90,000.

    To put that in perspective, if Conde Nast has annual revenues of $50,000,000 per year (and it is actually probably higher, but I’ll keep the math simple), spending $1,000 for accommodations that cost $90,000 would be the same as a blogger who makes $50,000 spending $1 on a room that costs $90.

    §

    Something I’ve noticed is that readers don’t really seem to care if your trip is sponsored. It is pretty easy to smell a sales pitch and most people have a decent BS detector.

    Moreover, from the perspective of a reader, I’m not sure why it matters if a trip is paid for by a publication vs someone else. In both cases, the writer is NOT paying for the trip out of pocket and any potential reader who might visit IS paying out of pocket. A trip paid for by a publication is still a free trip to whoever is writing and it is still not a free trip to whoever is reading.

    There are few (if any) travel writers who are going to be able to spend 3 nights are the Four Seasons Bora Bora on their own dime. If someone, anyone, else is paying for it, it fundamentally changes the experience and makes it different from what the reader will experience.

    Who is paying for it is really secondary to the fact that the writer is NOT paying for it.

    A trip paid for by the New York Times is still a free trip to the person on the trip. It might be a work trip, I get that, but it isn’t out of pocket either, and that changes everything.

    §

    I don’t know if anyone else has noticed an explosion in the “48 hours in…”, or “3 days in…” type stories which have become common in the last few years. I’m seeing them in the New York Times and airline magazines all the time now.

    They strike me as an editorial way to adapt to the fact that they just don’t have much of a travel budget anymore. While there is certainly room for these type of stories, they seem to be driven more by economics than anything else.

    I completely understand it, but the idea that the editorial side of a publication is unaffected by money is bunk.

    Which brings me to….

    §

    I’ve had several editors and writers defend the ethics of large print publications by describing the ‘Chinese wall’ that separates the money side from the editorial side.

    I trust everyone who says that the money people are not involved in influencing their words on any given story.

    However, the agenda of what is to be written about and the editorial calendar is absolutely influenced by money. That is why magazines have special editions about Hawaii, the Caribbean or Mexico. It is so they can sell ads.

    I actually don’t think that is a bad thing, I just think it is disingenuous to say that money has no influence in editorial matters. It does, at least at the meta level.

    Instead of using a ‘Chinese wall’ as a metaphor, ‘money laundering’ is equally good if not better.

    It does a good job of describing how a destination can give a publication money, hand waving occurs, and then somehow money is spent by the publication in covering that destination (or hotel or whatever).

    • Jason says:

      Although it kind of hurts to say this: everything Gary says above is correct.

      My favorite example related to his last few grafs is the watch and fashion ads you see in the glossy travel magazines. You can almost always match a product in a spread to an advertiser in that same issue.

      CN Traveler has dropped their no freebies policy. I’ll be interested to see how that goes.

      I’d add that there’s a flip side to choosing to accept free trips that some people aren’t cut out for. I’m talking about the people who hop from one DMO trip to another hashtagging #goawesomedestinationname all along the way. Their writing reads like an itinerary from a PR team and they offer little to their readers. PRs love them, because they do as they are told. While it’s primarily bloggers doing this now, there’s a long history of similar behavior to be found (still) in regional magazines and smaller newspapers.

      The middle ground I’ve found over the last few years works for me: I can accept a trip as long as there are no requirements to produce any content whatsoever. No pre- or post-trip reports, no hashtags or social media posts in transit, no nothing. You invite me because I’m good at what I do, and if you’re good at what you do maybe there will be something to say at the end. Of course I have no time to do this now, but it worked before.

      To me, that’s the travel equivalent of getting a loaner car to review or getting a laptop from Apple to test for two weeks.

      • Pam Mandel says:

        That’s my best case scenario, Jason. Okay to the trip with no pre-planned assignments. Solo, with a pretty loose agenda, if we’re going for the gold ring. I’ve had a few of those, some get stories, some I’m still parked on. I HATE the requirement to tag stuff, I just won’t do it. Pay me a day rate and have me work YOUR feed if that’s what you want to have happen. Otherwise, no, no, and also, no.

        I get the match between ads and content. I cancelled T+L and NG Traveler because of that. The all Belgium issue is full of ads for Belgium! Oh, come on.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      Jeez, Gary, you have a lot to say. You should start a blog or something.

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said here. So, um, thanks?

  8. Basically, what Gary said. As an expat who’s chosen to live a nomadic life, it’s safe to say the costs are lower for us to travel to some little unknown village in Thailand. Getting offbeat on a weekly basis is what I do, and I’ve been able to do for years now.

    I’d love to throw a Conde Nast label on my ‘Worked With’ page. I really would. Even assuming I got 2 $75 articles for a weekend trip to say, Ubon Ratchathani (a city I went to recently), costs would just barely be covered. Doing one? I’d lose money – and we’re not counting the time and effort to actually pitch, conversate, Skype, write the thing, re-write the thing…

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I’m sorry, Chris, I don’t understand your point. Is it that you would do work that costs you money because it would shore up your credibility? Or are you just agreeing with a point I already made, that with these restrictive rules, expats are good sources for stories because they have to absorb considerably less personal expense?

  9. Priscilla says:

    Finally, everything out in the open about having to hide. Well done, refreshing…today, you are my hero!
    Cheers!

  10. Bret says:

    Pam, my point was essentially the same as Kristin’s: Perhaps you could build up Nerd’s Eye View to the point where you can get a press trip like this one set up on your own merits and THEN sell the story to a publication like this.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I feel like I should apologize, Bret, there’s something about your responses that brings out the worst in me. I’m sure you don’t mean to be insulting my credibility with everything you say, but it does come across that way. For example, now, what I want to say is, “Gee, you mean I could spend my time selling stories to publishers, writing guidebooks, winning awards that aren’t even backed by PR organizations, teaching travel writing, speaking at conferences, traveling the world, and all while doing that, build up a solid online presence that includes a blog that’s been online for 15 years, and that might net me some press trip support? Gee if only I’d thought of that! You’re right, I’m totally insignificant as Nerd’s Eye View, I should get to work on that!”

      I’m sure you’re not trying to suggest that I don’t have the credibility to request press support as an individual blogger. Because that would, again, were I not so thick skinned, be easy to take as an insult, or a least an underhanded potshot at my cred. You’re not using pickup artist techniques to subtly insult me as a method for trying to win me over, are you? Naw, that’s ridiculous, those people have ulterior motives. Let me put that line of thinking away. I do believe you’re coming from what you think is a helpful place, but I’m just taking it all the wrong way.

      Kristin suggested I kick the big mastheads to the curb and focus on monitizing and writing for my own site instead. That’s different than landing press trips on the merits of my blog and selling third party stories as a result of that. If you read the end of the post again, you’ll see that in telling the tourist board that I had a specific market in mind, I violated the publication’s terms. Of course I could get get this trip funded on my own merits, I did not start blogging yesterday. But in order to take advantage of using my own platform as the lever, I would need to tell the tourist board, “Oh, never mind, that’s off, can you have me in solo?” That requires me to tell a (admittedly white, but still) lie to the tourism board. Lying to get my travel funded is simply not something I’m prepared to do.

  11. Gigi says:

    Well said.

    The don’t ask, don’t tell policy is extremely frustrating and inauthentic. And it’s just lovely how pubs think that they don’t need to pay enough to cover a trip or give us means to cover it (e.g. said freebies). Because…why? Because it’s such an honor to be a travel writer? Because going to a destination to research a story is the same as going on vacation and doing what I want with my time (and therefore, I should go on my own dime)? Because writers don’t deserve to make a living because our job is kinda fun? Because writing is perceived as easy?

    Absolutely horrifying.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I don’t think it’s that pejorative towards writers regarding the pay and/or status in the food chain. The pay for this thing isn’t bad at all as web pay goes, it’s not print rates, but it’s not blog rates either. not by a long shot. It’s still unsustainable — or, better said, a bad business choice. And to be in a place where I have to commission another 900 dollars of work in order to do this story, um, really? This is a painful lesson about how to select the cornerstone assignment for your trip.

      In addition to just being a laugh in the face of DADT. I told. Oops.

  12. This pretty much sums up why I lost interest in being a full-time writer in the current environment; kudos to those who persist and succeed.

    The combination of “Mother May I?” with publications and the crappy pay was just too much hassle, it insults me as a professional, and as David notes, it sucks the joy out of both travel AND writing.

    I keep my hand in travel blogging, though, because that’s where I started, I still enjoy it, and online publishing that I control is more satisfying to me than “masthead cred” from publishing dinosaurs that doesn’t put food in my pantry.

    Thanks for laying it out there – most people have no clue about how all this works.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I talked with a writer I have mad respect for yesterday and she said she’s migrating out of travel because of this nonsense. She’s doing the same kind of travel based stories that she was doing before, but focusing on getting them out as broader features, not pigeon holed to travel pubs. This makes a good deal of sense and is totally a direction I’ll be heading in.

      It IS insulting, isn’t it? What’s up with that?

  13. Jessica says:

    What Pam said. Also, what Gary said. Also, *sigh.*

  14. Though different, your story with this assignment reminds me of the one that made me lose any illusions about travel writing I might have had.

    Growing up in Canada, and studying journalism here, I always admired our national newspaper the Globe & Mail and wanted to be published in it. One fine day, I finally landed an assignment to cover the newly restored Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai for their “Sleepover” column. The fee was $250.

    I contacted the PR person at the hotel, someone who had actually given me a tour and treated me for lunch a year before; and forwarded the assignment letter. She offered me a media rate of $350 to stay one night.

    I went back to the G&M and asked them to cover the rate; and they wouldn’t. I went back to the PR person and explained I would lose the assignment and the opportunity to give them coverage if they insisted on charging me to me stay there.

    No one budged.

    So I made the difficult decision to let that assignment go because it would have cost me money to write the story. Could I have sold it somewhere else? Maybe. But on principle, I just couldn’t do it.

    Btw, it was at about this same time that Ariana Huffington sold her online newspaper for $350 million and kept the proceeds to herself, not sharing with any of the bloggers who were working for free.

    I remember feeling very disillusioned and bitter.

    Since then, I have concentrated on other strategies, such as building up the traffic and profile of my own blog. I don’t know if it was the right decision to back off from freelancing to build up Breathedreamgo, but it has made me feel more in control.

    Sorry, I don’t have anything helpful to add … except to commiserate. It’s a crazy world.

  15. I see the problem of freelancing in the digital age as the same one writers (from poets to novelists, memoirists to journalists) have always faced, but magnified. When editors, magazines and profit-making blogs (like Huffington Post, which pays its writers NOTHING) refer to “travel,” they mean the commodity that will help them profit. To attract advertisers they need the kind of content (different from the kind of serious journalism writers like you would contribute) that will benefit tour operators, hotels and tourism boards. Rarely do you see glossy publications like Conde Nast Traveler cover what I call the in between places (which don’t qualify as destinations and where most of the tour operators don’t go). I was reading a glossy regional magazine last night that had 10 features on hotels charging $400/night and up, all by contributors who (I’m sure) stayed for free. The readers of this advertising vehicle can afford it and the shilling keeps it in business. Every journalist, blogger, photographer and content creator has to decide for him or herself how much they are willing to compromise to keep traveling, or writing, or both.

    So here are a few devil’s advocate ideas (that you may think are ridiculous):

    (1) What if you start submitting pieces like this one for magazines like Poets & Writers that still pay writers for instructive commentary?
    (2) What if you occasionally start churning out some content for the travel industry’s advertising arm as a way to fund your trips?
    (3) What if you start publishing your best travel journalism on your blog?
    (4) What if you free yourself from the world of travel brands and destinations and write about discoveries you make in the course of your (content-funded) travels for publications that do not fit the niche? Many blogs still pay small fees, so do some community newspapers and regional magazines. There are also some excellent online magazines publishing long reads that no doubt pay writers.
    (5) What if you start compiling your best work into a book, writing a proposal and trying to find an agent? Maybe your past editors even know some and would give you personal recommendations.
    (6) What if you try paying for some travel by bartering (a writing class in exchange for a few nights at a great hotel or an ad on your blog in exchange for discount).

    These ideas won’t solve the problem, but aside from a big infusion of money into the publishing business I don’t know what would.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I’m looking at:

      4) Yeah, getting a divorce from the niche would be good. “We’ve had a really good run, travel writing, it’s been awesome. But honey, it’s not you… actually, it totally *is* you. You were so idealistic once, now it’s like living on a used car lot.”

      5) I’m working on a book proposal. It’s a slog, but it’s gonna get done, dagnabbit.

      So, yes to some of this. I’m not interested in bartering, I have bills. I’m not above writing copy for travel brands, but I won’t put that stuff on *my* blog, no way no how — though I don’t think that’s what you’re suggesting.

      I see I’m not the only person who’s given this some extensive thought.

  16. Joseph says:

    I write travel stories for the Huffington Post occasionally. They recently rejected an article because the travel was subsidized. The Huffington Post, who takes content from elsewhere and pays it’s writers nothing, not permitting subsidized travel? Should I laugh or cry?

    • Pam Mandel says:

      Let me pass you the Kleenex.

      I REALLY hope you were paid to write for them previously. I’ve long said, “Friends don’t let friends write for/read the Huffington Post.” So I really hope you’ve stopped.

  17. Ana O'Reilly says:

    Hi Pam.
    I’ve followed you for a while (on social media, I’m not a stalker) and I’d like you to know that I enjoy your work very much. I also enjoy reading your responses to readers’ comments as well.

  18. Tim Leffel says:

    I was going to leave a succinct summary of what I’ve learned over 20 years of freelancing and getting hosted as an editor. But then I read what Gary and Jason said and they pretty much summed it up.

    It’s a big stupid game that nobody believes in, yet the actors keep playing along like it matters. It’s a reason why so much of what you read in the New York Times travel section sounds like it was written by people who live in Manhattan penthouses and eat caviar for breakfast. They’re the only ones who will take assignments without hosting OR all expenses being paid.

    • Pam Mandel says:

      I keep thinking I should somehow get to graduate out of this nonsense, but it doesn’t seem to happen in the space labeled “travel.” I have other markets, good ones, who trust that I’ll do good work as a writer. For me, the takeaway has been to focus more on those publications, to ask about terms up front. Also, I’ve had some very nice support from my writer friends who all said, “This is bullshit, let me share some guidelines with you for such and such a publication. You deserve better gigs.” That’s been really nice — and has motivated me to seek those better gigs out.

  19. Scott says:

    I don’t have anything of substance to add to the conversation. Just a note that I find your glimpses behind the curtain interesting. And based on the number and word-count of comments above, it would appear others do too. Reading through the comments makes me feel like I’m eavesdropping on a bunch of cooks sitting at the bar post-service complaining about the industry.

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