Leverage and Who Holds It In Travel Journalism
Just shy of three years into my freelance journalism career I’ve learned a handful of things I wish I’d understood before I quit my PR job. Most are the basics — get an accountant, paying quarterly taxes is expensive, the check is always in the mail — but then there are the big ones. The type of lessons that make or break a career if you can’t adapt quickly.
This past week while at the Society of American Travel Writers Editors Council I got a chance to work on one of the biggest of these lessons: Understanding leverage, who holds it, and how to use the little leverage you have to increase your overall value.
While it’s not appropriate to go into details about the conversations I had with editors from USA Today, Denver Post, Travel and Leisure to name a few, it is fair to say that leverage in the travel industry is increasingly becoming one-sided. What I reconfirmed was what I already knew: as a freelance writer my leverage is based on how little I can charge and how quickly I can turn it around. The fact that I can produce HD video, print-level photography, or a variety of other multimedia elements isn’t enough to catapult me past if I can work on spec or for .10 cents a word.
This brings up a major roadblock: Do I play in this space and accept the skewed reality? Or do I look where everyone else is going and walk the other way? It is no secret that travel writing is a career filled with dreams of free extended trips on the Riviera and gourmet dinners with no checks, and while some of that does happen, the harsh reality of the travel writer lifestyle is usually broken relationships, catastrophic health insurance and a lifetime of renting.
If I look the other way, however, I’m looking into a world dominated by rich content complete with a high production value, strong narrative and a budget beyond $300 for a five-minute video. The reality of this lifestyle leads me to bankruptcy in six months.
Over the weekend at the beginning of my presentation on video I told the group of editors my job is to look where everyone is going and walk the other way, while still continuing to build my career in the traditional sense. There were some raised eyebrows and a few chuckles. Of course it could have been because they aren’t used to hearing a 27-year-old presenter say something like that, but I have to think it’s because they wish their job gave them the leverage to do the same thing.
Which is where we find the answer to who holds the leverage in travel journalism. Right now it’s not the editors, not the writers, not the PR pros who can’t offer free trips to a large segment of their target base, but instead it’s upper-level management who are looking at balance sheets and ROI models. And until these individuals are able to break away from projections and quarterly profits, the leverage of pushing boundaries and moving forward with larger brands will continue to be sluggish and frustrating for many parties. Which is why I’m still playing the game by pitching traditional outlets, but also why I’m looking as far away from their business model as possible and trying to figure out how I fit into the great unknown. I just hope bankruptcy never comes.