Same terrain, new tools. Behold the new school. Photo by Chris Burkard.
Possibly no other occupation is as ill-defined as "travel writer." Tell somebody you're a teacher, a chef, a painter, an engineer, a mechanic, maybe even an "IT person," and chances are they'll have at least a general idea what your workday looks like. Even more specific journalism jobs like food writer, reporter, and copy editor are things we can fairly easily contextualize.
But what the hell is a travel writer? The cliched images likely come to mind: the zip-off pants-wearing, notepad-wielding, globetrotting do-gooder, or maybe the unshaven, whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking, ex-Peace Corps polyglot. These might have almost been accurate when metropolitan dailies and regional magazines had budgets to keep these kinds of writers and their counterpart photographers on staff.
Maybe back in 1998.
But 2013? The landscape has totally shifted; dailies have shuttered or gone online. Except for a handful of almost cartoonish elite "dream gigs" at magazines and papers that weathered the media revolution, staff jobs are gone with the wind. "Content" is now supplied by younger, willing-to-work-for-cheap freelancers and/or bloggers cum social media marketing specialists, while the luddites are struggling through industry conferences on personal branding and "building one's web presence" led by bald-headed self-proclaimed gurus, mavens and ninjas.
But of course the flipside is that as the paradigm for what a travel writer actually is and how he or she can make a living shifts, there emerges all new forms, methods, ideas for working. Here are a few of them outlined:
1. Start At Home
A key principle we teach travel journalists is to start with what you know best, which is often right at home:
When you start with what you know best, your points of reference draw instinctively from specific names and details while simultaneously taking into consideration the history of the place, how it has changed (or remained the same) over time, and how your experiences there are affected by the time of year, the season, and various factors unique to that particular place and culture.
The ability to "see" places in this way (read: beyond the superficial) is the first step in being able to create authentic travel stories, which are ultimately what editors and to a lesser degree, but slowly gaining traction, PR firms and tourism boards who hire journalists for press trips, are looking for (and should be looking for!). The days of travel writers, and more recently, travel bloggers, getting away with writing "advertorials" are slowly and thankfully (albeit painfully) dying out.
Starting at home also opens the possibility that you can build a strong body of work (and be recognized as an "expert") around a particular niche / location, which in turn gives you legs to stand on for networking with local tourism boards, publications, etc. A good exercise is to Google your local place + "travel" (ex: "Asheville travel"). What search results turn up first? Could you provide smarter, better-written, or more useful information? Could you create a site with a cleaner design or more functionality?
If so, get after it.
2. Portfolios Are Old School: Create Specific Sites Around Individual Projects.
It used to be that writers compiled clippings of their print work as part of a portfolio. Then people started building sites around their portfolios, which often required ridiculous amounts of clicking around or downloading pdfs, etc. to review the writer's work.
As web (and mobile) has evolved, sites like Pinterest and Tumblr have revolutionized the way information is arranged and displayed on a screen. Sites with all different layers and tabs that require multiple click-throughs and text searches to find what you're looking for are quickly being replaced by sites that arrange information and content "visually."
Take our Matador Ambassadors Tumblr, for example. After spending even just seconds on the page, the reader can immediately parse what the brand and message are without having to click anything.
This has naturally led to people creating specific sites for their projects, which in turn are much cleaner, more shareable, and also remain "live" as opposed to seeming simply archived or out of play, than had they been buried in a little tab on their websites. Basing your online presence around individual, site-supported projects makes it easier to parlay your work into books or gain editor interest, and in general just ups your savvy personal brand.
3. Images Drive The Internet: Start Driving
No matter how much you're attached to writing, without images It's more difficult to gain traction online and the interest of editors. This means either you take them yourself, or you always work with specific photographers, to accompany and help "display" your work.
One important thing to keep in mind is that while pro photography may take special talent, training, and expensive equipment, ultimately you can get away with imagery for the internet simply by getting into the practice of taking shots via smartphone. The key is just having imagery, period.
This is another area we stress in our journalism school: Even if it's just taking a few shots, having at least some skill in multiple areas is what leads you to success today in travel media.
4. Consider Audio / Video
With the proliferation of Soundcloud as a platform not just for music but "sound creators," a whole new community of journalists is emerging that incorporates audio into reportage. This is a hugely creative medium for travel writers to engage.
5. You Are A Media Company
Jay-Z said he's not a businessman, but a "business, man." That pretty much sums up the the travel writers who are truly pulling it off today. They are full-time, location-independent "offices" who do everything: social media, promotion, marketing, pitching, networking, speaking, writing, taking pictures, and all the while writing stories.
Perhaps this is the real reason why "travel writer" is so nebulous an occupation: The line between work and life has to be totally permeable.
--David Seth Miller is the senior editor of Matador Network (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism), and director of curricula at Matador's travel journalism school, MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.