The landscape for newspaper travel writing is shifting dramatically. But, amid all the predicted doom and gloom, lie some intriguing new opportunities for freelancers. What follows are the trends I see for 2009.
By the way, everything (or almost everything) I say about newspapers applies also to magazines, albeit to a lesser degree right now.
** 1. Changing of the guard: Many veteran travel editors are leaving, have left, or will shortly leave the jobs they’ve held for 15 years or more: editors in Seattle, Kansas City, Portland, Chicago, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, San Diego, and Sacramento, to name a few. Tough times for newspapers means opportunities for freelancers.
New editors like to establish their own stables of writers, so this is the time to hit them with stories that will make them sit up and pay attention. With any luck you’ll become part of their new stable. The new batch of editors will not have the support staff and budget to travel as much as their predecessors, so, in many cases, they’ll be buying more freelance stories than in the past. (If their freelance budget hasn’t been slashed, that is.)
** 2. Chunky bits: Newspapers (and, to a greater extent, magazines) are getting away from longer narratives and are increasingly running USA Today-style info-graphics or “charticles” — stories broken up into info-bits that can run with graphics. Think “The five coolest Greek islands you’ve never heard of,” or “Seven places where you can spend the night in a former prison.” (Please don’t ask me why it always has to be an odd number. I have no idea.) This, too, is potentially good news for freelancers.
These stories are much easier to write than longer narratives; you don’t have to be Bill Bryson or Pico Iyer to do them. You just have to have a good idea and the ability to research it. Many of the big-name travel writers don’t want to cover these stories, and the ones who do are no better at it than you are.
** 3. It’s the economy, stupid: Nearly every story published in the coming year will require some sort of money-saving spin. “Tokyo for Tightwads,” “New York for Nada,” “Chicago for Cheapskates,” “Bangkok on a Budget”… you get the idea. Also big, in every market, will be closer-to-home stories. So-called weekend getaways will, for many people, be the only traveling they do in 2009. Every travel editor I know has the same complaint: It’s really, really hard to get good close-to-home travel stories from freelancers. They’re going to need more of these than ever in the coming year, and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door.
** 4. Picture this: Even more so than in the past, photos will be a great way to make extra money when you sell a story. As newspapers cut their photo budgets, they’re using fewer and fewer stock images, and more images supplied by writers. The per-photo rate isn’t high, but, if they publish six or seven of your photos in a spread, you can often double your pay.
Things to shoot: People and places specific to your story. The stubble-faced vintner who showed you around his vineyards… the café you write about that reputedly serves the best haggis in Scotland… the whale-watching boat you went out on. Even if they have a big budget, editors can’t get these shots from stock agencies.
Also, get detail shots with a sense of place, like a bushel of apples, a gargoyle door-knocker, or unintentionally funny signs. Page designers love these, and they’re often hard to get from stock agencies. If you don’t have a decent digital camera, get one (eight megapixels is plenty).
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]