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In 2003, a multifaceted lifestyle crisis that I’d been cultivating for two years went supernova.
During a Top 5 of All-Time hangover, I hatched swift and irreversible plans to quit my nine-year career with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, sell my house, car and all my belongings, and flee the country. I told my wide-eyed friends and coworkers that I intended to travel until the money ran out then come home, but I was also simmering the idea of becoming a travel writer, despite having no training, no connections and no clue. Amazingly, I engineered a career as a freelance writer (mainly in travel), which endured for over 11 years.
I spent the first four and a half years nomadically wandering through Europe and Asia-Pacific. I lived for extended periods in Spain, Romania, and Italy. As my experience and clippings grew, so did my opportunities. I did five-star site visits to Istanbul; Kaikoura, New Zealand; Sapporo, Japan; Hong Kong; Umbria; and Guam and Saipan. I went on a luxury fly fishing cruise in Chile’s Patagonia region and rode Australia’s famed Indian-Pacific railway from Perth to Sydney in a first-class cabin. In a fortuitous turn of events, I landed the brass ring assignment of researching Tuscany for Lonely Planet — twice.
In 2007, I re-settled in my hometown of Minneapolis where I continued working steadily, almost frantically at times, as lucrative work piled up with barely any pitching effort on my part. In 2010, I earned more money than I had at the peak of my Federal Reserve career.
The Turning Point
Then the tailspin began. I went through a burnout period in 2011 after the sadistic pace of 2010. Opportunities started declining as cheap/free/user generated, “meh, good enough” content flooded the internet. Pay for magazines, static for over five years, started to drop. As guidebook publishing struggled, page numbers were slashed and the author job turned into heartbreaking content butchery and glorified data entry.
In 2013, I lost four important clients in an alarming four month period. My biggest client closed down. My second biggest client decided they were no longer in the business of creating original content. Two more clients went into extended editorial fugue states. I found new clients, but the fees were barely sustainable. I could pay my mortgage and feed myself, but not much beyond that without dipping into my savings. Compiling morale-wilting “listicles” was my sole source of income some months. I started aggressively hunting for a day job.
Blame bad luck, blame burnout, blame the internet (ignore that I wrote this article specifically for internet publication) but my demoralizing experience is becoming the norm among contemporary travel writers. Older outlets are scaling down and newer outlets don’t have the money to pay a reasonable wage. Publishers that used to have unbendable “no freebies” rules have back-pedaled out of respect for the current freelance reality of vanishing opportunities and cratering fees, though sometimes disappointingly without due transparency.
“I had to yank a story I’d landed with [BIG NAME OUTLET] because after I landed it, I asked for press support. They were all, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t tell them what you need the support FOR,’” reports Pam Mandel, a highly sought after travel writer. “[BIG NAME OUTLET] actually suggested I place another story with a publisher that allows press support and piggy back the story I wanted to do for them on someone else’s approved assignment.”
Freelance writer Ann Bauer showed her cards in a recent piece entitled “‘Sponsored’ by my husband.” In it, she comes clean to the world about the open secret in freelance writing circles: for many people, it just isn’t possible without a saintly, bread-winning spouse whose regular, often ample income allows the freelancer to continue doing the work they love. Before that, the demands of supporting herself and her children made writing all but impossible for Bauer. She also rightly shreds two unnamed but famous writers for doing the opposite: suggesting that hard work made their careers and paid the bills, rather than exquisite family connections and inheritance.
While freelance travel writers may be barely clinging to the hood of the speeding car that is their careers, even staff travel writers at large outlets are riding without seatbelts. Zach Everson was laid off from his position as Senior Editor at MapQuest after just 15 months on the job when the site scaled down their publishing of original travel articles. Everson is surprisingly understanding about his sudden, involuntary return to freelancing. “Media outlets can now see how many people read travel articles. And many are discovering that travel articles don’t attract enough readers to sell enough ads around to be profitable. So there’s little need to invest in in-house staff or making significant payments to freelancers,” Everson reports matter-of-factly.
Meanwhile, there’s been an unthinkable revival of the despicable and doomed pay-per-click model, with no base fee, at places like Hearst Digital Media, a duplicitous arrangement for the writer that wouldn’t even fund a modest happy hour once a month. Hearst reversed this policy early last month.
And the degradation goes on. Despite 11 years experience and innumerable clippings in high profile outlets, a company that rhymes with “Froogle” recently demanded that I take a writing test merely for the potential for future work, the equivalent of a veteran surgeon being asked to stitch up a banana before seeing a patient. Absorbing their lengthy, pedantic guidelines and the writing test combined for three un-billable hours. I never heard from Froogle again.
But not all travel writers are trudging away disillusioned. “I was fortunate to become a travel writer during the nascence of social media,” says Annie Scott Riley who backed away from travel writing a few years ago to start a family. “I became a travel writer during the part of my life when I had few responsibilities and could do whatever I wanted to.” Even when travel publishing was less saturate and dicey, travel writing wasn’t a cakewalk. “I lived on practically nothing in the early days — but not nothing nothing. I paid my New York rent somehow. I bought all those Ramen noodles somehow.” Though she’s settled into a comfortable career in social media, she hasn’t ruled out returning to travel writing some day. “I’ll never be done. I still sell a few articles every year.”
When I started job hunting, friends thought I was insane to give up working at home in my pajamas and occasionally being zapped to places like Azerbaijan on short notice, all expenses paid. Despite more than a year of whining about unfulfilling work and rending my clothes while talking about finances, my career still seemed to be some kind of rapture to bystanders. And under certain circumstances, it could be. I’ll happily do either a) fulfilling work for pennies or b) tedious work for insane money. But only a wingnut would voluntarily do c) unfulfilling work for pennies.
That’s where travel writing is inexorably headed.
There’s no denying that freedom and free time are wonderful, priceless things. Freelancing allows for copious amounts of both. But no paid vacations, no sick days, no backup, little to no health insurance, and no dependable salary? No thanks. Certainly not while one is scrounging for low-end fees, writing link-bait articles, and laboriously sourcing image galleries from Creative Commons.
Bitter as this sounds, I honestly enjoyed about 85 percent of my freelance travel writing career. I crammed more singular, memorable experiences into 11 years than three average people cumulatively experience in their entire lives. I spent much of that time happier and healthier than I’d been in my previous career and I gleaned a volume of wisdom and perspective that I might not have otherwise achieved in my entire life.
But the dream is over, the fun is fading and the quickening plunge into poverty is unsettling. I’m taking my hard-won tourism knowledge, writing talents and media connections and sinking into the warm embrace of a corporate job with Mall of America. As I take a train 35 minutes to work, carrying two smartphones, wearing shirts with real buttoning buttons, and un-ironically using the word “spin,” I’ll smile stupidly at my generous salary and benefits while watching my hotel loyalty program points gratifyingly tick upwards.
Leif Pettersen is/was a freelance travel writer, a tourism communications professional, humorist and silver medallist at the 2014 International Jugglers’ Association championships. He tweets @leifpettersen and was paid a much lower rate to write this article than he expected.