The Write Stuff, For Free?

street artist work in Victoria, British Columbia (August 2007)

“Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls

And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free”

Joni Mitchell, “For Free” 1970

This past week I have been thinking about travel guides, online and offline.

Social project travel media through online websites like FlyerTalk, WikiTravel, TripAdvisor, TravelPod, World 66,, etc. provide readers with an abundance of travel information. Data-mining of Travel 2.0 websites is the frontier of online travel media consolidation, in my opinion.

I looked at articles this past week about Monterey on WikiTravel and TripAdvisor and felt the desire to edit away, but then I came back to the reality of needing to write for my own profit and not spend too much time writing for some company making internet advertising revenue on my work. I am all for social media and free travel information on the internet, but I am also trying to carve out a niche for sustainable employment in the world of travel writing. Social media travel writing changed from a hobby to my job and I need some compensation for the work I create everyday. I contribute to several of these social media projects, but I also find myself holding back to keep control of my major pieces of work. It is a paradox I haven’t resolved.

The Lonely Planet scandal has created plenty of commentary from travel writers. The recently published book by a former Lonely Planet travel writer has sparked controversy about the value of travel guides in current times when so much information is available for free over the internet. It is no wonder that travel writers can develop material from the comfort of their own homes about places on the other side of the globe that can result in the kind of travel writing fraud that has hit Lonely Planet Guides this week.

And I wonder about the capitalism behind the social forum websites. Thomas Kohnstamm complained Lonely Planet expected work on an inadequate shoestring budget. WikiTravel and TripAdvisor generate content that is edited and repackaged for profit and these sites don’t pay their online writers anything at all. Where does this leave the future of travel writing and travel writer employment?

I have a masters degree in Labor Studies, but ironically the internet took off the year after I finished graduate school in 1994 and the internet has been the primary factor in globalization and worker displacement in the US labor force since that time. It is a brave new world and employment conditions have been profoundly affected by these electronic developments. Travel writing is a different occupation now than it was in the 90s.

One recurring comment among travel writers and travel readers is the value of one person’s opinion compared to dozens of people’s opinions. How do you evaluate a hotel when 20 comments on TripAdvisor are positive and 10 comments are negative? Travel writing based on data mining of the social forums on the web will have to reconcile these differing opinions and the derivative works will primarily be editorial work.

Economics of travel is my primary writing topic. I don’t consider myself to be a traditional travel writer. My pursuit is travel analysis. You know where you want to go and I know ways to book upscale hotels for less around the globe.

My role is similar to a radio dj, albeit a public broadcasting station since I program my own content. If you like the tunes I spin in my travel writing, then my work has value. And if you are not into corporate hotels and don’t mind living in the houses of strangers with B&Bs and room rentals, then there are probably better ways than hotel living to spend your money and make it go further when traveling.

The B&B lodging option was something I tried for 8 weeks in Ireland back in 97-98 and that was a memorable and pleasurable experience. Sitting at the kitchen table at midnight in the house of a Catholic woman in Buncrana, County Donegal, as her policeman husband was involved in quelling the rioting associated with the Protestant Marching Season around Derry was the kind of personal experience a traveler will be unlikely to have in a major hotel. And the economics of spending $120 night compared to $50/night for a B&B was a bad value for us as travelers in 1997. (I haven’t looked at Irish B&B prices in years and the rates I listed here were the norm back in 1998).

The security and independence of hotel living is a travel privilege I have come to enjoy over the past ten years and I find good and affordable (for me) value in traveling with upscale hotel stays and the benefits of loyalty programs.