Interview with travel journalist and editor Jeremy Head – utopian view of online content continued


Happy 2009 everyone. Here’s to a successful travelling and travel writing year.

I’ll start this new year by extending the life of my intentionally pseudo-authoritative, fairly frivolous and suitably idealistic utopian view of online travel content post. And what better follow up for this ephemeral conversation-starting post than a real-life case study of a travel writer and editor who has successfully morphed his craft to suit the requirements of the web. Many thanks to Jeremy Head, the Travelblatherer himself, for taking part in this Q & A session for me and all Written Road readers.

I first met Jeremy in London at Blogcamp08; a get together of travel bloggers, travel e-commerce movers and shakers, and those who want to be. In his blogging guise, Jeremy writes insightful posts on the very latest news in travel writing, online travel content and social media for his blog travelblather. Backing up Jeremy’s blogging calibre is an impressive background of print travel writing accolades and industry experience: he lists The Daily Mail, The Times Wanderlust and Frommers among his many clients.

I’d hoped that Jeremy’s experiences of straddling both sides of the travel writing world would support my ambitions to make Traditional Print Commissions + Online diversification = holistic professional and financial success. The interview makes interesting reading for anyone in a similar professional boat.

Many thanks Jeremy.

WR: Jeremy, when did you first take steps to diversify into online travel writing and editorial?

JH: My writing first appeared online without my consent. As is the case with most print media here in the UK, stuff I had commissioned and published by newspapers and magazines was also republished on their websites from as early as 2000. Whilst I’d argue now that in the absence of a contract there are serious copyright issues with this practice, at the time I saw this as a bonus – a quick and easy way to show people examples of my work without resorting to photocopies and stamps. Now as I see it being packaged up and syndicated for a fee – which I get no part of – it irks me.

As a freelance you have to punt work at all and sundry, so once I realized that content aside from the print editions was being commissioned for publication on websites I offered ideas to various online travel eds. I was stunned at how poor the pay was though and didn’t write for web for many years. If you are looking to make money, print still rules. Don’t kid yourself you can make it as a travel writer just getting published online. Online remuneration is pathetically poor and I don’t think it will change any time soon.

My first proper web-writing project was for a customer magazine’s website. That’s an important distinction – there’s money writing online for marketing rather than for media. There’s decent money in the budget to pay for content if a big organization (rather than a backpacker website or a newspaper) wants it for their website. That first web-writing job was back in 2005, but it was only a small proportion of my writing. I’ve been running my own blog (www.travelblather.com) about travel writing and online content development for about a year now and that’s when I really started writing for web. As a branding exercise for me as a travel writer. Not as a way to get paid.

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WR: So, what’s your current ratio of print to web work?

JH: In my current role as Travel Editor for web marketing and social media company iCrossing, I’m editing and commissioning travel content 100% for web. We create features and destination guides for major UK tour operators and airlines. I have a few freelance bits and pieces still ticking over which are for print, but I’d say 95% is now web. If I ever go freelance again, the ratio will swing back to print massively – at least for the foreseeable future.

WR: What are the major differences between print commissions and writing for the web?

If it’s me commissioning… then I am far more prescriptive for web. Web content is about short, dense paragraphs stuffed with useful information and links. And that’s what I ask for – with a detailed brief. Quality, not quantity.

Some writers get it, others don’t. There’s no room for flowery prose. If you want to earn money writing for web – rather than just to stoke your ego by writing whatever you fancy and imagining the whole world is reading it – then you need to be really focused on your reader and write carefully structured, useful stuff. Web often allows for more precise targeting of audiences. I know my audience for the airline I’m commissioning country guides for is mainly male business travellers, whereas if I’m writing a feature for a national newspaper my audience is pretty much anyone who can read. Also, good web content is about offering useful links to other sources of information. No need to waffle on about say what days of the week the Trans-Siberian runs if you can simply link to another page with the timetable on it.

WR: And are there any major similarities?

JH: There are increasing similarities but perhaps not in the way you’d first imagine. The web is influencing printed media (not vice versa) particularly for travel. What proportion of your average printed travel supplement with a weekend newspaper is glorified lists these days? (Top 10 Ski resorts for families or whatever.) I don’t know if the media’s lazy obsession with lists came before the net or not, but peoples’ attention spans are getting shorter and shorter as the choice of places to read stuff gets ever bigger. Print media, particularly newspapers, is imitating web-content with shorter, denser sentences packed with useful info.

WR: The incessant demand for online content must mean shorter lead time for writers and editors – has this made print editorial processes and disciplines redundant? For example, do writers have to edit and proofread their own copy? Are periodic fact-checking cycles observed online, as they are for printed travel guides?

JH: It’s again all about money. There’s rarely the same budget available for on-line content – particularly if it’s for a media organization rather than a marketing department, so the resource for sub-editing and fact checking is often minimal. At iCrossing we sub-edit everything and we try to verify all facts as well. I think the quality of our content is as a result pretty much as good as anything you’ll read in print media. But I’d imagine that the majority of travel content written not for a client who pays for it (like a tour operator or travel agent) but for a web audience who don’t pay a penny to read it is riddled with errors and inaccuracies. But I don’t know for sure.

WR: Any tips for which travel sites have the potential to inhabit the upper echelons of travel content: to become for web what Wanderlust magazine is for print?

JH: No. I really haven’t seen anyone that comes close yet. The travel content sites that win out might be those run by existing brands like say, Wanderlust. But I’ve yet to see proper evidence of that. I think they’re missing a trick. Basically there’s lots of content out there, but it’s written for next to nothing.

WR: Does your role at iCrossing straddle the print and online worlds in the sense that you seek out quality travel writers from the print world who are also qualified to SEO rich travel content?

JH: I seek out quality writers yes, absolutely. I don’t want them to have any real SEO specialism. We supply that using our analysts at iCrossing and they have far more knowledge and experience than most writers will ever have. What you do need to be able to do is feed a few key search terms into the content in an elegant way that doesn’t distract. But it’s not some strange black art. The terms are always ones you’d probably use anyway. And it’s not about stuffing stacks of terms into a page – just one or two is all we need. At the end of the day we are about creating genuinely useful content for the reader. Unfortunately Google isn’t as smart as a reader is, so we have to make our content Google-friendly too, but it shouldn’t (and doesn’t) detract from the reading experience.

WR: How should travel writers and editors who are currently working in the print world position themselves when looking for work online?

JH: Is there decent (i.e. well enough paid) work online to look for? I’m not sure if we are talking pure travel editorial. The work that IS there is probably the kind of stuff I am involved with – which is quite close to contract publishing or even copywriting. The people commissioning it aren’t travel editors in the classic sense – they are content creators for marketing agencies. To get work like this you need to look in the right places for it (marketing agencies) and be very good at turning stuff around fast and accurately. It also helps if you have a bit of marketing brain and are happy writing what a client wants to read rather than what you want to write.