Travel writing is one of the most coveted niches in all of writing — and unlike certain niches that lose their appeal after some real experience, the reality of travel writing can actually be even more alluring than the fantasy.
From the influencers who #vanlife their way around the world looking impossibly fit, to the socialites who yacht around the Riviera and dash off a few hundred words for Vanity Fair, to the weathered “serious journalists” who do manly extreme adventure jaunts for manly brands, to the nonstop tide of bloggers who write journal-style accounts of their family’s trips to amusement parks — everyone who tastes the lifestyle of “traveling and getting paid to write about it” is smitten.
The open secret of travel writing is, almost no one gets paid a living wage for it. (And if you’re a brand, learn why you get what you pay for when it comes to hiring travel writers.) Even influencers, who enjoyed a couple years commanding top rates, now liken the industry to a non-stop game of “The Floor is Lava.” So who, exactly, are the 5% who make it in this niche? They’re a fast-working, affable, witty and tight-knit group of professionals who know how to play well with PRs and publishers. They figure out how to balance great “prestige publication” bylines that earn them social proof with bread-and-butter work that pays bills. And, they understand that for some of the highest-earning “travel content” opportunities, little to no actual travel is involved.
In this edition of the Niche Freelancer, we’re pleased to spotlight John Newton, a veteran travel writer, former staffer and permalancer for top publications, who recently transitioned to owning a boutique branded content shop. Many former staffers strive to make this leap, but fail to monetize it. John utilizes his project management and branded content strategist skill sets to differentiate himself, and we’re grateful that he’s willing to share his insights.
Q&A with travel editor and writer John Newton:
How did you find your way to travel writing as a professional niche?
In some ways it was simply an odd twist of fate. I was working at Random House as an assistant, and the editor I was working for was editing a book written by an editor at Condé Nast Traveler (Graham Boynton). I thought I wanted to work in books, and I’d never really thought about pursuing a career in magazines, but working with Graham on his book project convinced me I should look into it. When a job opened up at Condé Nast Traveler, I applied. That was around 1998 and I haven’t looked back since, really, and my career in magazines and media has been almost entirely in the travel space.
Do you think there’s any sort of education or background that can better position someone to be a professional travel writer?
It may sound obvious, but I think simply being passionate about travel should be a prerequisite, but it isn’t always true. There are people in this field who were backpackers in college — and some who are still backpackers later in life. People who dream of taking two months off to see South America rather than single-mindedly pursuing a better title or bigger raise. Those are the writers I would rather work with.
Otherwise, I think a broad liberal education is helpful. The subject matter of travel means that you may be writing about art, architecture, literature, cuisine, the environment and other topics. It’s not that you need to have a mastery of all of them, but at the same time you should have some foundation and be able to follow a conversation on developments in a variety of areas. If you didn’t learn anything about contemporary architecture in school, then find ways to educate yourself now.
What was your favorite editorial position held over your entire career in publishing? Why?
I feel like there have been a few favorite periods; two that come to mind are when I was the Latin America editor at Condé Nast Traveler and my current role, as the Branded Content Advisor to AFAR plus heading up my own company. What they shared in common is that in both, there was some steady income — both the Latin America position and my current one are sort of contributing editor positions — yet I still had the freedom to travel and pursue various projects that interested me.
Plus, I find what AFAR is doing inspiring on many levels, and I love that I can part of that team, often remotely. I can join in from my laptop whether I am working from home or on the road. I’ve joined High Five conferences from a personal trip to Kyoto, for which they set me up to live stream the yoga sessions at the New York offices.
Was it a struggle for you to shift from editorial to native content? Describe the internal process.
Not really. After I was laid off by Condé Nast Traveler in 2014, following a change in editors-in-chief, I was approached by AFAR. I had already decided that I wanted to work either on something marketing related or on the digital side of things, having seen too many editors I know with only print editorial experience finding themselves with limited opportunities. I was curious about the position at AFAR, editing branded content, and AFAR was interested in hiring someone whose background was primarily in editorial because they wanted that sort of tone for their branded content. It was a good match. Since then the challenges haven’t been that great. While the expectations of top editors and clients are different in some ways, they are similar in more ways.
Everyone thinks only of the glamorous/fun elements of travel writing: starring in videos, or being assigned a 2000-word feature to some desirable destination, fully paid for. Please, by contrast, tell us about an unglamorous project in the travel space that actually earned you a lot of money.
Most of my travel work is not glamorous actually. After leaving AFAR full-time, I took over the role of managing the creation of some 600 different guides for Holland America. It was all about spread sheets, tracking payments and stories, and coordinating writers, photo researchers, and copy editors. Ultimately, making sure all the content was being delivered to Holland America successfully. It required revising schedules, plans, and budgets based on Holland America’s changing needs and what wasn’t working after the process started. There wasn’t any travel involved.
That sort of project management role is not the only way to make money, but it is something I enjoy and so I gravitate to those sorts of challenges. Perhaps for someone else it’s shooting drone footage or leading seminars. Whatever it may be, I think these times require thinking about ways you can work beyond simply writing “pure” travel stories, because few people can make much money from that alone.
Why did you decide to start your own content agency?
I started in 2015 when I was convinced that there are literally thousands of hotels, travel advisors, and other travel-related businesses that need better website and marketing content, and yet they aren’t big enough to go to a company like Hearst or Condé Nast. If a hotel is willing to spend $10,000 to create compelling content on their website, I won’t balk at that budget as a small company with very little overhead. After two decades in travel media, I know writers around the world and I can help get them work — I know many of them need work.
I also think that there are many companies in the travel space that have come to realize that if they want to reach affluent 40+ or 50+ year-old travelers, the people who are actually booking much leisure travel, they need to turn to content creators who are worldly and discriminating, not to the cheapest writer they can find. It’s harder to convey what it’s like to travel to South Africa if you have never traveled there. I’m optimistic there’s a demand for high-quality travel content (and not just from traditional travel companies but also credit cards, spirits, etc.) and that market won’t be saturated any time soon.
What was the most difficult learning experience of your first year in business?
I regret one decision to work with a new startup to provide them with travel related blog posts from writers around the world. I guess there’s something to be said for working with established brands and properties, and that bad experience reinforced a tendency to be cautious before working with a new company, without much history. I guess that’s all part of the process, and it was a helpful reminder of the need to have a diverse portfolio of clients, so one problem client doesn’t become too big a drag on your business.
What has small business ownership allowed you to do that you couldn’t before?
I am happy with the income I make; it has brought the basic freedom of not worrying about how to pay the bills and plan for, one day, retiring. There’s also enough work that I have the freedom to choose which projects I want to work on. These days I rarely go on press trips, and the luxury to book and pay for my own travel is rare among freelance writers. I find it liberating. My goal is not to become rich, and I am not, but things are good.
You’re training in an entirely different field as well. How do you see that fitting into your “day job?”
I feel like this new “gig economy” requires people to being open to making money from a variety of different pursuits. For now, garden design work is a supplement to my day job, some cash on the side while doing something that interests me but I can see it becoming more important in the years ahead, depending on how things unfold. Media may be changing, but there will always be a demand for gardens. At least there has been for a few millennia and I don’t see it going away now.
I also see that other side pursuit as fitting in with my travel content work in that the demands are somewhat similar. With a content program for Holland America or Omni Hotels & Resorts (one of the projects of my own company), I am working with writers, editors, photo researchers and/or photographers, and copy editors to ensure that all content is up to certain standards while managing client expectations and delivering on schedule. With a garden design project, I am working with plant installers and furniture manufacturers (or retailers) to ensure all work is performed as promised while managing client expectations and assuring the installation of a garden on schedule. The differences between travel content and gardens are obvious, but the similarity of the work — managing a project — is interesting.
What publisher do you think is doing things right, and what are they doing that’s different?
I am biased, but I think AFAR has been an innovator in the branded/sponsored space — with the Atlantic really the most creative in figuring out how to make it central to their business.
There are some niche publications that I think may actually represent the future of print editorial. They are at the other extreme, and while I am not a huge fan of the content in, say, The Travel Almanac, I think it’s an interesting business model and may be where print media is headed. Don’t try to reach a million people willing to buy subscriptions for $6 a year (as many mainstream magazines do), instead reach 20,000 or 40,000 people who are passionate about a topic or product, and charge a higher subscription/cover price to make up for the fact that advertising will be less significant. I think the day when most print magazines are niche products for niche audiences may be arriving soon.
Overall, what do you think of the state of the travel editorial world today?
Travel editorial has never looked more grim, in my opinion: shorter stories, lower word rates, some barely edited much less fact-checked or copy-edited. There are few positive ways to spin it. The world of travel content, however, offers some reasons to be optimistic. I think it’s possible that in 2020 the authoritative guide to the world’s best hotels may be created by, say, Turkish Airlines and not a traditional outlet like Condé Nast Traveler — that is, if Turkish Airlines decides they want to spend the time and money to pull that off.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a travel writer?
Be flexible. Don’t be a snob about marketing, branded and sponsored content because quite likely that work will help keep you afloat at some point. Turn your work in on time, and take seriously every project that you agree to do. Treat everyone you meet with respect, if only because some day you may want them to hire you. The world of travel media — those who stick with it — is smaller than you might imagine.