How Do Travel Bloggers Stack Up Against Traditional Media in Terms of Quality?

During the closing keynote at TBEX Cancun I issued a challenge for travel bloggers to try and reach a point in several years where we are winning half of all Lowell Thomas Awards.

Lowell Thomas Awards are the most prestigious awards in travel journalism and are given out annually by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. They are like the Pulitzer Prizes for travel journalism.

I knew it was still a rarity for bloggers to win Lowell Thomas Awards, but I wanted to know exactly how we have been doing. I sat down and went through the Lowell Thomas Award past winners and came up with a list of every independent online publisher who has won an award.

This list excludes awards for online content from large publications such as magazines and newspapers. It also excludes large corporate sites such as Slate.com. For the purposes of this analysis I excluded Matador.com which has become a large operation at this point, but I did include RoadsandKingdoms.com, which is still quite small. I also included WorldHum.com as they won their award before it was sold to the Travel Channel. I also didn’t include books as I have no way of knowing if a book was self published, and someone can be independent of a large company but still write a book distributed by a publisher.

As of 2014, there have been 27 awards given to independent online publishers. They are:


2003
Edward Hasbrouck, Bronze, Travel News/Investigative Reporting

2004
Tom Brosnahan, Honorable Mention, Internet Publication/Website

2005
Carla King, Gold, Internet Publications/Website
Amy Langfield, Silver, Internet Publications/Website

2006
Amy Langfield, Bronze, Internet Publications/Website
Jim Benning & Michael Yessis, Gold, Internet Publications/Website

2007
Amy Langfield, Silver, Internet Publications/Website

2010
Ed Hewitt, Bronze, Personal Comment 
Chris Gray Faust, Silver, Travel Blog
Kayt Sukel and Jamie Pearson, Bronze, Travel Blog

2011
Brad A. Johnson, Silver, Travel Blog

2012
Gary Arndt, Bronze, Photo Illustration of Travel
Kara Williams/Jennifer Miner/Beth Blair, Gold, Travel Blog

2013
Gary Arndt, Bronze, Photo Illustration of Travel
Nathan Thornburgh and Matt Goulding, Gold, Online Travel Journalism Sites
Tim Leffel et al, Gold, Travel Blog
Larissa and Michael Milne, Silver, Travel Blog
Elizabeth Hansen, Bronze, Travel Blog
David Noyes, Silver, Adventure Travel Article

2014
Karen Catchpole, Honorable Mention, Foreign Travel
Dave Bouskill, Gold, Photo Illustration of Travel
Gary Arndt, Silver, Photo Illustration of Travel
Ken Budd, Gold, Special-Purpose Travel
Chris Christensen, Honorable Mention, Travel Broadcast – Audio
Glen Abbott, Silver, Travel Broadcast – Video
Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil, Gold, Travel Blog
Lanee Lee and Lindsay Taub, Bronze, Travel Blog

What you can see is that, 1) we haven’t won many awards, but 2) things are getting better. Here is a graph to show the trend:

2014 was the best year ever for independent publishers, but we still won fewer than 10% (8 of 90) of the awards given out, and that includes wins in categories specifically for travel blogs and travel websites.

Of the 27 awards won by independent online publishers since 2003, 16 were in the travel blog or website category.

If we are to reach a point where we are winning half the Lowell Thomas Awards, we would have to increase the number of annual awards 5 fold from 2014.

How can this happen?

  1. Bloggers need to enter. Most bloggers have no idea that the Lowell Thomas Awards even exist and few bother to submit entries. This is probably the single biggest thing that can be done. More entries equals more chances to win. I don’t have data about how many independent publishers submitted entries, but I assume that is also very low.
  2. There needs to be a greater emphasis on quality. Bloggers will have to actually work with the goal of winning an award. This means picking articles and topics that they think are very good and giving them special treatment. This means spending more time on a piece and maybe getting an outside editor.
  3. Be aware of who is doing the judging. The awards are judged by journalism schools. They tend to look for a style of writing that would fit in a newspaper or magazine. Even if a blogger creates something great, it has to be a good stylistic fit as well.
  4. The SATW Foundation still needs to make some rule changes. Despite the fact that there are only a handful of full time travel editors left at American newspapers, they still have 2 categories for newspapers based on circulation. The difference between the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle is tiny compared the difference between National Geographic and a single, lone blogger. Yet, they have 2 categories for newspapers and 1 for travel blog. Moreover, most of the winners in the travel blog category since it was created have been blogs for large companies, who have salaried staff. Given who is doing the judging (journalism schools), and in light of the division of newspapers, it really makes no sense. Moreover, there is a separate category for “travel journalism website”, but there is no criteria for what is a blog vs what is a website. This year National Geographic Traveler won an award for Travel Blog, yet most people would probably consider a corporate own, multi-author online publication to be a website. They need to give more clarity to what is a website and what is a blog, or split the travel blog category.

This doesn’t need to take years. If significantly more bloggers submit next March for the 2015 awards, and if they take it seriously and work for it as a goal, there is no reason why the number of independent publishers couldn’t double or more next year.

I think it has been proven that bloggers can compete against the best in travel journalism. Now it is up to everyone to take it to another level.

If we do this, there is no reason we can’t win 50% of the awards in the 2020 Lowell Thomas Awards.

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the mention, Gary, and congratulations on these and your other awards!

    I agree that much of the reason bloggers haven’t won more of these awards is that bloggers don’t enter the contest.

    I also agree that the contest categories shoudl be revised to better reflect the contemporary spectrum of travel journalism.

    (The SATWF board of directors might actually be open to dialogue on this point. I don’t know if bloggers from outside SATW have ever apprached them about this. I’d be happy to be part of a delegation to SATWF of past blogger Lowell Thomas Award winners to raise these issues. Tom Brosnahan was involved in revising SATW’s membership eligibility criteria for online self-publishers, and might also be interested in such a discussion. Note that SATWF has a separate board form SATW.)

    But I think there is more that this going on, and less progress in some areas than in others.

    Journalism is more than a “style”. It’s a category of content defined by multiple norms and criteria. Many well-written, well-illustrated (and in some cases financially successful) travel blogs simply aren’t, and aren’t trying to be, journalism, and aren’t eligible for journalism awards.

    Most of the increase in awards for work self-published online is the result of the addition of new categories in which only online work published online is eligible.

    And of the awards (including yours and mine) on your list that are in categories in which work published online was judged in direct competition with work published in print, the majority (6 of 11) have been for photography, audio, or video. The 5 non-ghettoized writing awards show only limited progress: one each in 2003, 2010, and 2013, and two in 2014.

    That may be, in part, because the boundaries of “journalism” are less well defined in photography than in writing. (Aside from Photoshopping, which is generally prohibited in the Lowell Thomas Awards.) So a larger proportion of travel bloggers’ photography, audio, and video than of their writing may qualify as “journalism”.

    I wrote more about this here:

    http://hasbrouck.org/blog/archives/002143.html

  2. I think there is a reason why there has been (slightly) more success in photography. Online is a better platform for photos than print.

    The average print story in a magazine will only have a handful of images. That’s all there is room for. A newspaper article will have even less.

    The recent photo essay I did about West Africa had over 60 images. That just wouldn’t be possible in a print periodical. Moreover, the images can be much larger online as well, so you can see the rich details you can’t see in 1/4 of a page.

    Writing, however, is pretty much the same. I don’t think there is any inherent difference to a written piece online vs in print, except for distribution and other economic factors.

  3. Hi Gary, really interesting read. I listened to the podcast of This Week in Travel with great interest. What struck in particular was your mention of the SATW and the Lowell Thomas Awards. In my mind the future of travel writing and photography is online and one day these awards will reflect this.
    However, like you said in the podcast, the quality of content travel bloggers churn out needs to improve (I freely include myself in this). Perhaps the rampant drive to get free trips isn’t the best way for travel bloggers to operate. Free trips doesn’t equal quality content.

    I love Roads & Kingdoms, in my mind this sort of website, with huge photographs and quality writing is the future.

    I admire your work very much. Happy travels.

    Mike

  4. Over the past five years, SATW members have asked me to join to, as they put it, “infuse new blood into the membership.” But they’ve failed to delineate the benefits.

    And I’ve talked to journalists I really respect and they’ve shrugged off the SATW as an aging organization that was valid 20 years ago.

    So can you zoom out and tell me why you think the SATW — and by extension the awards — are valuable?

  5. 1) You don’t have to be a member of SATW to submit for the Lowell Thomas Awards. They are run by the SATW Foundation and are open to anyone.

    2) The value in the awards are the same as the value in giving out Pulitzer Prizes, Oscars, Emmys or other other such awards to recognize excellence in any given field.

    3) As for membership in SATW, I can’t blame you for not seeing a lot of benefit for becoming a member.

    It is my hope that with new leadership in place, there will be steps taken to improve membership benefits. In particular, things which will benefit small scale entrepreneurs, which is what most members of SATW are.

    This would include benefits for travel, insurance, and tools (site hosting, camera equipment, photo hosting, office supplies, etc)

    I also think you’ll be see a shift away from SATW conferences just an excuse for people who can’t take press trips to take press trips, and towards more serious professional and business development.

  6. Yeah, I know you don’t have to be a member to apply. You do have to pay, though. I apply to the Solas Awards (from Traveler’s Tales) every year because even though that also costs money, I like that it goes to a publisher I support. I’m not sure I feel the same about the SATW. I do think an evolution in leadership would go a looooong way towards making it more appealing.

    Do you really think the SATW awards stack with the Emmys and Pulitzers? That’s a bold comparison. SATW currently ranks just slightly above NATJA in my eyes, which is pretty low, to be honest. No editor has sidelined me because I’m not a SATW or NATJA member. I’m not sure anyone outside travel writing cares if you’ve won a Lowell Thomas, and certainly my Solas Awards, which are lovely, don’t get me wrong, have even lower street value.

    Truth be told, I’d rather be picked up in the Best American Travel Writing than win just about any award out there. That’s where you see amazing work done in the travel writing space. Want to really see the bar raised? Let’s see some work by bloggers land in *there*.

  7. Oh, addendum.

    I realize this could be perceived as dismissing the work of SATW award winners, and that’s not my intent.

    I was told that the NATJA committee skews heavily towards PR, hence my raised eyebrows about those awards.

    But I do see the value of in-industry recognition. I’ve been genuinely pleased to see some of those awards go to my fellow online media colleagues.

    Save the hate mail for a different topic, k?

  8. I think it is the same in kind, but not in terms of fame, obviously.

    The Oscars are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and voted on by its members.

    Pulitzer Prizes are run by a foundation and administered by Columbia University.

    Lowell Thomas Awards are run by the SATW Foundation and judged by journalism schools.

    Best American Travel Writing is an anthology which is published by Houghton Mifflin. It isn’t a judged award, it is just a book that an editor compiles based on their preferences. A good book to be sure, but it isn’t really the same thing as a judged award.

    It doesn’t reflect excellence in photography, personal commentary, service writing, television/radio, nor does it recognize excellence in newspapers, magazines or websites. In fact, I’d guess there are only 1 or 2 categories in the Lowell Thomas Awards which would even make sense to include in an anthology like Best American Travel Writing.

    Pretty much every single newspaper travel section in North American and every travel magazine submits for Lowell Thomas Awards.

    People I know you respect such as David Farley, Spud Hilton and Don George have won multiple awards. In fact, most of the Book Passage staff seems to have won awards. That includes Andrew Evans, Bob Holmes, Tim Cahill, and Andrew McCarthy.

    There must be SOMETHING going on.

    Clearly, the Lowell Thomas Awards do not get the same level of attention of the Pulitzer Prize or Oscars. It is a niche award for the travel journalism industry.

    That being said, I can’t think of anything else which is more prestigious in North American Travel Journalism.

    I also get that awards don’t really mean anything at a certain level and writing and photography isn’t a competition.

    However, the reason I wrote this and the reason I’d like to see more bloggers win is that I’ve had many conversations with people who have negative opinions of bloggers, yet clearly haven’t read any nor can even name one. Their opinions are totally based on stereotype.

    The only way to counter that is to beat them at their own game…..and this is the game.

    You can’t beg for respect, you have to go out and earn it, and you earn it by doing quality work. Being publicly recognized for doing quality work is the best way to get people’s attention and let the world know that good work can be done online.

  9. Great post, Gary! And indeed a great goal for the travel blogging community to strive for.

    Congratulations on your awards! As someone who’s been published in a major publication (but outside travel) and someone who aims to create a quality travel blog, I really appreciate this post.

    I wasn’t at TBEX in Cancun, but I’ll be in Athens. Hope we can have a chat. I met you briefly at TBEX in Dublin (at O’Neill’s pub), but was very new to the community. Cheers!

  10. Gary,
    Congrats on your awards and for sharing inspiration for travel writing. I am so happy for Ken Budd to be recognized for his article on We Said Go Travel.
    Thanks for all you do.
    Lisa

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