I’ve honestly been trying to stay out of discussions of blogging, but I figured I’d write a rambling post giving some of my thoughts rather than writing a long rambling comment addressing some of the issues which were brought up. This isn’t going to be a single coherent article so much as it will be addressing many of the various topic which were brought up.
Most Blogs Suck
Yes, most blogs suck.
Most musicians suck. Most actors suck. Most athletes suck. Most artists suck. Most cooks suck. Most writers suck. Most photographers suck.
Blogging is no different than any other human endeavor. Anyone can pick up an instrument, sing or play sports. The vast, vast majority of people who engage in these activities do so out of enjoyment and for recreation. Of all the people who play guitar, play football, cook or sing, only a small number are able to make a living doing it. Of those, only very small number are able to be truly successful at it.
Even players who make it to the NFL, most only play for 3 years or less and are bankrupt within 3 more years of leaving the league. They have nothing to show for being a pro athlete once it is all over.
Most people who make money playing music are performing at bars or weddings, not selling out stadiums. Most pro photographers are shooting weddings, senior portraits or pictures of babies at the mall. They are solid, journeyman professionals who aren’t getting rich, but are making a career in their chosen field.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that blogging follows the same pattern. There is a huge group of people who just have a website for fun or as a hobby. There is a smaller group of people who try to make money at it, and they primarily make money selling links and sponsored posts. They are like the bands who play at weddings and bars. They might make a living, but they aren’t Bruce Springsteen or Madonna either.
When we talk about blogging, we have to put it into the same context as everything else humans do. It really isn’t any different when you look at it in the big picture.
What we don’t know is the denominator for any of the things I listed above, including blogging. How many blogs are there? I dont’ know. How many cooks are there? How many football players are there? It all depends on how you choose define it.
Blogs Are Judged by the Worst, Print is Judged by the Best
There are a lot of hack writers out there. There always have been and there always will be. Yet when discussing journalism, everyone immediately points to Woodward and Bernstein (a 40 year old example) to show what journalism can be.
When talking about blogging, we tend to look at the worst.
Travel writer Paul Theroux said this about blogging:
I loathe blogs when I look at them. Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling. To me writing is a considered act. It’s something which is a great labor of thought and consideration. A blog doesn’t seem to have any literary merit at all.
I wont bother to point out the lack of research and fact checking in a statement like that and just let it lie there like a statement by a drunk, racist uncle at Christmas.
Because there are no gatekeepers, anyone regardless of skill can start a blog. Hence, the quality of the average blogger is going to be much worse than the quality of the average writer who works for a publication. It will be that way forever.
When people criticize bloggers, they tend to do so with a very broad brush. (See Paul Theroux) There is very little recognition that there is good work happening online, or that being successful online requires a very different skill set than being successful working for a company.
Despite the fact that there are now bloggers with audiences larger than major magazines and newspapers, often much larger, we are still more often than not given a seat at the kids table.
Pay for Play
I have several thoughts about this:
1) With respect to free trips, I think most of the blame lies at the feet of the travel industry. They are giving trips to people who have only been blogging for a few months and/or have no real audience. I see this consistently. If someone is giving away free trips, I don’t fault the person who takes it so much as the person who gives it.
If there is a class of travel blogger which exists just to get free trips, it exists because the industry allows it to exist. They don’t do even basic due diligence and are not part of the discussion online. There are a few PR and marketing people out there who really seem to get it, and that is because they are active online and know what is going on. They, however, are a small minority.
2) Paid posts and constant promotion is a trap for bloggers. There are some bloggers who seem to never travel unless someone else is paying for it. Everything they do has an associated promotional hashtag associated with it. (In fact, I think a good litmus test of what travel bloggers to follow is to just look at how interesting they places they visit are) Ultimately, this is self defeating. I don’t think they have very strong followings, even if they do have twitter followers and get a fair amount of traffic from Google. Using my above analogy, they are the cover bands of travel blogging. You can eek out a living doing that, but I don’t think you are even going to make it really big if everything is promotion. No one is interested in it.
I’ve had travel bloggers flat out say that their ‘client’s are the people sending them on trips. That is an attitude that will get you nowhere. Your ‘clients’, if such a thing exists, are you audience. The destination is just helping you get content you can use to serve your audience.
3) I have yet to hear an economic model for travel media that doesn’t involve working for the New York Times or Conde Nast. Travel is unique in that the product is expensive and you can’t return it. Automotive writers don’t buy a new car for every article they write, but they also can give the car back when they’re done. Can’t do that with a trip.
The major outlets for travel writing do not pay anywhere near enough to cover the cost of a trip. Even if you spin trip into multiple articles for different outlets, you are still just barely covering your costs, and that is assuming you can even find those outlets. Given that publications are paying less and there are fewer outlets available, it is becoming harder to do.
It is an open secret that stories from sponsored trips make it into publications that prohibit such trips. It happens all the time. The attitude seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell”, because if the publications really clamped down, the pool of writers and articles they could select from would be significantly smaller. Their ethics are for show, and not taken seriously.
4) If you look at blogging as part of the world of travel media, I’m not sure they really warrant special scorn. In private discussions I’ve had with veteran members of SATW, almost every person has stories of how advertisers have influenced editorial decisions.
The Blog Is Becoming Less Important
Robert Scoble is pretty influential in technology circles. He has posted on his blog three times this year, most recently to say he isn’t going to publish anything on his blog anymore.
Most of my engagement is now on Facebook and other social media platforms. If I write an article, I’ll get more comments from the link on Facebook than I will in WordPress. The vast majority of the engagement I get on a daily basis does not occur on my website. That isn’t where the people are.
In theory, I could delete my blog and still make a living doing what I’m doing. (not that I’m going to do that).
Too many bloggers can’t think beyond the blog. They are fixated on page views and SEO and ignore the bigger picture.
Here is my litmus test for influence: how many people can you get to come and see you in person if you are in their town? This isn’t really a metric you can track, but there is a lot of truth behind it.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that I always have readers who come out to see me, have a meal or drinks. I’ve had people drive over 100 miles to meet me. I’ve had people take time off work to come see me. I’m really honored when people take the time to do that. I know I’m making some sort of impact.
That being said, I don’t see many other travel bloggers meeting up with readers. The reason is that they don’t have any. Most of the people who actually follow them are other bloggers. Most of their traffic is one-off traffic from Google or StumbleUpon, that will never return again. Some of those people might become your audience, but audience and traffic are not the same thing. (I’m not saying there is no value in search traffic. There can be if your business model is structured around it. Mine isn’t. Nonetheless, if Google wanted to double the traffic they sent my way, I’d gladly take it, I just don’t think it will do much for me.)
We tend to use the term “influencer” for anyone who has a website, and that really isn’t the case. I don’t think there is a black and white definition for influencer, but the term is overused. Influence is on a gradient and is dependent on subject matter. I am not influential about automobiles, but I know some people pay attention to me about travel and photography.
I don’t write a lot about blogging anymore, because I’ve found worrying about the industry as a whole to be a waste of my time. I can’t control what other people do, and most people will never follow my advice. I’ve been focusing more on what I do and pretty much ignoring the blogosphere as an entity.
Things have never been better for me professionally than they are right now, and I know many successful bloggers who say the same thing. The 8 years of work I put into this are paying off.