One of Vagabond Journey’s writers, David Fegan, is trying to fully finance his travels through writing. He’s asked me a few times for advice on how to do it. The guy works hard, he’s going out and chasing intrigues, putting himself into uncomfortable situations, engaging people for interviews — grabbing his stories with both hands. Where other tourists are spending their time abroad drinking beer and trying to bag bedmates, this guy is going out into deserts to talk to film makers, going as a journalist to climate conferences, learning about the lives of homeless buskers, and exploring elements of culture, such as the new sport of slackline and the tradition of drinking yerba mata, and then scurrying back to his hotel room to sit for endless hours writing it all up. The guy is going to make it. When you have guts and fortitude like this you’re eventually going to put the pieces together and accomplish something.
Though I had to think a long time before responding to his question, as what I realized I must tell him is overtly counter-intuitive:
Good stories like the kind you’re doing are often not the kind that makes money.
So I told him to follow the strategy of the classical artist. I told him to look at the lives of the painters with Ninja Turtle names, read about the others who are grouped in the same league as them. Those guys painted boring, run of the mill portraits of rich people and taught students by day and did their real art in their spare time. Many of them never really made any money on the work they would eventually become legendary for.
It is a relatively new concept for people to expect to make a living from their art. The artists of old lived off of day jobs. Melville toiled in a customs house, others were admen or worked for newspapers or did other kinds of work that was completely unrelated to their art. Then, the idea of making a living off of writing books was preposterous. Work and art were distinctly divided, treated like two different things entirely.
It is my impression that this dual approach is again needed today. To develop as a traveling writer you need money, and it’s not going to come from your travel stories. Going out into the world and doing grade-A, experiential journalism like the stuff of Nat Geo is a good way to wind up sitting on some broken down dock in Amazonia without a dime. Sure, you can do the work, you can get the stories, and even publish them, but to get enough money to even cover the costs of the travels is a pipe dream.
While it is more than possible for someone who would do this to get published in major outlets, most of them just don’t pay unknown freelancers (i.e. The Atlantic, etc . . . ). And the fact of the matter is that many seem hesitant to stake their reputations on newbie journalists writing primary narratives that can’t easily be fact checked anyway.
This is partially due to the raw economics of online publishing. It’s been well reported that advertising revenue is plummeting to record lows for major newspapers, and even a widely viewed article often will not net nearly as much money as their paper-bound predecessors. This isn’t just a matter of the industry whining and coming up with justification to not pay freelancers, it’s for real.
Anecdotal information along with my own data has lead me to estimate that the average revenue per thousand page views for a major publication is in the ballpark of $2 to $7, depending on how aggressive the ad layouts are. So that means that a story that nets 100,000 views (an exceptionally high amount even for the MSM) will only make between $200 and $700 in direct ad revenue. [Editor’s note: sites like Forbes.com and Business Insider show how many times their articles are viewed]. So, if you calculate the amount that these publications must pay their people to edit the stories of freelancers, the media team to find images, payroll to pay them, and the cost of the rest of their staff, how much money could be left over for the person who actually wrote the story? Especially when stories from unknown freelancers will probably not be featured very prominently and will only attract a few thousand views and make next to nothing?
While this is in no means a thorough analysis of the state of media monetization, my point is that on an article per article basis, even the biggest, most success sites with the best advertising partnerships are not raking in that much revenue. Not to mention how little smaller publishers with less traffic and lesser advertiser connections are making from their articles.
Add to this the fact that the good, engaging articles that take time and money to write tend to have a horridly low ad click rate, further lowering the profit margin.
So how can traveling writers expect to make enough from their stories to justify the cost of researching and writing them?
In point, in the fray of the biggest media explosion the world has ever known, the value of the written word has plummeted to almost inconsequential depths. Understanding this is key to making money as a traveling writer.
Nobody can afford to pay you for your travel story — no matter how good — but they can for articles about trending news topics that are sure to get loads of clicks and score ad revenue. This work is not glamorous, it’s not going to make you famous, but it will get you paid.
I currently have a freelance job with the South China Morning Post that pays roughly $250 per 800 word article. That’s decent scratch. But what they want is not the first person, experiential narratives that spring from going out into the wilds and coming back with hard-hitting, original reportage but run-of-the mill business articles. That’s the product that sells, and that’s what I need to ship if I want to get paid.
For the record, writing for a big news site generally pays around 25 to 30 cents per word, Cracked.com pays $300 a pop, Listverse pays $100, etc…
There is money to be made from feeding the beast what it loves to eat. Though this often means swallowing your pride and being a mere laborer filling the troughs.
So I told David to work on the art of predicting media trends, learn how to find unique angles on popular stories, cultivate the ability churn out crisp, clean, authoritative articles about topics that are 3,000 miles away from him, and get good — very good — at lists. Content engines need fuel, and this kind of writing is as high octane as it gets. The ability to provide this kind of copy is incredibly valuable — and so few aspiring journalists can actually do it well enough and fast enough, and most seem to never understand that this is what they actually went to school to do.
If you want to make a living writing treat it like a job: produce a product, write what makes money…
… but making money isn’t only what it’s about.
Making money writing is easy, it’s making money writing about something interesting that’s hard. David could easily land a job with a local newspaper in his hometown in Australia. He has the degree, the know-how, and is currently building the experience. He could easily become a grunt, clicking keys on the assembly line of the local rag. But if he wanted a job like this he would have stayed at home. He went abroad to become a rock star. Getting on a plane and heading to another country with the intention of writing about it is the writer’s equivalent of a fledgling musician going to LA.
It’s in engaging the projects and pursuing the investigations that you find interesting and valuable where you have a chance of establishing yourself as a writer. It’s a good thing that opportunities abound for the writer who can travel cheap and fund himself.
Travel is very expensive for the MSM. No publication can afford the expense accounts of a global team of continuously meandering white collar journalists. No, even the few publications who still have international correspondents usually keep them gated within the capital cities of the countries they’re posted to. They are just too expensive to send around investigating stories for themselves. But travel is very cheap for us. We’re vagabonds, our operational expenses are next to nothing.
There perhaps has never been another time when experiential, immersive journalism was needed more and has the power to resonate more widely, but there has perhaps never been another time when the written word was so undervalued. This presents a beautiful niche for writers like us. We can go farther, stay longer, collect more primary information, and spend infinitely less money than almost anyone working in the upper tiers of the profession. There is a utilitarian function to being able to travel dirt cheap that goes beyond the opportunity to loaf around in tropical paradises.
We can go to the source, find out what’s going on, and get our stories, though this is the type of work that we shouldn’t expect to be paid much for. This is the type of work to build your name, to meet the right people, and to attract attention, not to get rich from. Treat these projects like an art, not a job. Find a way to finance it and go out and do it. Don’t worry that the income that you receive is next to nothing, making money at this stage isn’t the point. Becoming a writer is.
So I told David:
Finance yourself with rote, desk jockey journalism — do lists, do the smiley faced tourist fluff, if the opportunity arises churn out fast, relevant news pieces for a big publisher. Learn from this what you can, make connections with as many media operators as possible, but do this work only when you absolutely have to. Everybody only has a certain number of computer hours in them per day, and for the writer just starting out the choice is often to spend them on what makes money or what they are passionate about. Rarely are these one and the same. So try to reserve as much time as possible doing what really counts. Limit the “daily bread” kind of writing to an hour or so per day or do like Melville and find other, unrelated work to do. If you can string together a couple of well-paid stories with some side jobs per month you will make enough to sustain your travels in South America.
Then establish yourself by going out and living your journalistic fantasies. Go out and do the primary investigations that you feel are important and will have an impact, focus on topics that are globally relevant and live them first hand, do the hard stuff that most journalists won’t do, publish these stories with a publication that will give you the free range to develop and grow, and build up a body of work that you can be proud of. Leverage this when you can, and when you can’t just be happy that you are out traveling the world doing exactly the kind of work that you got into this profession to do.
Vagabond Journey is currently hiring more traveling writers and journalists. If you’re interested in pursuing this profession, please apply by sending a cover letter to vagabondsong[at]gmail.com.