Chicken Telly

My laptop’s on.  I’ve chucked another log on the stove.

Outside on the windowsill two chickens dibble amongst their feathers, pause, press against the window, extend their necks and stare in, pecking at spots of dirt on the glass.

Tap. tap, tap, tap…

My inbox proffers a couple of press trip invitations.  Both are vaguely diverting and would make engaging copy.  However, I’m overcome by inertia.  The prospect of hauling my arse half-way around the world, spending five or so days researching and the same writing, effectively oiling the cogs of a corporate marketing machine, does not appeal.  In more practical terms it’s likely any writing fees would be eroded by out-of-pocket expenses and be rendered mostly irrelevant by the time they’re paid.  More immediately, I’d be jetlagged, my bank balance would be bumping around twenty quid, and my wife would claim not to know me, again.

Chicken Telly
Helga, Boudica and Petra

That’s not to say I’m tired of travel.  There are places I’d do almost anything, short of elective amputation of a limb, to experience and write about.  However, I need to solve the financial equation such that X remains a positive integer.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

More broadly, newspapers and magazines continue apace to abdicate responsibility for paying travel journalists.  Travel writing is seen by editors and others as a dilettante pastime rather than a profession – a source of free holidays.  Even worse, travel copy is becoming synonymous with marketing.

On the page differentiating between editorial and advertising used to be straightforward.  Fact Box information provided by the writer offered recommendations, handy hints or a disclosure of facilitation (free flight, free hotel, free tour etc…)  Paid ads surrounded features.  These days it’s not so clear. Editorial publishing schedules are determined by advertisers – it’s commercially expedient.  Back channel kick backs can govern who receives a Fact Box mention, sometimes to the detriment of readers.  In the case of digital media and blogs in particular there’s often no attempt at editorial balance – 100% 21st century marketing.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

The digital democratisation of publishing driven by the internet has made everyone a writer.  As a result we surf around in a cut-and-paste sea of lies, half truths and wishful thinking.  Instead of being information rich we’re weighed down by a poverty of facts.  This isn’t limited to travel.  ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, occupying airtime, that not reserved for product placement, billboards not destined for advertising or column inches not screaming PR.

If you’re expecting a great reveal, an answer or a call to action heralding a renaissance in ‘real’ travel journalism I’m sorry to disappoint.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

Perhaps we should all be more like chickens.

Planes, trains and automobiles…

Perhaps in the hope that it’d be buried beneath the kind of trite tosh that surfaces when most folks are taking a break, BA recently announced a revised sequential boarding procedure.  Nothing new in that, save that this process is allegedly based on what you pay rather than where you sit.  I said then that BA had upped its game in a struggle to provide an even more miserable flying experience than Ryanair.  Apologists for BA have said the process will speed boarding – this is nonsense.  Others have suggested we have only ourselves to blame in that we’re suckers for cheap flights – time will tell.  If BA had a USP that allowed us to forgive a too often sour and testy customer experience, it was its ‘full service’ flights. This latest ‘enhancement’ joins the abandonment of complimentary cabin service and checked baggage, the roll out of cabin seating ‘densification’ on some routes, the eroding of seat cushioning and the removal of seat recline (though on short-haul this is excusable.)  Overall it’s a race to the bottom.  Other low-cost carriers have been successfully plumbing these depths much longer than BA and though cheap and cheerful doesn’t cover it, at least they’ve never presumed BA’s false sense of entitlement.


Elsewhere, I use the East Coast rail line fairly frequently.  I’d use it more if I could afford the ticket prices.  And before we go there, I’m tired of being told there are cheaper advance purchase deals.  If I had a bleedin’ crystal ball that let me look three months into the future I’d not be writing this in the here and now.  Train travel in Britain is becoming prohibitively expensive, and certainly poorer value than much of Europe.   Despite increased fares, aspects of Standard Class service appear in decline.  Trolley service is often not available – no staff to do the job we’re told.  And then, when staff are available, trolleys are suspended because aisles are obstructed by passengers who mistakenly presumed that buying a ticket would also buy them a seat.  Let’s not explore too deeply the realm of delayed journeys – but I recently experienced an eight-hour trip from Newcastle to King’s Cross – the scheduled journey time is nearer three.  I did claim back the £136 Super Off Peak (?) ticket but, even changing into my DJ in the pungent train lav, I pretty much missed the event I travelled to attend.

Then we have the roads…  Driving south from Newcastle to London or the Channel Ports is to be avoided if at all possible.  Britain’s arterial network is clogged.  Constant maintenance appears piecemeal and only adds to the woes of drivers, who in turn become unnecessarily unpleasant to each other.  To the individual who attempted to prevent me merging en route to central Newcastle the other morning, lent on their horn, gave me the fingers and then tried to undertake me, I suggest you expand your life experiences.  On an earlier occasion, when returning from Oxford, I had to abandon the M40, which had to all intents morphed into a Long Stay car park.  The ensuing ‘Hidden Villages of  Oxfordshire tour’ proved only a minor consolation.  These days if I’m planning a long drive across the continent I try to book the overnight ferry from North Shields (Newcastle) to Ijmuiden (Amsterdam.)  It costs much more than a Channel crossing but saves on fuel, hotels, peage tolls, frustration and fatigue.

Well, I feel better after that. I’m going out for a run this afternoon.  It’ll be cold, wet and muddy but the endorphin rush will more than make up for it.  Happy travels to all for 2018.


Travel Journalism WTF?

Having cleared my desk before Christmas – all commissioned pieces filed – I find myself inhabiting the un-festive season of oh-bloody-hell-now-what?  A few loose ideas dangle in the uncertain future but that’s about it.  Although I know I’m doing it, writing instead of writing and pitching inevitably leads to this abyss.  Like Wile E Coyote, the road ran out a while ago, I’ve just noticed and I’m now in free fall.

But it’s not just that…

After quitting PR in 2006/07 I’ve explored various aspects of travel writing; regular round-up columns, hotel reviews and destination features, along with current affairs crossover pieces for print, web and radio.  Many of these I’ve enjoyed researching, writing or broadcasting, even some of  the deskbound round-ups.


However, there’s been a developing theme, and it’s nothing new.  Rates for travel writing now barely cover getting to the airport.  For the record, some pieces bring in £150, others a little more.  A half page feature in one broadsheet national nets a princely £350.  Factor in expenses (few papers cover these), and the industry’s system of payment ‘on’ publication (‘on’ could be months afterwards) rather than on filing and…  Well, you can see where I am.

Helping to focus my disillusion was a conversation I had with a blogger while on a recent press trip.  They were describing Orlando.  I responded along the lines of, ‘Each to their own, but you’d have to pay me.’  Whereupon it transpired some organ of Florida’s tourism marketing machine had not only sponsored the trip but also paid a daily rate for the blogger’s time.  On top of this Orlando wasn’t even somewhere the blogger really rated – it was simply ‘transactional.’  Whoop de ‘effing doo!

For most, freelance travel writing is now unsustainable as a primary income.  One former section editor recently described travel editorial as ‘a hobby’, another editor described writers’ pay as ‘low’ – accurate at least.  Sorrow is knowledge.  It’s clear that newspapers and magazines are either unable, unwilling or uninterested in paying better rates.  In which case why not allow a tourist board or a sponsor pay a journalist directly?  The same editorial rigour would be maintained – not something that applies to most blogs – and the writer’s fee might actually add up to more than the cost of a Happy Meal.

I know this upends a principle and will go against the grain for some.  However, in absolute terms it’s little different to what we have now with sponsored press trips, goody bags, complimentary gear etc…   The fact is that few of these enticements, beyond the basic facilitation, appeal to freelancers who’d much rather write a balanced, straight story and be able to pay their bills at the end of the month.

For me at least, 2018 will definitely see some changes.


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