To believe what magazine editors told the crowd at the BCATW 2016 Travel Writing Symposium on April 10th, travel writing ain’t what it used to be. Gone are the days of simply pitching a story, getting an assignment for a per-word or flat rate, and then turning in your piece by deadline.
With the advent of the Internet, publications expect more from writers. Having an encompassing portfolio of clips is sometimes less important than having a huge Twitter following. Editors want to audition your story online before sending it to print. And advertisers are taking more control of the whole process.
It’s all upside down now, as one editor said.
It’s part of a Print vs Digital reality travel writers must face.
The editorial panel consisted of editors from the top magazines in BC:
Anicka Quin is the Editor-in-Chief of Western Living magazine which includes a website and thrice-weekly newsletter. She sits on the board of directors of the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors and the professional development committee of Magazines Canada.
Brad Liski is the President and Group Publisher of My Passion Media a media powerhouse consisting of 9 print and 14 online publications, with an annual global readership of 16 million. Print titles include Explore, Outdoor Canada, BC Outdoors, Canadian Traveller, Pacific Yachting, and British Columbia Magazine and their Web sites, as well as the e-zine, InfoBarrel.com.
Representing the newly redesigned Vancouver Magazine was new editor Jennifer Elliott. As producer, she manages the editorial content for Vancouver and the adjoining website (VanMag.com) as well as all social media platforms.
BCATW member John Thomson pelted them with questions about the future of travel writing for print vs digital markets, starting with Brad Liski.
(This transcript is edited for readability.)
Print vs Digital for Traveling Writing
What do you have to say about your readers? How do you plug into this 17 million readership market?
Brad – Part of the toughness of the industry is plugging into them. At 17 million readers we continue to grow because the content is everything from our perspective. Once you get good relevant, engaging, quality content, the readership just comes.
But it’s all upside down of what publishing used to be five years ago. People in the room drive readership now.
We’re looking for a Canadian perspective. But if it’s not engaging and not relevant, it won’t make it to the surface in print or online. Online readers are our quality judges. At the end of day, when good quality content hits the surface of the web it will soon determine whether its real good quality or not, and from there we’ll continue to find other pieces of content that are relevant at that time.
As a content producer at Vancouver Magazine, what does that entail?
Jen – We have quantity-based issues, but keeping the quality high up. As a city magazine we started focusing on hosting discussion though comments on the website, or responding to newsletters, or on social media. I feel like I’ve done my job if there’s 20-50 people having an argument or discussing something.
You have a lot of online titles, Brad. How do writers pitch Canadian Travel vs infobarrel.com?
Brad – Because we have so many titles, so many editors and so many contributors we have to control pitches. We’ve developed software to control pitches both ways, that’s where Influencer.org becomes important. It handles pitches for both print and online. If a contributor wants to pitch a story they can now pitch to 14 publication with one pitch. All the editors can go in see the pitches presented and decide which ones they want and tag it.
Conversely, if the editor is looking for something. For instance, we do a lot content on Golden BC and we use Influencer to post what we’re looking for, like a walk with the wolves or heli-skiing and then those people that are part of the system end up get emails to see if they’re interested in Golden. We use technology so the editors are getting to the most relevant ones.
How important is the writer’s reach. Are you using Klout?
Brad- We use Klout, but it’s only one facet. When a writer signs up at Influencer, they connect all their social channels and you don’t have to continually update editors on how many people you reach. We also want to know whether they have real reach or whether they have purchased reach. A lot of bloggers buy 200K Twitter followers and all of a sudden be on a trip and they don’t even have anyone reading anything.
Do you require a minimum number of followers?
Brad- No. [The writer of] a print article may have none, but they’re really good and our readers really like them, and that’s ok. Online, if you have really strong relevant reach, the editor can see their reach and can decide. So if three of you pitch the same story because you went on the same Fam tour, we can decide which readership we’re looking for.
Jen – We don’t use Klout or don’t have a budget for digital screening of freelancers. When I’m considering a freelance pitch it’s more often than not for print. So if the writer’s got a good number of Twitter followers that is definitly a positive aspect. But I’m more interested in a solid pitch than Twitter reach for print.
For vertical integration, you’re all taking stories that can be repurposed into online or print. How does it start?
It depends on your relationship with the writer. It will start when they’re on assignment for a print piece, and if they meet someone that I can use to build up excitement on the website, that’s ideal. We’re in that phase where writing one page of print isn’t enough anymore, it’s not enough for us in our job and certainly not enough for freelancers. So it’s just building relationships and working that out.
Western Living has a newsletter that people subscribe to and do you populate that with stories from the magazine or specific stories for that newsletter?
Anicka – Both. Often it’s all digital-only content, so fresh content that a lot is built by editorial team and a small percentage of freelancers. Everything that appears in the magazine does appear online and it gets sprinkled throughout the month in newsletters as well.
Can you talk about Pay for Performance which seems to be coming up in the online world. Explain that to us.
Brad – Pay for Performance is one of the biggest moves you are all going to be facing. It’s going to be PTP, sooner than later, and it’s already in a number of online platforms. It will continue to be that way even moving over to print. Publishers in the US have already made this move.
How it works is that you’ll start as writer online, purely in revenue share, where you write it for nothing. It goes on the site, you are connected to the payment process and as revenue comes in you get a percentage of that revenue. It’s the same with infobarrel.com
From there, we find the best writers who write really good content that becomes engaging, and move you up in a pyramid, if you will, into the niche publications online where you get a flat rate plus a percent of revenue. Then you move up to the print side of things, which is where you start to get into a straight-up per word environment.
Do you repurpose articles?
Brad – A piece online can’t appear in two online worlds, it will never make it through our our filters. It used to be that a magazine will take a print article and put online after the print subscribers got it. We’re the other way around in some publications. We’ll go online say, with BC magazine’s 25 Hidden Hot Springs. It’s shared by 250k people, and is a strong piece, so we knew it belongs in print. So now we’ll expand it, turn it into an S.I.P., made it something people will hover around.
As Editors, its easier now because you got content you know people want to read because you already got that evidence. We go back to the writer and say now that we’re going to print, we’ll pay you per word.
Are you using pay-for-performance in magazines?
Not in print. We will if the market changes. What’s driving pay for performance, right or wrong, is advertisers wanting PFP, so you have no choice but to follow suit. We can’t live with revenues being performance based, but our costs being flat. So right now we’re still ok in the print world because people are buying ads and subscribers are paying. But when the subscribers leave and advertisers leave, something has to give.
What about native ads, where the magazine does a piece for the advertiser. Is that farmed out to freelancers or done by your ad department?
Anicka – Both. It’s done in house by the advertising department who farms it out to freelancers. They have people they like to work with. Depending on the content, it’s journalists doing the work.
Jen – We see a ton online now. Advertisers are less likely to pay for big box or newsletters, so they come up with stories and are paying the journalists. We had one of the most clicked on thing in our newsletter, it was a listicle, branded and sponsored, and they just did a great job even though it was sponsored content.
Anicka – I think it’s an interesting model in that your not trying to fool the reader and hoping they don’t know it’s sponsored. But good native is properly sponsored and still good to read. It’s not meant to look like the magazine but it’s meant to be less heavy handed than old advertorials.
Is native a potential market for freelancers if normal channels are drying up?
Jen – I’ve had editorial freelancers email to say, ‘I want you to know I want to write sponsored content’ and I pass their names on to the ad department. Its nothing to be ashamed of. Its a revenue source and I’m more than happy to pass them along.
Brad – The church and state line is gone. Completely blurred. What we do on any sponsored content is that if the editor will not approve it and assign it we don’t want it, because the reader is smarter than we think. They’re much smarter now, and quicker to judge, and they will sniff out a piece of content that is brochureware. We don’t publish advertorials, but we publish a ton of sponsored content as long as we’re writing the content through freelancers and we have the approval process.
Should a writer finesse a pitch to publish on multi platforms, or do you figure that out yourself?
Anicka – I think a lot of writers don’t, but I think if you did it would give you an advantage as far as getting picked up by a magazine. Often when we get a pitch we think, ok, we don’t have room in the issue and we might assign it as short piece online. But, if writers were to take time to say, ‘this is where it would work well in print in this section,’ because they really read the magazine, but to also say, ‘here’s where it would live online in this format,” then they would have a better chance.
Brad – The more you can package up in the pitch the better. Editors are busy doing more with less and will have to do more tomorrow with even less in the world of publishing. The more you can do to package up and help them understand that you know the publication…for example you go on a Golden Fam, and know there was four different activities and we have four different publications, so in the same pitch say, ‘I think Explore could handle heli-skiing, and PawManeFin would be great thing for a walk with wolves.’ The more you know, the faster you bubble to the surface. The editors will say here’s five articles. Lets run them.
Do you get alerted to writers to use in print through your contacts on infobarrel.com?
Brad – We had 191K people sign up to write on infobarrel. We distilled that down to 6k that are actively writing and making money. 2500 of them are making real money, and from that, it bubbles up to 250 constant contributors in print, in which we have 120 influencers for our sponsored content.
Sponsored content is where you will make most money. Your ability to write a piece that can get a reach and can bring in an outside supplier without it being brochureware is going to be the art of which will be paid the most.
There’s more on video
This transcript is focused primarily on the Print vs Digital discussion. To hear the editor’s general editorial tips, please view the video.
Brave new publishing world
These may have been hard pills for travel writers in the room to swallow, especially after hearing keynote Lucas Aykroyd say that you don’t need Twitter or social media to make it as a writer; just write well.
The thought of writing a piece for the Web and wondering if you’ll see any payment from it might have sat uneasily with older writers used to per-word rates.
Worse is the thought of competing for limited revenue against writers who have mastered the art of top ten lists.
Scariest of all is realizing the sheer number of aspiring writers out there – who are short on journalistic training, but long on social media followings – that long-time writers will have to compete with in the future.
It’s a lot to grapple with, this print vs digital divide, but clearly the sooner writers learn to bridge it the longer they’ll stay in the game.
What do you think? Are you ready to play Pay-for-Performance? What strategies do you have to stay ahead? Please let me know so I can do the same!