Matt’s Note: Though I originally published this post years ago, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic so I decided to update it in 2016!
Back in 2009, one of the most interesting discussions at TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange, the conference for those in the business of travel blogging and writing) was about whether travel blogging was “real journalism.” Was this new online medium just as good as print journalism? Were bloggers just as thoughtful, meticulous, and well-researched as traditional writers? The famous Chris Elliott said he saw no difference between traditional print and new online content. Blogging was just digital journalism, could be just as good as print, and should be held to the same high standard that we hold professional journalists.
But journalists go out of their way to say they are not bloggers, and bloggers go to great pains to call themselves bloggers. Why? Journalists think bloggers aren’t as detailed, unbiased, and professional, and bloggers don’t want to be associated with an old, dying way of doing things.
To me, blogging is a newer, more casual form of writing that discusses your thoughts and feelings, while journalism implies a bit more research, formality, and neutrality in your writing.
But blogging can also be journalism, and when it is, it should be held to the same standard. Blogging done that way educates and provides readers with the same quality as the famed “fourth estate” (what we call reporting in the US).
But as I think about the question: “Is travel blogging today as good as journalism?” in 2016, I have to say my answer is a solid no.
There is a big discrepancy in quality. Travel blogging doesn’t go into the factual depth that you see in traditional print journalism.
Of course, there are many, many travel blogs out there. Some bloggers clearly devote more time, effort, and research into creating — for a lack of a better term — online travel guides. Many bloggers are excellent writers and approach their websites and writing with the same integrity, honesty, and research that many print journalists and travel writers do. (In fact, some even more so.)
Back in 2009, I wrote this:
I read a lot of websites over many niches. Some of the finance blogs I read are so thoroughly researched with charts and footnotes that they are worthy of academic papers. They clearly know what they are talking about and simply calling them a blog diminishes their work. I think the same can be said for many travel sites. There are many great travel blogs and they come in all shapes and sizes. While there are many ‘Hi I’m in Italy, it’s awesome here’ blogs out there, there are a lot of travel sites that are more than ‘just a blog.’ Travel sites that cover a topic as well as any guidebook writer, that create comprehensive websites and are truly experts.
But sadly, I don’t think that is the case anymore for the most part. In fact, I cringe at the term “travel blogging.” To me, it often denotes a sloppy writing style that shills hotels, brands, products, and tour companies bloggers would never use or could never afford if it weren’t for free press trips.
Pretty much everyone assumes that all my trips are paid for by an outside party (they aren’t), because every blog under the sun seems to revolve around sponsored trips or paid activities. Most blogs are brand ambassadors more than they are journalists.
And that is perfectly fine. There is something for everyone, and how you make money is up to you. If your community doesn’t mind, I don’t.
But when I think back to that central question: “Is travel blogging as good as journalism?” I look around and go “No, no it’s not.”
My friend and mentor Jason always talks about service journalism and how everything is about how to help other people travel better. It’s about going deeper than the average tourist might, to get the information needed to become the resource. I agree.
What I teach in my blogging school is that travel blogging should be held to a higher standard and that it shouldn’t just be a touchy-feely, “look at what I did” thing. It’s expertise. It’s service. And it’s inspiration.
I said this in 2009:
I like to think of myself as an online journalist. I put a lot of time and effort into researching each post. While sometimes my writing may not be perfect (I don’t claim to be worthy of a Pulitzer), I get the numbers, I get the facts, I get the info before I write. I also make it a point to be evenhanded. My Contiki post is a good example of this. I researched the numbers carefully, and while I slammed [the company], I also said that, while not for me, Contiki is a good option for travelers. People will trust your opinion, but only if you are fair.
Thinking back now, six years older and wiser, I would say that I still agree. I don’t do hard-hitting journalism or long-form writing. I’m a nuts-and-bolts guy. The main purpose of this website is how to get you from A to B on the cheap while inspiring you to do so. Sometimes I’m harsh (sorry, Vietnam), but I try to be honest and fair.
And when I look around, I don’t see a lot of honesty. I don’t see a lot of depth. When I put together my 2015 list of best blogs, it was really hard, because I don’t read many. I just don’t want to read about press trips and experiences that I, the travel consumer, would never partake in. And what’s sad is that when I talk to everyday consumers at shows and speaking events, they most often feel that blogs should be taken with a grain of salt because the content is most likely paid for.
We just don’t know if we can trust travel blogs (which is another issue discussed in this post here).
So as I was reading my archives and came across this post, I pondered this question and decided that while there was a moment many years ago when travel blogging was on the road to being just as good as journalism, the industry has failed to live up to its promise.
What do you think?