Paying for Writers - A New Model

The decline of print publications is back in the news. With the advertising market gone sour, budget problems are bad and jobs for professional writers are disappearing faster than ever.

Oddly, print people continue to blame paltry internet revenue on the biggest, most successful internet companies that are only peripherally related to their own problems. In this week’s Time Magazine cover story a former Time editor talks about search engines, portals, and aggregators piggybacking on their content. But “Piggybacking” is a gross oversimplification of what search engines, portals, and aggregators do. Yes, search engines treat words as crawable, indexible, representable objects, but what percentage of these words come from the pros? It’s a speck.

A better focus of print media’s attention would be topic-specific websites (travel, entertainment, health, music…) who are wooing readers away with original, albeit often poorly written copy from their user bases paired with user ratings and algorithms. In travel, readers who used to rely on well-written copy from print media for things like hotel and restaurant reviews have in short order turned to aggregated review and rating sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp.

The question we asked ourselves is this: why can’t good writing be part of the equation? Solid editorial content can thrive in the midst of user ratings, algorithms, and the social internet. We wonder whether traditional media feels so threatened because the web has shown that many smart people on the ground can collectively create something much more meaningful than a few people in a (corporate) ivory tower.

We’ve set out to put this idea to the test… and here are some of rules we’ve chosen to follow…

1. Start from the premise that the quality of the content matters.

Sounds obvious, but have you read the reviews for a hotel on TripAdvisor lately? Have you read a guidebook and realized that the writer never visited the place in question? Not all writing is equal. No trip becomes a Trazzler trip without the intervention of an editor who read it and liked it enough to publish it. We have worked hard to set up our site so that users are encouraged to only submit trips for places about which they have something substantial to say. We have been blown away by the quality of the submissions.

2. Rely on a combination of free and paid writing.

Create a system to reward the best contributors, not with meaningless contest prizes but with real freelance writing contracts and jobs that pay a professional rate. We could hire more writers for less money–as so many sites do–but we decided early on that we wanted to dedicate a high percentage of our budget to hiring those writers who embrace the idea of Trazzler and have a one-of-a-kind contribution to make (see #1). We will continue to do this. In fact we have a long, long list of Trazzlers that we want to work with in the future. (Are we paying out as much as we’d like? No! We haven’t raised as much money or started making as much money as we’d like. But we’re getting there, stick with us…)

3. Surface the best writing.

Create tiers that reward good writing and deep-six bad writing. If there are multiple submissions on the same topic, showcase the best writeup first. We believe this is good–not only for readers–but for writers as well. Who wants to write a solid, intelligent piece and have it languish in a literary sludge pit?

Note: An interesting article to follow this with: Clay Shirky’s Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers.

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Win a Weekend Stay in Mendocino

From its charming coastal New England-style village to its forests of towering Redwoods, Mendocino County is a Northern California destination that combines the sea, the wilderness, romance, and outdoor adventure. The region is a playground for beachcombers and nature enthusiasts: there’s Van Damme State Park and Glass Beach, and sophisticated getaways from its quaint inns along the coast to its artisanal wineries.

If you’ve passed through Mendocino County, we’re certain you have visited an attraction—a bed & breakfast, a secret cove, an annual festival, a foodie spot— that you hope to return to someday. And, if you live here, we know you have a regular hangout, a hidden local spot on the coast, or a favorite family winery that you can’t wait to share.
Now is your chance to write about these places in Mendocino County. We’ve partnered with Visit Mendocino County for our newest regional writing contest: the Mendocino Writing Contest. Our Mendocino County sponsors have put together an assortment of prizes:
People’s Choice Grand Prize: A weekend stay and tango workshop at Weller House Inn and dinner for two at Ravens’ Restaurant, an award-winning vegetarian foodie spot. (Alcohol and gratuities are not included.)
People’s Choice Runner-Up Prize: A $100 gift certificate for MacCallum House Restaurant and two magnum bottles of Syrah from Meyer Family Cellars.
People’s Choice 2nd Runner-Up Prize: Two passes to the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens and two bottles of Pinot Noir from Barra of Mendocino.
Note: Proof of age is required to claim prizes of alcohol.
Editors’ Choice Prize(s): Trazzler will also award a $250 freelance writing contract to contest entrant(s) to write more trips about Mendocino County.
Want to enter? Visit the contest page and “Enter Now.” You’ve got until September 20, 2010. We look forward to reading your entries…
–Cheri Lucas
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Write for Trazzler

If you are reading this blog, then you must be wondering why anyone would be crazy enough to launch a travel site start-up at the tail end of the summer of the staycation (how I loathe this term!). I don’t know about you, but personally I need the escape of travel more than ever before. I love my day-to-day life, but it’s intense and it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world really exists outside of the self-absorbed confines of Madrid.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a little house in “el pueblo más raro de Andalucía” (Andalusia’s weirdest town, as our friend who loaned us his apartment calls it). This place has zero tourist interest. When I plugged my laptop into a Franco-era outlet, my power cord caught on fire. Wifi? You’ve got to be kidding. Every evening families leave their front doors open and eat dinner. When you walk down the street, you can’t help but be a voyeur–it’s like peering into dozens of living dollhouses. When we went to the local public pool the kids flocked around us as if we were endangered animals in a zoo (my paleness is pretty freakish here). Every day, we drive through the dusty hills dotted with toros bravos to the windy, nearly abandoned beaches, look across at the dark mountains of Morocco, check out Roman ruins and white medieval towns perched on hills, eat sea anemones and reproductive organs from tuna from the Strait of Gibraltar. For a lot of people, this would be the vacation from hell and for us it’s the best one ever.

And, for me, that’s what Trazzler is about. So many other travel sites are essentially reference books with logistical information, tourist bureau propaganda, or an unedited, overwhelming morass of useful and useless information. Guidebooks rely on just a handful of undercompensated writers to do it all. When I started writing for Trazzler, I quickly realized that it was completely different from any other assignment. Here, a writer creates his or her own beat. There’s no pressure to write about places you don’t know or care anything about. No need to create trips that appeal to everyone. Here you’ll find what slips through the cracks everywhere else–those secret places that you might only tell your friends about… those defining travel moments that reside in your memory long after you have returned home.

What we want to do is create a world of travel possibilities. Each Trazzler Trip transports you to a very specific place and moment. Real human beings are behind each and every trip, carefully choosing the photo, writing the copy, and editing it. You decide what appeals to you and what doesn’t. Trazzler is a savvy friend who will get to know your Travel Personality over time. You can use it as “virtual teleportation” (as Biz Stone imagined when the idea was hatched), travel therapy, a game, an escapist fantasy, or–we also hope–as a tool to learn about new ways to travel to one-of-a-kind spots and an outlet for your travel ruminations.

More later, but I just wanted to give a shout-out to the smart and creative people behind this site. I worked with Adam Rugel over twelve years ago at AOL, writing ad copy for everything from frozen steaks to the Weekly World News. He moved onward and upward to specialize in online travel sites (and I took the escape route into the world of freelance writing, design, and perpetual studentdom). Trazzler is the culmination of many years of experience, experimentation, inspiration, planning, and dreaming. It’s not going to be anything like anything else out there. And it’s just going to get better.

So sign up and take this crazy journey with us, then take a crack at writing your own trips. But, be warned, if you are really astute and analytical, we’ll rope you into helping us–we’re wily that way.  Let us know what you think.

–Megan Cytron

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The Many Faces of Mt. Rainier: Regional Writing Contest

We’ve launched a regional writing contest in Washington State—the Mt. Rainier Writing Contest—and the dramatic landscape of Mt. Rainier National Park is the star. Here, sample the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest: volcanoes in the Cascade Range, glaciers, waterfalls, old-growth forests, high-country meadows, lakes, hiking and snowshoe trails, and stellar views of majestic Mt. Rainier.

Our partner, Visit Rainier, has organized People’s Choice Prizes that will allow winners to explore this national park:
People’s Choice Grand Prize: Mt. Rainier Getaway for Two: A stay at the National Park Inn, a retreat in Mt. Rainier National park, a $200 gift card from Whittaker Mountaineering, and dinner at National Park Dining Room.
People’s Choice 1st Runner-Up: Skiing at Crystal Mountain for two and dinner at Crystal’s Alpine Inn.
People’s Choice 2nd Runner-Up: EverGreen Escapes tour and naturalist-led hike/snowshoe for two in Mt. Rainier National Park.
Trazzler will also award a freelance contract to an Editors’ Choice Prize winner to write a batch of trips about the Mt. Rainier region.
You can submit entries between September 25 and October 25, 2010, but we encourage you to enter NOW so you can get out the vote as early as possible! (Need tips on getting out the vote? Read this.)
Visit the Mt. Rainier Writing Contest.

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I Always Thought Online Travel Should Be Fun...

In 1995 I abandoned the hostel-hopping circuit for my first real job, at AOL in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Traveling was definitely more fun than working at AOL, so when a position came up with AOL Travel, I thought it would be better because of the “travel” in the title. The job had its moments, but I learned there was a great divide between “travel” and “traveling”.

I left AOL in 2002 itching to do something in travel that was fun. My friend Dave and I made several travel-related pilots for TV, including Bargain Travel Minute, Hostel Days and a bunch more. We spent some time in Los Angeles, had an agent at ICM, pitched a show to MTV — that was fun.

When I came back to San Francisco in 2004, I spent a year working at pre-podcasting company AudioFeast, then another at the podcasting pioneer Odeo. When Odeo morphed into Twitter, I continued to work in the office and eat the snacks, but I started working on my own project, 71Miles.

During my three-year hiatus from online travel, there was a lot of innovation and the creation of a number of new products, but almost all of it centered on search and price. Arbitrage can bring about useful results, but fun?

Trazzler is our attempt to bring at a much-needed dose of the fun of traveling into the world of online travel.

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Trazzler on Salon: Urban Enigmas

As an avid (nearly fanatical) reader of Salon for over a decade, I am very excited to announce that we’ll be putting together weekly slideshows of our favorite Trazzler writing on in the upcoming weeks. Over the years (really, it’s been years already?) as Trazzler’s editor, I’ve noticed many themes, leitmotifs, and odd commonalities among the thousands of Trazzler trips submitted. Be it the obsessions that drive us to travel and explore, cultural manifestations that are constants across the globe, or the earth’s repeating geological phenomena, there are so many interesting ways to read about travel and the way we experience it. We often tweet these @trazzler, but now you can follow along on Salon, too.

This slideshow “Urban Enigmas” was based on one of our very first writing contests. Since then we’ve collected many more of these quirky conundrums.

Urban Enigmas
A good, productive city is often depicted as a hive of people zipping from one place to the next with purpose and determination. As any urban dweller knows, there’s not much fun in that – few of us move to the big city to sleepwalk through it. Situationist hero Guy Debord called this state of mesmerism the “petrified life” and urged urbanites to interact with the landscape in a deeper (and weirder) way. To notice what is hidden in plain sight, you have to be in the right frame of mind, which is to say, you have to be looking. Proto-slackers like Baudelaire paved the way, drifting through the streets riffing off the endless possibilities and moods, discovering poetry and mystery in the smallest details. Others, like today’s street artists, take a more active role, altering the urban terrain in ways that provoke and entertain passersby.

The enigmatic, inscrutable corners of cities get short shrift in guidebooks and travel sections, because they aren’t landmarks or must-see-before-you-die kinds of spots. The intersection of art, literature, history and mythology imbues these 13 places with meaning.

See the Trazzler Slideshow on Salon:

–Megan Cytron

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