If there’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s more aspiring travel writers. They’re everywhere. Walk into any hostel anywhere in the world, and half the people there will tell you that they’d like to get into freelance travel writing. I should know; I’m one of them.
For as long as I’ve been travelling, it’s been ok to be an aspiring travel writer. Everyone knows how little money there is in the game. Everyone knows just how difficult it is to crack Lonely Planet or National Geographic. Given the number of budding wordsmiths out there, and just how few words are actually needed/bought, it has always been fine never to do more than aspire. If you were an unsuccessful, failed travel writer, you were just like everyone else in the hostel. It was kind of comforting.
Not any more. Travel writing has a new master, a master that doesn’t tolerate failure. Matador travel has only been around for about 5 years, but in that time it has built a media empire, encompassing online material, a print magazine, a social network, a new media school and an upcoming web series.
The details behind the empire are vague, but it spins the usual myth about a guy bored at his office job with a dream of starting an etcetera. What’s more important than the origins are what I see as the two big coups that helped Matador rise to the top of the travel writing world.
The first coup was the development of the Glimpse Correspondents Program. This program picks out promising young travellers and helps them to refine their storytelling and photographic skills, paying them a stipend as part of the process (as if most aspiring travel writers wouldn’t participate for free). What’s more it comes with the support of the National Geographic Society.
The second coup is very new, and it was the announcement of this which made me realise that Matador really was the new master of travel writing. The Belize Road Warriors program is a partnership between MatadorU (the online media school) and the Belize Tourism Board, whereby outstanding alumni will have the chance to travel to, live in and write about Belize, while having their expenses covered and their work published.
No longer can we the aspiring safely bemoan the lack of money in travel writing. No longer can we bemoan the glass ceiling that keeps us and our blogs from success. It is no longer good enough to be an aspiring travel writer; now ‘aspiring’ really does mean ‘failing’.
Increasingly it seems that every travel writer, every blog of consequence has some connection to Matador. This is the thing; Matador really does produce outstanding writers and writing. Increasingly it feels as though there are two classes of writers: the independent, aspiring (i.e. failing) writers, and the successful Matadorians. Matador has a number of teams of excellent editors, they invest in the writing process and pay for the finished product, and they are very, very well connected. Which means anything they endorse will get read. And read.
Given the standards being set by Matador, it’s hard to find a fault with our new masters. I think they produce far too many ‘Top 10′ articles, but that is a blight upon the entire industry, not just Matador. I also think the Glimpse program ends up reading too much like a guide book at times, in that it becomes about travellers and their experiences abroad, rather than about the places themselves (the usual fetishising of The Abroad). After reading this article by a Matador editor, though, you couldn’t say that Matador isn’t trying to dig a whole lot deeper than most of the travel industry.
So what is left to us preterite, aspiring travel writers? Maybe not much? Between this blog and grad school paperwork and the bits and pieces I’m doing for Road Junky, I’m probably not going to take on any more writing for a while (my poor novel continues to languish). Even if I did I’m not sure I could persuade my aspirant pride to take a class from MatadorU. Instead I’ll continue to spy on my masters from a distance, stalking their blogs, eavesdropping on their tweets, and occasionally pilfering a crumb from their literary table. And I’ll probably continue to moan about the life of an aspiring travel writer. Isn’t that pretty much what travel writing is all about anyway?