I started blogging one weekend day in May 2002 on a lark. I had several friends with blogs back then, and I thought I’d try my hand at it. Only I didn’t have anything useful to contribute solely on politics and current events, which were the only blogs I knew about at the time. So I decided to write about travel and miles and points along with an eclectic amalgamation of offbeat news.
My Original Blog
In the beginning I’d get 30 visits a day. The very first link to this site came from legal blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Within a year I was getting 500 a day, although there were exciting spikes along the way — Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit would link to me regularly, especially for my coverage of the TSA and the early bumper stickers I created to Impeach Norm Mineta as Secretary of Transportation (the TSA had been part of DOT before it was moved to the newly-created Department of Homeland Security, by the way I still find the use of ‘Homeland’ to be creepy). The tagline for the stickers was “Liberty & Security Not Bureaucracy.”
I don’t think I was getting 2000 visits a day regularly until I was about 4 years in. One thing that helped me jump to even that level were links from my boss’s blog and an opportunity to guest blog for him.
When I look back at my posts even from those first few years I’m not super proud of them. It took me a long time to find my ‘voice’.
But it was fun. I’m not naturally a great writer, but I still love the creative outlet and opportunity to express myself. I got to interact with and even to know many people who share my interests. In 2005 I even declared what I wanted for Christmas and a reader sent it to me.
Back then blogs interacted with each other more than they do today. Blogging was a conversational medium. You linked to someone’s post and shared why you agreed or disagreed with them. That’s how traffic was built. That formative experience for me has a lot to do with why I credit where I find things, and why I try to send traffic to blogs (by including them in lists of links) when I feel like they deserve greater attention.
This Blog is 100% Me, But it’s Only Part of What I Do
Long time readers know that I never went full time with blogging. As some of the other sites became full-fledged businesses, even selling out to corporations, this has remained one of the many things that I do. I still have a job, it’s where I get my health insurance, and I travel for work. I also write this blog; have an award booking service; help put together the Freddie Awards; consult with financial institutions on the travel and loyalty industries; and even serve as an expert witness in federal criminal trials.
I keep extremely busy, but it’s doing all of the different things that I love. Meanwhile I continue to build this blog. Everything I know or believe about the theory of the firm? I do the opposite.
Fortunately since it’s just one of the things that I do, and everything here is in my own voice, I write on my own terms. You don’t have to like this blog, or like every post, and I respect your opinion. But I speak my mind, I stake out positions, I don’t stay milquetoast desperate to avoid controversy and pushing some readers away.
How This Blog Makes Money
Now that the blog has a sizable readership it’s able to make money. No matter what you do it’s almost impossible to make money with a small audience, and you don’t have to go to great lengths to make money with a large one.
This blog started without any ads at all. GoogleAds didn’t even exist when I began. After a month or so Glenn Reynolds paid to take down the ad placed there by my first site host, Blogspot. After 7 months Randy Petersen offered to host my blog. But it wasn’t until 2004 that I had an ad up. “BlogAds” were selling on my site for $40 per week, and I told Randy he could keep it all to defer hosting costs and the technical help his team had given me to get things set up.
After more than five years of blogging I was making $250 a month from the site. It wasn’t long after that I was making $750 a month. I’m very fortunate to have done well since then, but it began simply as a labor of love and stayed that way for years. And in doing well I’m better able to remain ‘independent’ in my coverage of airlines and hotels, since I don’t rely on them for access or income.
On this site I make money from banner ads (paid advertising) and from affiliate links (if you are approved for some though certainly not all of the credit cards I write about, plus the occasional Amazon or other product).
I have financial relationships with banks that issue credit cards and there are financial firms that I’ve worked with as clients seeking my advice and help in understanding the economics of loyalty programs as they develop their investment strategies. Readers also become clients of my award booking service.
I make money through several ventures outside of this blog, so I don’t need to do anything I’m not comfortable with to earn a living. Instead I just keep spouting off (as some of you would say) and if people are interested they’ll keep reading it, and fortunately people have and that’s the main reason I’m compensated for the work I do here.
Ethics and Earning Income From the Blog
Recently One Mile at a Time wrote about their ethics policy and it was an interesting discussion. Lucky went into detail about how he stays independent. Much of it agree with, some of it I don’t, so I thought I’d share my own perspective.
Like Lucky I always disclose in a post where there’s any sort of potential benefit to me, such as if getting approved for a credit card or buying a product I wrote about generates revenue. Most of my posts don’t have any such potential, but the more content you read the more ads are displayed so there’s incremental revenue there.
Here are One Mile at a Time’s policies:
- Don’t accept any free travel from airlines or hotels even “invitations on delivery flights, or pre-opening stays at hotels that aren’t otherwise open to the public”
- Don’t accept any other in-kind “gifts” that could present a conflict of interest like elite status or even tickets. He says “I also don’t accept free dinners from airline people (or take their marketing teams out to dinner.”
- Don’t accept payments from airlines or hotels in exchange for coverage
- Don’t advertise the site in other media
- Don’t let airlines or hotels know in advance they’re coming
Like Lucky I don’t advertise in other media, and all of my coverage elsewhere on television, in print, and online is organic and earned however I don’t see that as an ethical issue. It’s just my approach.
I don’t generally accept free travel or other gifts, either, however there are events I want to attend for content reasons that aren’t open to the general public. I don’t need the information flow from official sources as I’ve cultivated many ‘deep’ sources within various airlines and hotel chains). And when I do decide to attend an event I have a pretty clear approach to those: a charitable donation that offsets anything I’ve received.
United ran a preview flight of their first Boeing 777-300ER with their new Polaris business class in it for media. There was no opportunity to buy a ticket on this flight, which is how I’ve gotten onto various inaugurals — buying a ticket like anyone else — so what I do in cases like that is make a charitable donation equal to the value of what I’ve received (even after accounting for any tax benefit).
In order to take the United flight I had to buy a ticket to Chicago and a flight home from San Francisco, and pay for a hotel room. I also donated the cost of a first class ticket between Chicago and San Francisco.
Status comps aren’t something I’m looking for either. I was once offered free Hilton status and I declined.
I don’t seek better treatment from airlines or hotels because of this blog, however I have occasionally let an airline know I’d like to take photos, because I don’t want to run into problems and get arrested. It’s never led to better service (or if it was better than it would have otherwise been, it’s occasionally still be downright awful). There have been a few times where hotels Googled me.
- Oddly at the W Doha my upgrade wasn’t as good as what many Platinums were receiving
- At the Park Hyatt Vendome the marketing manager came out to greet me. On that stay I received the lowest category room they can assign when using a confirmed suite upgrade award. On my other stays confirming suites I’ve always done better! They don’t me if I wanted a better upgrade I’d have to pay for it,
I asked whether a room ‘like the one I had last year’ was available. I was told yes — and that I could have it for an extra 100 euros per night. I declined. While some would consider the room to be worth it, I was perfectly happy with the room I was assigned. I don’t consider a single room, usually, to be a suite but it was more than adequate for my needs.
There are a few things that I have taken. If I attend a briefing event I usually skip out on the social stuff, I’m tired and introverted and probably want to do something else it’s not so much the ethics of a nice dinner. However I have no issue taking a sandwich in a conference room to make things a working lunch. Likewise if I’m meeting a hotel executive in one of their hotels it’s not practical for me to be the one to pick up the check, though I’m usually the one who buys under ordinary circumstances.
I agree as well with Lucky that “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with…accepting comped flights or sponsored trips.” For many it’s the best way to develop unique content and bring it to readers.
Fortunately with the different ways I earn income I don’t need to do this to experience things I want to try. And with as busy as I am the last thing I want is to go where someone else wants me to go, and spend time doing things someone else wants. The most valuable resource I have — now that I’m a dad, even more so than before — is my time. I just don’t have the time to go to events or take sponsored trips.
Ethical Conundrums Go Far Beyond What Benefits a Writer Takes for Themselves
It’s important to remember that the people you cover aren’t your friends even if you get to know them and even like them as people. I should put that a little bit differently. There are some people I’ve gotten to know that have run loyalty programs, whom I’ve stayed in touch with when they were no longer in that role and I was no longer covering their work. They can be friends but it’s important to draw a line between liking someone and letting that influence your coverage of them.
It isn’t always an easy line to draw because when you get to know someone you may (justifiably) given them more of a benefit of the doubt.
Maybe that’s not an ethics issue, but it’s certainly something to watch for. Let me offer something that’s more clearly an ethical dilemma that has nothing to do with my own personal benefit.
Instead it’s an example of a coverage choice I had to make, where the benefit in question wasn’t mind but a reader’s. A few years ago a reader brought me a really bad experience with an airline. The airline was 100% at fault, but the customer had gotten nowhere. I was going to write about it, and reached out to the airline for comment. Their Vice President of Communications came back with an interesting offer.
- They wanted to handle this as a customer service issue rather than a public relations issue.
- If I was writing about it there wasn’t much they could do. But if I was just helping a passenger get compensation they’d take care of things. This reader would get two first class tickets anywhere in the world.
I pondered that. I could help the person who reached out to me, or I could write a good story. This wasn’t something that affected safety, and it wasn’t a situation that was even likely to re-occur. So telling the story wouldn’t make others better travelers. It wouldn’t help them travel better. I decided to take the deal. For avoidance of doubt there was no benefit to me, and I gave up something personally — a good story. The reader got made (more than) whole.
I still think I did the right thing but I’m curious to know what y’all think.
I Do the Best I Can and Generally Don’t Judge Others
There are any number of ethical choices we all make on a daily basis. I don’t have a staff to bounce things off of, no editor, I’m just me and I do the best that I can to write content that interests me (the only way I could possibly still be doing this after 17 years) and hopefully engaging content and do it in a way that let’s me sleep well at night.
That doesn’t make me any more ethical than anyone else, and I’m sure readers will find fault with plenty of things I write, but it’s how I generally think about the blog.