Monday, July 11, 2005

Travel Writers and Subsidized Press Trips

Kalimantan by Carl Parkes

Here we go again, folks. Yet another self righteous and santimoneus article about the evils of travel writers accepting free or subsidized press trips. The author just can't seem to make up his mind about this common practice. Yes, large and wealthy publications such as The New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler can afford to pick up the costs of these trips, but very few small to medium newspapers or magazines can possible afford this luxury.

And freelance travel writers can rarely, rarely afford to actually pay full fare for press trips. The industry is dying (freelance travel writing) and if freelancers were required to pay for all expenses, that would be the death call. Anyway, do music reviewers pay for all their CDs? What about movie reviewers? Don't they have press previews for these people, or do they need to dig down into their pockets for $10? I doubt it. And they guy who does car reviews? And travel writers at big publishing houses? Has anyone heard about "press rates?"

Writers, Like Public Officials, Love Those Free Junkets
Public relations operatives for some vacation spots know that budget-crunched editors sometimes wink at the legal corruption. Editors hope their readers aren't angry after visiting so-so resorts praised by the travel writer.

Editor and Publisher
By Allan Wolper
July 07, 2005

This is a trip through what some cynics call the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" travel sections of newspapers, in which writers regale readers with tales paid for by the resorts they are covering. When politicians go on junkets to a tropical isle as guests of the corporations they're supposed to be monitoring, newspapers hound them with headlines charging them with selling out to special interests.

When a writer takes a free trip, his patron often gets the kind of positive coverage that's hard to buy even in a full-page ad. Hotels and cruise ships use this flattering copy in ads that run after the sub-sidized story is published.

This is hardly the way to win credibility. With travel costs rising almost as fast as real estate prices, newspapers owe their readers an independent appraisal of vacation spots. Some newspapers, sensitive to ethics violations in recent years, have instituted policies that forbid travel writers from accepting press or sponsored trips.

While editors can control the behavior of the full-time staff writers, it is difficult to catch the junketeering freelancers who dominate the newspaper travel sections at small and mid-sized dailies. Public relations operatives for some vacation spots know that budget-crunched travel editors wink at this legal corruption. Then they hope their readers aren't abused in some way while visiting the resorts praised by the travel writer.

"Our relationship with travel writers is like dealing with sausage," says Andrea Zani, travel editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. "We don't know how the trips are put together. We know they go on press tours. We just hope we get a good story [out of] it."

That sausage process is exacerbated by the paltry fees newspapers pay their freelance travel writers — checks that sometimes don't even cover their airfare.

"The basic economics of travel writing where a writer takes a $5,000 trip and gets just $500 for it is ridiculous," says Catharine Hamm, travel editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Hamm's fees don't fit the bill, either. She pays $500 for a piece, $800 if it is a cover story. "Unless that person sells that story 10 or 15 times, he can't break even," said Hamm, noting that she allows her writers to resell their pieces. The L.A. Times freelance contract forbids writers from accepting any partial or full freebies, but the newspaper has a list of some three dozen people they caught doing just that.

When Hamm became travel editor in November 2003, she shut down a column that had run for 15 years called "Cruise Views" by the late Shirley Slater and her husband, Harry Basch. "It was about ethics," Hamm said.

No wonder: All the expenses for the traveling duo were covered by the ships on which they sailed. The paper disclosed the arrangement at the bottom of each column, but sticking a tag at the end of a story is nothing more than a plea bargain. It's saying, "we're on the take, but we're being up front about it."

It also skirts one of the most important rules of honest travel writing: going to a resort anonymously to experience the same conditions as an ordinary vacationer. Some papers don't understand that. New York's Daily News, claiming it was reforming its travel section, recently announced it will now let its readers know when the paper accepts a free trip. Until last month, it simply took them and didn't tell anyone.

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