Saturday, March 4, 2006

Travel Writers and Comps

Bill Dalton, Wife and Kid

Doesn't this just piss you off? Some travel writer in Los Angeles is paid a decent salary, or is paid decently for his freelance work, and ALL of his expenses are paid for by the L.A. Times, and he has the nerve to criticize other organizations for accepting freebies from some upscale hotel.

He doesn't pay for his perks, but he is so self-righteous that he demands everyone else follow the guidelines set up by the Times? Most, if not all, freelance travel writers accept complimentary hotel rooms, meals, and flights in order to make ends meet. It's an accepted industry standard and understood by everybody, aside from those few writers who have regular paying gigs at major publications.

And then they have the nerve to tell me about perks and comps and my attempts to make a living as an independent, freelance travel writer?

I could pick up the phone today and be on a plane to just about anywhere in the world tomorrow completely complimentary. Being a travel writer for major media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune (both owned by the Tribune Co.), just about any airline or hotel would be happy -- nay, thrilled -- to fly me or put me up completely free of charge. In exchange, all they'd expect from me is to give them coverage.

Now as a travel consumer journalist, here's why I don't accept free travel -- it is flat out wrong. It's wrong because it gives the impression that my journalistic independence may be swayed for the price of a free bed or an airline ticket. Did you get that -- not that my independence would be swayed, mind you, but it's the impression that it might be. Plus I'd never work in this town again (at least not for the papers I currently write for).

"Our policy does not allow us to accept complimentary accommodation or travel of any kind," says Catharine Hamm, editor of the travel section of the Los Angeles Times. And that applies to freelancers like me as well as staff writers.

What that means is that every time that I travel I pay for it entirely out of my own pocket. I won't even take a meal from a representative of a company that I might be writing about (I will accept a cup of coffee). I've even turned down a bagel and orange juice. It's just not worth the risk to my integrity as a journalist for the paltry payback.

And at the end of the day, the single most valuable asset we have as journalists is our integrity. Without it, we lose credibility and the respect of our audience. Screw with that and we're no better than any PR flack trying to sell the public soap. I quote the late, great Otis Chandler on the subject:

"If a newspaper, even a great newspaper like the Los Angeles Times, loses credibility with its community, with its readers, with its advertisers, with its shareholders, that is probably the most serious circumstance that I can possibly envision. Respect and credibility for a newspaper is irreplaceable."

This is all a long way of trying to sell my fellow Tribuners over at KTLA on the idea that it wasn't a good thing they did taking free rooms at the Ritz Carlton Huntington in Pasadena for three of the hosts of their morning show in exchange for "airtime" (first reported Saturday in the Pasadena Star-News, today in the Los Angeles Times). It's not that in doing so they were necessarily swayed in their coverage, it is the impression that they may have been that is damaging -- and not just to KTLA, but to other Tribune journalists and to journalists in general.

"I think witting or unwitting, whatever anybody in the media does reflects on every other person in the media," says Ms. Hamm. Amen to that.

It seems like journalism ethics 101, but KTLA remains steadfast in their resolve that nothing untoward was done. Ask yourselves this:

Can viewers of KTLA ever be sure that KTLA is giving the Ritz the same scrutiny they may to other hotels? Might a negative story about the Ritz slip to the back burner that maybe should have seen the light of day on KTLA? Again, it's not the actual fact of it, it is the impression, the feeling, that slight inkling that readers and viewers will take away from this. Is that loss of faith really worth the 1,200 bucks or so it would have cost for those three rooms?

KTLA should immediately reimburse the hotel for the actual, street-value expenses of its hosts' stay at the Ritz Carlton Huntington and issue a statement saying that it was wrong to accept the stays and that it will not do so in the future. The morning show hosts (who I doubt had any inkling what their producers were getting them into) ought to read it on-air. Then each of the comped hosts should reveal one negative thing about their stay at the hotel, even if it is something as minor as the water took too long to heat up in the shower, or the orange juice wasn't fresh.

Finally, whoever was responsible for booking the fiasco needs to perform a mea culpa on KTLA's website to journalists everywhere for their blundering lack of judgment. Don't journalists face enough challenges today without creating them within our ranks?

The Daily Traveler Link

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