Ethics, Schmethics: On Press Trips and Writing a Good Story

Please note: This post is a statement of my own opinion and does not reflect the business contractual relationship I have with BlogHer, for which I comply with their editorial guidelines.

Is anyone else tired of the press trip debate? It returned last week -- on the tails of increasing paranoia about the new FTC rulings -- in a story posted by Gawker about NY Times writer Mike Albo taking a "free, all expenses paid trip to Jamaica." The NY Times explicitly prohibits their writers from participating in these kinds of events. Also on Gawker, an excerpt of the Times policy.

The following additional rules apply to travel writers, whether working for Travel, Escapes, T: Travel or any other section:

No travel writer, whether on assignment or not, may accept free or discounted services of any sort from any element of the travel industry. This includes hotels, resorts, restaurants, tour operators, airlines, railways, cruise lines, rental car companies and tourist attractions...

It is our policy not to give Travel assignments to freelance writers who have previously accepted free services. Depending on circumstances, the Travel editor may make rare exceptions, for example, for a writer who ceased the practice years ago or who has reimbursed his or her host for services previously accepted...

When the story broke, travelers on Twitter manned their keyboards and there was a lively conversation -- here's the #twethics (travel writer's ethics) archive, if you're interested.

Yes, it's not unusual for travel writers -- for well known writers of any stripe -- to be invited on a trip with the implied agreement that they'll write about it. Yes, there's some question about how truly objective a writer can be when they've taken a trip that was funded by their own nickels. Yes, pay for travel writing these days is rarely enough to cover the expenses of travel, it's rarely enough to turn a profit.

Are you getting 100 dollars a post -- enough to cover dinner and one night in a hotel you scored on Priceline? Are you getting 1200 dollars for a feature story about a far away place -- enough for a round trip ticket from the West Coast to Europe and a cup of coffee in the airport? Let's widen the circle a little bit -- are you buying every single one of those gadgets you review? Did you pay for that makeup/clothing/shoes/kitchen appliance/gaming device with your own cold hard cash and did your writing income cover the costs?

I think this entire debate is beside the point. Albo seems to have broken the terms of his contract by taking the trip. That's a business/contractual issue. But for me, the heart of this debate is the story that results from participating in a comped adventure. What's the story about? Is the writer offering critical insight into the destination? Is the writer giving you useful, actionable tips for a better trip? Are you reading a story that transports you to a place? Are any reviews practical, complete, and thoughtful? Or are you reading the same information you can get from the brochure stand in the airport? Is the resulting story nothing more than the PR company's copy, a first person rewriting of what's on the hotel or attraction web site? Regardless of who's paying, what am I reading as a result?

It's increasingly easy to be taken seriously by the entities that finance these trips. PR companies are interested in the high traffic numbers of group blogs, advertisers are looking to replace the fading print market with blog advertorials. They make their choices, send out some invites, and wait, hopefully, for the resulting wave of click throughs and conversions. The issue that came up again and again at the blogging plus travel events I attended this year was "How do I get one of those trips?"

I'd like to see more people asking "How do I write a good travel story?" My inbox is littered with PR pitches for travel related events. Odds are fairly high that I can tell if your post is sourced in one of those; odds are equally high that I can tell if you're on a comp, even if you haven't disclosed that fact. Ultimately, I don't actually care who paid for your trip. I care that the result is a well written story, critical and insightful.

In a perfect world, a travel writer could travel anonymously on an expense account and make a decent income from their stories -- but we all know that's just not true for so many writers these days. Press junkets and PR funded travel is part of the game now. We need to get used to that. And while I do think disclosure is a good policy for bloggers, it's ultimately up to the publication or the individual to decide. But I don't think participation in press trips immediately dings a writer's cred.

I'm not going to go after anyone because they've taken a free trip. Write poorly as a result of that opportunity, now that's when the gloves come off.

Related

  • NYT Nitpicker: Why not give Mike Albo a break?
  • Gadling: Free press travel necessary... and certainly not an evil.
  • Miss Adventures: Of freelance writers and junkets
  • Matador: Do Travel and Leisure-style ‘No Freebies’ Policies Undermine Honesty in Travel Writing?

Pam blogs about travel and other adventures at Nerd's Eye View.

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