A hint of hypocrisy in the travel industry
Note: Previously published in Editor & Publisher.
It was as if God was calling.
She said she was from the New York Times travel section and wanted to know if I was interested in becoming a stringer.
Ten years as a magazine editor and seven years as a freelance travel writer, honing my writing skills, flashed before my eyes. This was the major break I had been hoping for.
Then the question came—the dirty little secret of traveling writing. “So,” she said, “how do you pay for your trips?”
I told her that wherever possible, I paid my own expenses, but like 99% of other travel writers, I had to accept hosted, or subsidized, trips because newspapers and magazines pay so little.
She politely informed me that if I had ever taken a subsidized trip in my entire life, I couldn’t write for the New York Times.
I already knew that a handful of newspapers and many travel magazines didn’t buy articles written from subsidized trips, but this was a per-topic policy, not a life sentence. I asked a critical question: If I suddenly saw the error of my ways and paid for all my trips for the next 20 years, could I then write for the Times?
I had been wrong about the phone call—it wasn’t God calling, it was someone with higher aspirations; God’s foolish enough to offer redemption.
I wouldn’t mind so much if the Times really lived by its own rules. But it’s common knowledge throughout the business that on many Sundays articles appear by professional travel writers who have not only taken a hosted trip, but have taken numerous hosted trips and continue to do so.
In addition to this hypocrisy, the Times officially accepts photographs from professional photographers who have taken hosted trips.
If the Times travel section ever held itself truly accountable to its own policy, its section would be filled with “How I spent my summer vacation” articles. Even most of the current armchair travel accounts from novelists wouldn’t be allowed because they too have taken some form of hosted trips in their careers (promotional book tours, visits to editors, research junkets). All in all, under a strictly enforced policy, New York Times readers would lose out on good articles and valuable information.
The superficial thinking behind the no-subsidized-articles policy is that the writer cannot be objective if the trip has been paid for. Publications who subscribe to the policy also do so because they don’t want to give the appearance of conflict of interest by accepting such articles.
But the deeper implication is that editors aren’t smart enough to spot public relations fluff in an article, and the readers aren’t sophisticated enough to discern an article’s objectivity when given all the facts.
Publications in England, Australia and other countries have solved the entire hosted vs. non-hosted problem by making it a non-issue. At the end of all travel articles they run a statement explaining who paid for what. In this simple, honest, straightforward way, they let the readers decide for themselves if the writer was truthful or just paying back a host.
American publications don’t want to run such statements because they believe the general public isn’t prepared to understand how the travel writing business works. Well, get ready, here’s the scoop:
In this highly competitive business, writers and photographers have to continually seek out and explore the far reaches of the world to satisfy publication demands. But newspapers pay on average only $150 for an article and photographs, while magazines pay on average $500-$1,000. Usually, no expenses are covered. The travel writer has no choice but to accept hosted trips (and even with that, still barely makes a living.)
The host invites the writer to critically evaluate its airline, hotel, resort, city, state or country in hopes the writer will produce an article. Nothing is guaranteed and the writer is under no official obligation to the host. The host understands it has no control over what the writer writes and will not be allowed to see any article before publication.
On the other side of the coin, the writer knows that if the article isn’t properly balanced and objective, no editor will buy it. Objectivity is a constant concern for the serious travel writer.
Are sportswriters biased by getting free tickets? Do film critics change their reviews because of free tickets? Do automobile writers see things differently because car makers supply them with test vehicles?
As a professional travel writer, I’m prepared to have my articles stand the scrutiny of editors and an informed public: “Here’s my article, here’s who paid for what, now decide if I’ve been bought.”
Two years ago, I became the founder—and still only member—of the Full Disclosure Group. Since then I’ve placed the following statement on every cover letter attached to my newspaper article submissions: “As a member of the Full Disclosure Group (which believes readers should decide every articles objectivity by knowing who paid for what), I was hosted to…by so-and-so…and I paid for…”
If publishers allowed their editors to run a financial disclosure statement at the end of all articles—staff written, wire service and freelance—it would not only allow the readers to decide article objectivity, it would force the writer to be more accountable and responsible because any gratuitous material about the host would be obvious.
As it stands now, the policy that is designed to supposedly protect the public is, in fact, denying the public some of the best, most informative travel writing. An article should be evaluated on its own merit—what’s good is good and that isn’t changed by the fact it was produced from a sponsored trip.
All it would take to rectify the situation of misguided policies unevenly enforced is to educate the public, then stand back and let the readers decide objectivity. If editors and publishers would only take that chance, they’d be surprised at how intelligent and sophisticated their readers are.