Travel writers' expenses
Who should pay?
Armchair travelers, consumers in the midst of planning vacations, and travel agents all find great value in published news and features relating to travel. Whether a piece is richly evocative of the ambience of a special destination, a roundup of worthwhile "see and do's" or an objective description of a new resort, travel journalism is an extremely rewarding form of writing, for its consumers and producers alike.
But those of us who spend our days working in the pipeline of travel information are now grappling with major changes in travel journalism, in the form of increasingly stringent editorial policies dictating how journalists may or may not gather their firsthand research material. I'm referring to rules about the acceptance of "subsidized"--that is, host-subsidized--travel.
Public relations professionals and journalists alike agree that the concept of travel "junkets" as a means of generating strictly laudatory travel news and features is improper. A "freebie" trip, basically a writer's vacation in disguise, where it's expected that what's written will be favorable to the destination visited, serves no one well. It does not truly serve the sponsor, be it tourist board, airline or resort. In fact, both the writer and the publication whose readers expect objectivity and independent judgments are compromised.
[PRSA's Code of Professional Standards for the Practice of Public Relations provides guidelines on travel expenses. See box, next page.]
However, fearful of the potential for abuse of "free" travel by journalists, and mindful of appearances of conflicts of interest and other ethical considerations, many newspaper and magazine editors are instituting policies that prohibit or severely limit the acceptance of subsidized travel by either staff members or freelance writers and photojournalists.
"It can be argued that the fact that a writer pays nothing or is partially subsidized on a travel assignment doesn't necessarily mean the report will be biased or incomplete," says John B. MacDonald, travel editor of The Seattle Times. "[But] at the Times, we believe that publishing an article resulting from a subsidized trip is simply weak journalism and is not in the best interest of our readers. We believe a reader shouldn't have to wonder whether a story is being distorted by financial pressure or whether the newspaper is beholden to special interests. We don't want even an appearance of impropriety."
A number of the "majors" among travel media will not use freelance submissions if journalists avail themselves of discounted or free arrangements. Among magazines, for example, Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure tend to rely on small stables of well-known writers (often, book writers), who are paid well and also have agreed-upon expenses paid. "None of our writers are permitted to take any kind of subsidy," says Thomas J. Wallace, executive editor of Conde Nast Traveler. But well-paying magazines make up a very small portion of the market for freelance travel writers.
Newspapers, which are by far the largest outlet for travel writing, rarely reimburse expenses or pay more than $200 for a travel feature. Some pay as little as $25. These rates are hardly enough to pay for a local jaunt, never mind a trip to exotic foreign destinations.
In fact, few, if any, of the freelance travel journalists who provide valuable contributions to a good percentage of today's newspapers and magazines would be in business if they accepted no subsidized travel.
"No freelancer I know can survive without some assistance with transportation, lodging or other expenses," says Barry Anderson, a freelance travel writer and former president of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). "It's ironic that most newspapers pay freelancers embarrassingly low rates, and no expenses, yet their travel pages are among their biggest revenue generators. …