How travel writing is becoming something by and for the wealthy

On Saturday, I pretended to go to Portland, Oregon. There was a conference of travel editors going on, and because they were all using the Twitter tag #satwpdx, I was able to follow what the various speakers were saying. (Go to a professional conference from a diner table at the Star on 18th!) That was $1,000 saved!)

First, someone started telling the gathered that they will not hire writers who have accepted free trips or parts of free trips, such as if the hotel comps a stay for them. I find this policy insulting on several fronts. Primarily, it assumes I’m a shill with no editorial principles of my own, and that I’d be a pushover for any freebie. I know this isn’t true. There’s a P.R. agent who recently told me that her boss was afraid to invite me to something because they suspected I would be nasty about the product. (I didn’t know this until after I’d gone. And I wasn’t nasty.)

No one bats an eye when the White House Press Corps is given special access to the President and his Cabinet, although, as George W. Bush’s treatment of Helen Thomas proved, you can certainly lose that access if you displease the President. Because that’s what a travel industry comp is: access. It’s the same as when an electronics company sends or loans a product to a technology blog for review. It’s access to the product. It just so happens that you can’t send travel to the journalist. They have to go to the product.

Yet, perhaps because of industry snobbery from “real” journalists, it’s assumed that travel writers are always going to be swayed. Well, any editor worth anything has a stable of reporters he or she trusts. It’s only the bad editors who keep hiring writers who just want freebies.

You’d be able to spot whitewashing from a White House Press Corp reporter as quickly as you could call cheerleading in a tech reporter’s blind rave, and you can see it in a travel writer, too. Appraising things for how I see them is what has made some public relations people wary of me, I guess. Ultimately, that’s not what they want me to do, and I know that. But my editors know I’m there to do my job.

She'd better be nice to him, or she's out

Nowadays, few publications have the cash to properly pay for hotels and airfare and other expenses themselves. Traveling is expensive. Yet they also won’t allow freebies. Travel writers are usually forced to pick up the financial slack themselves.

So, to Portland, I tweeted:

If pubs say all #travel must be fully paid, are we in an age when it helps for writers to be wealthy? How might that skew coverage?

I think it’s more than a fair question. It’s one that needs to be asked.

If the magazine won’t pay, and comps are forbidden, that means your writer had better be rich. And rich writers will mostly report on one kind of product. If you don’t believe it can skew coverage, pick up the New York Times Sunday Travel section. The Times bans the acceptance of all comps. And you can see the sort of product it mostly covers: stuff appealing to the upper or upper-middle class, or at least to travelers with those kinds of pretensions.

(I know more than a few publications that won’t accept comps, but will allow writers to take comps if they take them on behalf of another publication as long as they aren’t told about it. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the general comp policy is mostly for appearances.)

Soon in Portland, one of the speakers, an editor of a big national publication, apparently told everyone that now that he’s getting away with paying writers only 50¢ a word — $1.50 less than he used to — there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle. Writers are getting less money for their stories, and they’re putting up with it because, quite frankly, the reduction in outlets has made them desperate.

This had me riled up. Travel writing is already one of the least cost-effective forms of journalism there is. It requires too much time and hits you for too many ancillary costs. If you don’t pay writers a decent wage, you’re just making the whole genre something for the elite to dabble in. I tweeted out:

If you pay writers a pittance, you’re ensuring many must be independently wealthy, and that, with expenses policy, skews stories.

Those two tweets were enormously popular. They were retweeted by strangers for two days, and I gained more than 50 new followers.

28 Responses to “How travel writing is becoming something by and for the wealthy”

  1. Spud Hilton

    Some good points, Jason, although nothing that hasn’t been well covered before. This particular angle has been an issue for decades, one of the reasons that the larger media (papers, mags, TV) had a budget for staff travel and to pay decent freelance rates. (We used to laugh about the rich folks who would go on extravagant vacations, then scratch out a shitty story in hope we would run it so they could write it off on their taxes.)
    But with declining budgets and a market flooded with 10 times as many “travel writers” as five years ago, the rules are changing. Ethics cost money — and at the moment, the only folks willing to pay are the PR firms.
    The reason this isn’t cut-and-dry, however, is because you are anecdotal. You have the talent, ability and ethics to tell it like it is, but for every one of you, there may be 50 who just want the free ride and, more importantly, want to continue getting the free ride, and it colors everything they write. Some even believe they’re entitled to it. (Remember that asshole from “Confessions of a Travel Writer”? Pathetic.) And to assume that all “travel writers” of every stripe are as ethical as you is, frankly, a little insulting — I know you’re not that naive.
    What’s the answer? I dunno. It’s a learning curve, which means we can’t see around the bend. I do know that some writers manage to do it without freebies, mostly based on talent and efficiency. I think if more writers focused on honing their skills and on turning in really great writing, fewer editors would be inclined to care where the story comes from.
    P.S. I was at #satwpdx, and the story you should be more worried about is the large media companies becoming travel “content mills” that shovel as many stories as possible in search of page views, with little to no editing or oversight, and plan to pay just $15 a story. Be very afraid.

    • jason

      Spud, the $15-a-post ship sailed a long time ago, too. I was surprised the editors gathered at SATW found it to be news, and I agree with you that it’s the future. But it only proves my point: Who else but a rank beginner or a trust funder would agree to a rate like that? More than ever, editors need to be really perceptive and well-versed, yet they’re being turned into marketing and partnership experts instead.

  2. The Longest Way Home

    Interesting points, that I tend to agree on. Likewise in photography money talks, and open doors.

    I guess it’s similar to other parts of life. But then that doesn’t make it right.

  3. Jason Clampet

    Right on. And you sure got that Gadling quote up on your site quickly.

    Publications that ban freebies always compromise their editorial coverage in more egregious ways by only commissioning content that looks nice next to high-end advertisers. Just look at the products that CN Traveler, T+L, and the NYT cover in their front-of-the-book sections: Louis Vuitton luggage, high-end watches, perfume, and other products every traveler supposedly needs. You rarely (with the exception of Matt Gross in the NYT) see coverage of budget travel stuff because high-end advertisers don’t want their products associated with hostels.

    There’s a good story in “The Week” from last year that does a good job discussing writing and the wealthy in a broader sense ( that includes this quote: “It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days … the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already.”

  4. pam

    First time reader, first time commenter, guilty as charged for retweeting and becoming a new follower. And applauding, loudly. Thank you.

  5. Lisa at Wanderlust Women

    I fully understand your frustration; however, having worked for the big 3 networks and now for myself I have seen both sides of the argument and each makes sense. The networks and some long established mags made it a policy not to take travel comps because it looked like payola and there are some serious repercussions for such! Therefore, what began to happen was that instead of being comped they were given “industry insider” prices on these press junket trips. To me it was the same thing – we’re just haggling price and how low will one person go. Either way, unless a travel writer goes in “under cover,” so to speak, the care and attention they get will be different than the general public, whether it’s luxurious or economical.

    • jason

      Yes, but publications aren’t footing the bill as much anymore. None of this would matter if they did. They want this glorious travel content but they don’t want to pay for it.

  6. todd lucier

    Our business gets its share of journalists, but we’re always asked to discount the stay. Our regional DMO also offers to cover travel expenses of many journalists who are telling stories about the region.
    I’ve always figured the debate about complimentary vs paid is largely an argument between bloggers, certainly the readers only care that the story is truthful and unbiased.
    Let’s face it, there is no line up of travel writers looking to visit TripAdvisors 10 Worst is there?

    Travel writers want to go where there is a good story. Publishers want to share inspiring pictures and stories. Because travel writers go nice places is biased in itself. The question of payment isn’t an issue with the reader, nor should it be between bloggers.

  7. Sarah Scoltock

    Agree. Let’s not make travel writing only for the elite. As a PR person, I regularly send writers on press trips. I expect the trip to live up to your expectations, otherwise I wouldn’t have sent you. I’m happy to have all writers disclose that it was a free trip. There is no reason to hide it.

  8. Bob Berwyn

    Snobbery from ‘real’ journalists? Let’s just turn that around …

    Why should travel journalists be exempt from the same ethical rules that govern other reporters? For the record, I’m an environmental journalist and a travel writer, yet I sense a certain elitism among travel writers, who think the basic rules of ethical journalism shouldn’t apply. As an environmental journalist, I wouldn’t feel comfortable accepting a Gulf junket from BP.

    The argument that “I’m ethical, and I won’t let freebies skew my coverage” could be applied to any other beat. That may be the case, but it’s partly about appearance. Every time I read this argument, it sounds more like a rationalization for accepting freebies.

    The analogy to the White House is irrelevant.

    Other than that, I can’t argue with the facts about pay for travel writers/photographers, but I don’t think accepting free trips is the answer. I don’t think it’s about the editors, either. I think there’s a more fundamental question about the state of journalism, not just travel journalism.

    • jason

      Bob, I’m pretty clear that real ethical standards should apply to travel journalists.

  9. Christopher Vourlias

    Jason, you make some valid points. As anyone who’s actually been knee-deep in this industry knows, travel writing is a lot less glamorous in practice than in theory. To the extent that I’ve been successful, it largely owes to the fact that I’ve spent the past three years living, traveling, and writing in the developing world. Most of that time has been spent living out of cheap hotel rooms for months on end – hardly practical for, say, writers with families. Or anyone who’s, well, not a masochist.

    I can live decently – at times even comfortably – here in Africa. If I were to go back to New York? I’d be eligible for welfare. Literally.

    Regarding the NY Times, which probably has the most stringent ethics policy on the planet, I can’t say I agree with your take. The reason the travel section skews toward the upper- and upper-middle-class traveler has less to do with their no-comps policy than the fact that that’s the Times’ target demographic. I doubt the paper’s travel editors spend too much time fretting over how the section will read among 19-year-old backpackers. (For the record, I, too, have a good, bitter laugh when I read about the “Frugal” Traveler’s shoestring, $100-a-day budget.) The Times can sell a certain type of travel experience for the same reason that Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure can: it’s what people have come to expect from them. (Full disclosure: I’ve written for the NYT and CNT’s UK edition.)

    The travel-writing industry is going through the same crisis right now as the rest of the media world. I think what’s happening is that all of us – writers, editors, publishers, readers – are stumbling more or less blindly across an uncertain landscape. In the dark. With blindfolds on. We’re all trying to find ways to cope with how the Internet has transformed our world – and our wallets – and I don’t think it’s something that will happen without an even longer period of severe growing pains (and, for many in the Old Media world, another few rounds of blood-letting).

    In my heart, I’m an optimist. Partly I’m still in this racket because it’s the only way I’ve managed to make a living; mostly it’s because I still believe in the need for and the value of good writing. Different companies will continue to experiment with different business models. Pay walls will go up; established magazines will come tumbling down. But ultimately, I believe that those of us with something valuable to say will be able to do it, and be paid in kind for it.

  10. Spud Hilton

    Jason, I’d be happy to pay for glorious content if someone would just offer me some. Sadly, with the flooding of the market with 10 times as many “travel writers,” there are 10 times as many writers who don’t know the difference between good storytelling and rehashing their diaries. Sigh.

    Spud Hilton
    Travel Editor, SF Chronicle

    • jason

      Don’t I know it. In my years as senior editor of Budget Travel, it seemed like most of my time was spent sighing in disbelief at the submissions and queries I got. I can only imagine what P.R. people have to fend off. It helped me formulate my core belief about most travel journalism: It should be a road map. It should about the trip you’re going to take, not the one I just did.

  11. Bob Berwyn

    I hear you. And I understand the artifice of ‘no freebies’ as a construction of editors and publishers, who, for some reason, can’t find the money to pay travel writers a decent wage, yet still expect solid, on-the-ground reporting … it’s going down a scary path. Still, I feel like I have to maintain my journalistic integrity. I might feel differently if I relied solely on travel writing.

    And for the sake of disclosure, when I was working on a guidebook, I did accept some comps because there was NO other way for me to cover what I had to cover that I could afford. It came down to making an uncomfortable choice between writing about hotels that I had never stayed at (not acceptable) or accepting the comp and making every effort to stay objective.

    Like Spud says, be very afraid.

    I’ve had first-hand experience with travel corporations (big ski companies) that host journalists on a regular basis for comp trips, with the expectation of favorable stories.

    Those same companies are now trying to co-opt the social media aspect of ski/travel writing by having their own PR staffers re-tweet each others blurbs, etc. and by handing out schwag to supposedly independent bloggers. They are trying to become content mills, displacing honest travel reporting and ski writing with their own corporate make-believe stuff.

    Oops, got away from your original topic a bit … sorry!

  12. Melvin

    Nice post…. I’ve seen that discussion many times already.
    I’m a travel agent myself & it’s very common that travel agents gets invited by tour operators, airlines & hotels etc. to experience their product. That’s the best way to sell something, if you liked it! If you haven’t liked it… bad luck for them. Easy as that.
    I never booked an airline or something else, because I was invited by them.

  13. Debbie Ferm

    I’m one of the new travel writer types that traditional travel writers hate. I believe that the internet and social media have created a huge opportunity for those of us who don’t necessarily write the lyrical, adjective laden essays that have always passed as the only acceptable form of writing about travel.

    As more publications fail, there will be writers who are willing to work their ass off to give readers what they want. And they’ll be paid handsomely for their efforts. I’m hoping to be one of them.

    I recently accepted a trip to Acapulco and had a spectacular time. I wrote about the experience on my blog and felt that I was fair to the company that sponsored me, and to the readers of the blog. I did my part by disclosing that the trip was comped.

    I don’t call that payola. I call it capitalism.

  14. Todd

    Nice discussion and one that often comes up. Personally, I don’t see a problem with being comped if the cost of the trip is not covered by the magazine etc. That being said, I usually get my trips paid for by my consulting jobs (international development) and take said trips on my own dime once I’m in the country. Otherwise it would just be too expensive to travel often for the purpose of writing. I am not in the rich category that can travel for the sake of it, but I have arranged my job and life priorities so that I am abroad and close to the places I want to write about.

    • Jason Cochran

      Interesting comment, Todd, which begs this question: If writers only write about places they’re excited about to begin with, how might that skew coverage? I can see many biases that are developing because publications don’t adquately fund their travel coverage anymore.

  15. soultravelers3

    Good thoughts & comments about this common complaint.

    “Traveling is expensive”. Really? That’s what the travel industry would like people to think, but actually it is not. Not slow travel where you actually get a real sense of a place. We’ve been traveling the world as a family since 2006 & find we can travel quite luxuriously even in expensive countries for MUCH less than we lived at home ( on just 23 dollars a day per person). We are not the only ones taking this route and it is an obvious one for those who love travel in this age where one can work anywhere.

    I think Chris Elliott is one of the few travel writers who has been really honest about the problem.

    “A free trip colors the writer’s experience. ”

    Sheila Scarborough also has been more honest in several key pieces. To pretend it is all about good writing and being paid has no impact on the writer is just not accurate. A paid trip is very different than a self paid trip. Most readers will be doing self paid trips so want the real deal. Thanks to the internet there are MANY different niches in travel. We don’t have to all read the same old similar stories & propaganda that we were force fed for so long…thanks to old media ( and their paid advertisers who influence the writing).

    Many people today are looking for real stories by real people who are actually traveling and not just talking about it. Anybody can be a publisher today and the smartest writers are finding ways to eliminate the middle man and go direct to their audience. They even get to ask their audience specifically about what they want to read in many cases and ways. I’m doing that with my book on my Facebook fan page at my literary agent’s suggestions and it’s fabulous. Travel writers should think in terms of 1000 true fans and find their “tribes.”

    The great news for a travel writer is that they can travel to exactly where they want to go and write EXACTLY what they WANT to write ….for THEIR audience. Travel and travel writing is going through a positive change that will be good for travelers as well as travel writers. You not only don’t have to be wealthy to travel or write travel, but it’s never been easier to succeed without the “gatekeepers”… on less money! There has never been a better time to be an artist.