Occasional Blog

This is where I say things that I need to say that I haven’t said elsewhere.

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.

Guide book wisdom: Branson, MO

“Although I didn’t know it at the time, I visited an area near Branson when I was 10 and 11 years old… It was the depths of the Depression, in 1939 and 1940. The poverty-stricken people of the Ozarks (this was a region closer to the Lake of the Ozarks, north of Branson) were very different from what many of them are today. Their homes were more like shacks. On the walls of their one-room abodes were, invariably, pictures of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt torn from a newspaper.

“They were populists. They believed that a prime function of government was to assist the underprivileged. They disliked large corporations intensely and had a similar disregard for the wealthy. They had no interest in show business celebrities, and wouldn’t dream of standing in a line for autographs. They had a personal dignity to them.

“They wore they religion lightly, making no public show of it. Their patriotism was in their hearts and not on garish display. They worshiped in their own way and respected the right of others to do the same. Their preachers were poor, same as them… They were, in sum, about as far as you can get from the movement known today as the “religious right.” They would never have been political allies of the rich. They would have hated the idea of performers amassing giant personal fortunes from publicly displayed patriotism, or immense trust funds, mansions, and investments from religious production numbers. Indeed, they would have been astonished to see performers charging admission at all to gospel-singing, let alone the gospel performed with scenery, costumes, and laser lights.”

—Arthur Frommer, Arthur Frommer’s Branson, Macmillan Travel, 1995