There was a debate about travel writing ethics today on Twitter (#twethics), which started with a story on Gawker called “New York Times Travel Writer Broke These Travel Writer Rules With Junket.” Gawker ran the above photo of Mike Albo, said travel writer, who was accused of engaging in a “swag orgy” because he accepted (from JetBlue) a paid trip to Jamaica. First of all, I don’t know about you, but that guy doesn’t look like he has been privy to any kind of orgy. This guy doesn’t even have time to shave, much less be involved in an orgy, swag or otherwise!
Anyhow, Gawker and numerous people on Twitter were appalled that a travel writer – for the New York Times, no less! – would go on a junket. Also known as a press trip or a “fam” (short for familiarization trip), a junket enables a writer to get third-party funding for a trip to where the news is occurring. The New York Times writer guidelines and the guidelines of many other fine newspapers and magazines forbid freelance writers from taking paid trips. I am quite familiar with the NYT guidelines, as I’ve sent in numerous – rejected – queries on which I had to state at the top of the page the date when the trip was taken. I suppose there’s some fact-checker in-house who looks to see if any trips coincide with any known press trips.
I have been travel writing for more than 10 years. I have taken some press trips – most of them early on in my career – and I have written about travel while paying my way and/or living “on location.” I think there are advantages to both.
Press trips, which are usually sponsored by tourism and visitors boards, hotels, or tour companies (or a combination of those), can be very helpful to a writer. They help us get in, get what we need to know, and get out. Indeed, the trips can be a whirlwind, with CVBs whisking you around to only the places they want you to see. But travel writers have hearts, minds, stomachs, eyes, and curiosities that enable them to see past the fluff and swag.
As far as getting in and getting out, that’s important. While on a press trip, most travel writers are thinking of how they can sell this particular experience 2, 4, or 10 times using different angles and pitching to different markets. So, while we may have an assignment to write for “X” magazine, we also want to try to spin the story to write for A, B, and C magazines, too. So, could it be possible that Mike Albo was on a junket in Jamaica for an assignment for, say, High Times Magazine, but found something that would have been of interest to the New York Times while he was there? I think that a majority of travel writers spend more time writing (and querying and marketing) than they do actually traveling. And that’s because it is so expensive. Subsidization is often the only way for it to make any sense.
You can also have a bit of a Catch-22 when it comes to press trips and assignments. Many publications won’t allow you to accept free travel. But then, many press trip providers won’t invite you on a trip unless you have an assignment.
On the other side of the coin is writing while you’re already living in the location. “Go where the locals go!” is what many travel publications beckon us to do. But maybe the locals don’t know as much as we think they do. For example, I lived in Mumbai for two years. Someone recently posed me a question of a good, mid-priced hotel in that city and I drew a blank. I knew the Taj and the Oberoi, but what did I know about the other hotels? I had no reason to spend a night in one of the rooms. Had I been asked to research the hotels, I would not have paid to stay the night to figure out the quirks of each hotel room. And, yes, it takes staying in a place overnight to figure out if the bed is lumpy or whether room service is any good. Locals may also not be as attuned to the tourist sites, either. For example, my husband, who grew up in New York the son of immigrants, has never been to the Statue of Liberty. Some local knowledge, huh?
Publications like NYT do not approve of press trips, nor do they pay for writers’ expenses so that they can travel. But, could you imagine if David Pogue, the Times’ chief tech writer, had to pay – out of his own pocket – all of the gadgets that he reviews? Perhaps travel just isn’t important enough to merit its own budget?
At any rate, I’m going to keep TRYING to write about travel because I like exploring and telling people about new places. Luckily, I can use my many web outlets to do just that. Because it’s not only readers that are leaving newspapers and magazines to die at the hands of blogs; writers are conducting their own boycott, too.
By the way, if you want to pay my way to travel, the Miss Adventures writer guidelines say it’s okay!