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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   December 2000  issue

Called for Traveling   

Subsidized trips for travel writers: a bad practice.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


"LET'S GO, LET'S GO, LET'S GO."
--Hank Ballard and the Midnighters


I was the sacrificial lamb.
This is not a role I relish. I'm more partial to conquering hero or cool dude. If I have to settle for aging dude in deep denial, that's OK, too.
But there was no way around it--this was lamb city, baby.
The setting wasn't too shabby--City Hall in Cardiff, Wales, which was hosting the annual convention of the Society of American Travel Writers. It was my mission to tackle head-on the propriety of newspapers and magazines publishing pieces by travel writers whose expenses were paid by the subject of the story--e.g., this high-priced resort, that sun-drenched locale.
This, it seems to me, is a profoundly bad idea, with conflict of interest written all over it. Safe to say, not all of my rapt listeners completely agreed with my take.
The SATW is an organization with a diverse, not to say seemingly untenable, membership.
First there are the travel writers, largely of the freelance variety. They admittedly face an ever-tightening squeeze. Many publications have policies that prohibit using pieces based on subsidized travel. But few of them reimburse freelancers' expenses, and the munificent sums paid for such pieces hardly enable the writers to foot the bill for their wanderings and winings and dinings.
Constituency No. 2 includes representatives of the destinations and the resorts. They get lots of ink from underwriting all of this globetrotting, which presumably is good for business.
Then there are the travel editors, whose sections generally are cash cows for their papers, but whose budgets don't always reflect that fact.
Part of my mandate was to suggest ways these factions could be brought into better harmony, which struck me as a task better suited for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In fairness, the crowd reaction wasn't nearly as hostile as it probably should have been. (Of course, all the Philadelphia Eagles home games I've attended have raised awfully high my bar for classifying a crowd as "hostile.")
Many of the writers seemed less interested in hurling epithets (and whatever) at me than in decrying their fate. How could they do their jobs if these trips weren't paid for? Why won't newspapers and magazines pay significantly more for travel pieces?
The much-battered but resilient devotion to sky-high profits came in for yet another drubbing. The writers have a point there. Shouldn't publications pony up enough to give their readers conflict-free reportage?
Many of the travel writers took the view that they are professionals who call them like they see them, who would never be swayed by a free hotel room or a luxury cruise. They saw no merit in that age-old bÍte noire, the appearance of a conflict of interest. They seemed to find my concerns on that score a little quaint.
The answer, some said, was simple: disclosure. Just tell the readers who picked up the tab.
Well, I'm a big believer in full disclosure. There are many instances when circumstances that are not deal-breakers need to be brought to the attention of readers and viewers. But in this case, when there's really no justification for the practice, all it does is make the reader wonder: Why should I believe this?
Years ago, Seattle Times Travel Editor John Macdonald told me, the paper conducted some focus groups. One of the discoveries: The readers gave zilch credibility to sponsored travel stories. It wasn't long before the paper banned such pieces.
Obviously, nondisclosure is worse. It's not telling readers a critical piece of information they need to know.
Speaking of disclosure: So how did I get to Wales, anyway? After all, in Calvin Trillin's unforgettable line, AJR--and presumably its editor--has to be above Caesar's wife.
Yes, SATW paid my expenses (but no honorarium! I've got to get some tips from Cokie Roberts on that score). So how is that different from what I was deploring?
Well, I guess in my mind I was in effect hired to do a job. (If you don't think writing and delivering a speech and fielding questions under these circumstances is work, more power to you.)
The key question: Is there a conflict, or the appearance of one? Giving a speech seems a far cry from writing about where you've been entertained. Obviously, if my mission was to write a profile of SATW, that would be different.
That's how it seems to me, anyway. But as I hardly have to tell readers of this column, I've been wrong before.