Editor’s Note: This is the first article in our new Category for Op-Ed pieces, created to give travel writers a place to voice an opinion and engage in conversation.
If you’re interested in submitting your own Op-Ed article, please visit this page. Be sure to read and follow our editorial guidelines for Op-Ed pieces.
Op-Ed blog posts are not edited for content and may not necessarily reflect the opinion of Travel Writers Exchange.
“Leave Cheap Trips to “Journalists”; Let Pragmatists Take Everything Else”
It is the most controversial issue in the travel writing world, one more talked about than ever before. Its mere mention turns cuddly banter among kittenish colleagues into a claw-flipping, low-hissing fur bath. Huffy rants hijack travel craft commentaries and unsuspecting blogs, detonating quarrels that find no resolve. Debates slide beneath polarity and degrade into vitriol when writers disagree on the ethics of comps.
Fueling the debate in recent weeks was an October FTC ruling, which altered regulations on the disclosure of compensation. The maneuver targeted a growing practice: companies who pay professionals to plug products through media such as Twitter and blogs. Yet, for traditional travel writers who maintain blogs, write for online outfits, and accept free or reduced cost travel, the FTC disclosure guidelines will also apply to them.
The spirit of the ruling is well-understood: consumers have a right know whether a review was paid for. Yet, some writers argue a sharp distinction between an established standard and an emerging predatory practice. Though somewhat controversial in the U.S., press trips and media rates are internationally-established conventions. The FTC implies that the new trend—employees or contractors posting under the personae of consumers—must be exposed as advertising.
This distinction begs a fundamental question: who employs a writer? If a freelance writer accepting comps employs herself, with whom (if anybody) does she ally? For a writer posting on behalf of a company, the duty of the employee is clear. Yet, in travel writing, where freelancers go where they choose and write about what they want, can it be assumed that an article is bought and paid for when a writer accepts a comp?
Some writers and publishers say yes, mostly those who broke into the business under the historical print model. Yet, in a world where budgets for staff writers and sponsored trips are shrinking and print publications are folding, we must ask how well this view will hold up. If, in order to be considered journalists, freelancers must fund their own trips it is hard to see how they can earn a living wage.
Where the old paradigm endures, we can predict the outcome. “Journalists” will take cheap trips and write about low-budget travel. Editors at the New York Times and Condé Nast will be inundated with manuscripts on Laos and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, consumers seeking reviews on desirable destinations will most certainly find them on blogs.
And so will come the test: will readers care? Will they reject reviews of subsidized trips once the issue is brought to the fore? My hunch is that they will accept with serenity that, at times, they will be advertised to, and will have the courage to ignore when they are. Maybe then the old publishers will admit to the savvy of readers and their wisdom to know the difference.
I think that companies who want to have media coverage SHOULD pay to have people visit them.
What sort of upside down world is it when the ethical position is for profit seeking businesses to expect free advertising from writers who have to take a loss to provide them with exposure???
So long as a writer is a) transparent, and b) honest, I don’t think most readers will care.
Thanks for stopping by Gary! For the record, I agree with you 100%. I don’t believe that readers care at all WHO paid for a trip as long as they’re getting a reliably honest review.
I’m sure there will always be travel writers willing to pimp a good review for a free trip, but those folks will be only be hurt by their own behavior in the long run, as they’re fairly easy to identify and will be shunned by most readers, leaving them with a poor reputation.
What I think they’re trying to avoid (and I laud them for doing this) are the hordes of people who set up blogs, twitter accounts and websites for the explicit purpose of soliciting freebies. People like that should be called out on the carpet for being PR shills and not writers.
I am sensing among the tourist bureaus a real clamping down on these shenanigans by requiring us to furnish legit clips from established places. My solution was to only accept press trips via tourist bureaus or their PR reps and never accept a trip unless I can find at least three potential articles in the itinerary. That allows me to choose the article(s) I will write. When I travel on my own, I connect with tourist bureaus once I create an itinerary so I am telling them what I need to cover instead of having them try to sell me their stories. Also, I carry with me an IFJ Press card that allows me free admission into museums and other press access.
I never take freebies for a cruise, stay at a resorts, etc. because then I am obligated to report on that particular trip even if I didn’t like it. I’ve seen writers get into trouble by hawking a specific place that’s trying to drum up business by giving writers a comped trip even though the specific place in question is sub par. Had they done a minimal bit of research, they would have realized this a freebie they should reject. In a few instances, I accepted a trip with an outdoor outfitter after I researched the story and learned they were well respected by the locals AND the story was going to help increase an awareness of the eco-tourism and other environmental developments in the area.
At one point in time, I worked closely with the public relations representative for a prestigious French hotel/restaurant booking site. We had a deal. I gladly accepted comped room nights and meals. But, if I didn’t like the hotel or the restaurant, I would send her a very long critique of EVERYTHING I found wrong. I’d never publish a fluff or dishonest article. Our agreement worked well for each of us. Based on my visits, some good publicity was generated. Conversely, she had a spy to tell her where changes needed to be made.
Thanks for this series, it will be interesting to read and see the comments!