How newspaper travel sections have set journalistic credibility adrift
“From my breakfast table in the Hotel Hesselet’s dining room, I watch a lone canoeist glide across the still Baltic Sea just steps away. A seagull, perched on the end of the swimming pier, also observes his progress. I marvel at the serenity of the scene as mist slowly lifts off the water. The breakfast buffet laid out in this baby-blue room with pale yellow table linens is included in the room price. It’s a Danish delight with everything from marinated herring and smoked salmon to Fontina cheese, freshly baked flaky pastries, and preserves home-made from local berries….The food looks even more delicious when served on Royal Copenhagen Fajance china.”
Although this glowing description reads like a brochure, it is from an article that appeared in The Globe and Mail in May 2000. Sadly, it mirrors many newspaper travel stories, in that it transforms a hotel or a destination into a veritable utopia. And despite the fact that there is no mention of it in the article, the writer’s stay was a “freebie,” a gift handed out under the assumption that he would not bite the hand that fed him.
These days, the majority of Canadian newspaper travel stories are based on free trips and accommodations offered by airlines, tourist boards and hotels, handed out on the tacit understanding that the writer will be disinclined to give a bad review to a generous sponsor. While many of Canada’s dailies have forbidden staff writers to accept freebies, the majority of the bylines in the travel sections belong to freelancers. In general, staffers contribute travel stories as one small and occasional aspect of their job. The Globe and Mail is one of those papers that has a policy stating that no staff member is permitted to accept complimentary trips, but freelancers are excluded from the policy. And according to Andrew Gorham, former travel editor at the Globe, freelancers write 70 percent of the section’s stories. Gorham says he often didn’t know-or ask-where the trips came from.
As far as freelance writers themselves are concerned, accepting a complimentary trip is often the only way they are able to get to a destination. Occasionally, writers submit stories from vacations or trips they have already taken. It earns them a bit of extra money for writing about their personal vacation, and it’s also handy, if you’re a freelancer, to be able to write off the jaunt as a business expense. In other instances, seasoned writers may be commissioned to write travel stories with substance. Writer and broadcaster Ian Brown, for instance, wrote a story last August for the Globe called “The Hottest Place on Earth.” He paid for his trip to the African nation of Djibouti himself, to be later reimbursed by the paper. He was also paid his writer’s fee for the story.
Most often, though, the writer wants to travel somewhere by the cheapest method possible, and no one can beat the price of a free hotel or airfare. Complimentary trips come in one of two guises. There are the individual perks offered to individual writers: the hotel room, the complimentary airfare, the tourist board that pays for a rental car once you reach your destination. Then there are the junkets to far-flung places around the globe. These excursions, called fams, short for familiarization trips, are organized by travel agencies or tourist boards, and tend to be group affairs, during which six or so journalists are flung together and taken en mass to a destination. It’s not always a great way to travel, especially for crowd-averse people; it also isn’t necessarily the best way to see much of a place outside the limits defined by your host. On the other hand, as full-time freelance travel writer Jeremy Ferguson says, “The trip’s organizers provide a lot of the experience if you’re going to a country where you’ve never been.”
There are a number of economic reasons for freebies having become the status quo of travel writing-some reasonable, some not quite so defensible. For a start, it’s clearly much more cost-effective for newspapers to use freelancers to write their travel pieces: no salaries or benefits to fork out, and no travel expenses to push up editorial costs. And if objectivity is sacrificed, the general attitude seems to be what the readers don’t know won’t hurt them.
From the writers’ point of view, accepting a freebie not only enables them to get to a destination but also means they won’t be too much out of pocket when they get home. Newspapers are notorious for paying their freelancers as little as possible, which is what deters so many writers from becoming full-time travel writers or expending the effort to write a great travel piece. According to Bruce Bishop, a freelance travel writer for the past six years who stepped down as president of the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) in February of this year, pay for freelancers in the travel business is, on average, $250 to $300 for an article in a major newspaper. Writers such as Ferguson and Brown agree with Bishop’s assessment: “The assumption is always, ‘Travel writers don’t need to make much money because they get to travel on somebody’s tab.'”
This somebody, however, is not handing out free trips without an ulterior motive. The purpose behind complimentary travel is to get people to a place so they can write about it-favourably. It’s an affordable way to advertise, and much more effective. People are drawn to articles more than advertisements, and if a company can get its name in print, with the only costs being accommodation and meals for the writer, it’s the cheapest advertising method out there. “Advertising is not a credible medium for talking about a country or culture,” says Ferguson. “So what the organizations benefit from is the exposure for their country, their culture, their airline, whatever-the exposure that comes out of the stories you write. And the newspapers and magazines benefit from getting very good, very expensive material for a pretty low price.”
Brown contends that what is found in newspaper travel sections is not the essence of travel writing. “Travel writing’s very different from the travel section of the paper, which is basically an advertising vehicle. Newspapers never pay, and that’s why you get so much shitty writing in the travel section, because they only want to sing the praises of places that will advertise there. But that’s not writing, that’s advertising.”
Then again, newspaper travel writing has always been a different beast from magazine travel writing, which tends to be more discursive and less service-oriented. In these pared-back, cautious times, people are travelling less, and this is reflected in the fact that few magazines run travel stories these days. Although there are a number of U.S. travel magazines on the newsstands-Conde Nast Traveler being perhaps the most high-profile example-all that’s left of travel publications in the Canadian print media are Outpost, an adventure travel magazine; enRoute, Air Canada’s magazine; Canadian Geographic; Travel Canada Magazine; and the travel sections in the dailies. Gone are the days of Destinations (which was published by the Globe and Mail from March 1986 to October 1993). Even general-interest magazines rarely run travel stories any more, as the advertising does not back up the editorial. According to Rona Maynard, editor ofChatelaine, “There’s not a lot of money in travel advertising, and Chatelaine‘s rates are at the high end of the scale.” Jeremy Ferguson counters that the reason general-interest magazines do not write travel is because they believe their readers just aren’t interested in the subject.
In part, it’s the old Canadian problem of trying to sustain a special-interest magazine in a country with a relatively small, very dispersed population. It’s also the ongoing problem of competition from the U.S. “The Americans have sucked us dry,” Ferguson says. “Our own travel publications just don’t make it. What’s changed in Canada is the shrinkage of the publishing stream. There’s almost nothing left.” There’s also the question of the times in which we live. “A lot of people have decided they’re not going to travel,” says Ferguson. “They’re going to put the energies of their lives into accumulating whatever they can accumulate, and not take any chances. I think people who haven’t travelled that much look at newspaper headlines at face value and ultimately decide they shouldn’t go anywhere because it’s not safe.”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, given the current pinched economic climate, that a few Canadian dailies have actually embraced the use of complimentary travel. Ferguson believes more newspapers will be making the change as budgets continue to shrink. The Hamilton Spectator, for example, changed its policy two years ago to one similar to the Montreal Gazette‘s. The Spectator doesn’t pay the expenses for any travel-story trips, including those of staff writers, and rarely hires freelancers, unless the staff know them well. The paper pays for the article, but the writer, who often works in another department, must make his or her own arrangements for transportation and accommodation, usually through travel agencies.
Jeff Day, the Spectator‘s travel editor, maintains that, with the acceptance of freebies, the paper now gets better quality and more honest writing. He doesn’t hide the fact that writers have accepted a complimentary trip; the information is included in the article. “From my point of view,” says Day, “the policy of accepting trips from tourist boards and so on has improved the integrity of the stories that I get back.”
But in the end, what’s a poor newspaper reader to do? Can we expect to have a flawless trip to Aruba, say, just because the travel writer says she did? Should we dish out upwards of $200 a night to stay at the Hotel Hesselet in Denmark under the assumption that we will be paying for near-perfection? The sticky question of whether this kind of sponsored travel influences a writer’s perspective-and therefore the objectivity of the story-is not as straightforward as it might seem. Most writers maintain that complimentary trips do not influence their stories, but most of the travel stories that appear in newspapers these days read like puff pieces-advertising masquerading as editorial. True, travel organizations may not directly affect the article because they have no right to see or comment on the story before it’s published, but the sense of obligation on the writer’s part is inevitably present in most of the stories.
However, travel writers-not surprisingly-adamantly deny the influence of a free ride, including Ferguson, who says he has never had anyone tell him what to write. He adds that he has been blacklisted by organizations because of what he has said in articles.
But accepting a freebie can be a slippery slope. According to Klaus Pohle, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University and the chair of its research ethics committee, journalists must distance themselves from those they write about. By accepting a freebie, that distance is eliminated, as well as the ability to be a neutral observer. “A journalist who lets a source influence the story is not a journalist,” he says. “In fact, freebies may never influence the writer. But it’s the perception that counts. If the public perceives a conflict of interest or undue influence, the damage is done.”
Michael Hanlon, a freelance travel writer and member of TMAC and the Society of American Travel Writers, says that in his experience, a writer’s story isn’t negatively influenced by a free ride. All his trips are sponsored by the host destination or tourism organization, but he says that “travel writers don’t look on getting a free trip to some exotic destination and being pampered and treated like royalty as some sort of cookie that’s given out for niceness. We don’t spend the time on the beach or loafing by the pool. As for legitimacy, that’s up to the reader to decide.”
The reasons most writers list for not writing negative travel stories is that a trip can’t be all bad. Some, likeToronto Star feature writer and author Oakland Ross, who has written a few travel stories and also taught the subject, feel it’s rude to criticize someone who has paid your way, although he’s quick to point out this doesn’t influence his writing. “I don’t really see the purpose of travel writing as being to complain or to criticize anything,” he says. “It’s to describe the experience of travel.” But according to Brown, “A lot of travel writing is about hardship and agony and pain.” As we all know, a perfect vacation is almost a contradiction in terms, but many mishaps can be presented humourously, adding a human element to the story with which readers can identify.
While every writer has his or her own distinct style and reasons for writing travel, the difference between good travel writing and bad is crystal clear. According to Ferguson, “everyone has a different take on what they’re looking for from travel. Mine is very much a sense of wonder in the world-it’s the delight, the discovery. Those are the things that come through in my stories, and I think it’s that individual perspective and an openness to the world. It’s a personal mix-you follow your own lights.”
“I think what makes a good travel story is the same thing that makes any good story, and that is powerful narrative,” says Ross. “There is a purpose to the story, there is a purpose to the writer doing whatever it is the writer is doing, or going wherever they are going, and the story should be told in a powerful, narrative fashion.” Brown’s views on travel writing slightly differ from those of most travel journalists you read in the papers. He says that “the best travel writing is mostly not about resorts and places where you can vacation. There’s a difference between travelling and vacationing.”
Most writers and critics agree that travel and freebies will continue to go hand-in-hand simply because there are few reasonable, reality-based solutions. Some people believe that there is nothing wrong with a system that is as old as the trade. Pohle thinks that the acceptance of freebies “will continue until newspaper publishers and travel writers realize that this is no more ethical than a politician accepting free trips, about which the media editorialize endlessly. It’s nothing more than moral hypocrisy, because they are doing exactly the same thing, except the public often doesn’t find out.”
However, as budgets shrink and more people lose the curiosity to see what the world has to offer, the fact that travel sections still exist may be a blessing in disguise. Sadly, perhaps Oakland Ross sums it up best when he says, “It’s not so much whether travel writing is good or bad, it’s whether the travel writing gets done or not.”
by Ryka Brown
Allison Elkin was the Spring 2015 co-chief copy editor of the RRJ.