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How do publications’ policies on what a writer can and can’t accept for gifts or comps affect the integrity of travel writing—as well the writer’s ability to earn a living?

Thrillist goes to Jamaica. Photo: Gaelen Harlacher photo.

EVERY SO OFTEN, like the other day on Twitter (scroll through #twethics and you’ll get the gist), an old debate gets reheated about the relationship between the integrity of a particular piece of travel writing and who paid the bills to make it happen.

This round was brought on by the shameful discovery that Mike Albo, sometime contributor to the NYT, and Kurt Soller of Newsweek (Washington Post Co), had, in flagrant violation of their publications’ policies (i.e. No Freebies Allowed—Ever), enjoyed a lavish free trip to Jamaica, courtesy of Thrillist and Jet Blue.

The traditional theory being, of course, that as a “professional” journalist you should not be financially beholden to the subject you’re covering, but rather to the publication you’re writing for—and, by extension, your readers. Which sounds like a good idea. It’s not a long-standing tradition, mind you, in the grand history of storytelling and news/gossip/culture/advice delivery, but one that many people have come to feel very strongly about.

Gawker jumped on the transgressors. The publications in question backpedaled. Then came the twitstorm: “i wld feel gross abt all this if i wasnt so poor,” tweeted Albo. [author's note: and then he got fired.]

Which hit on an essential question: how is the average dirtbag travel journo—especially In These Times—supposed to pay for the travel he or she is writing about?

The whole thing is, of course, a bottomless can of worms.

Perhaps the best way to maintain independence as a travel writer is to have a large trust fund, or a productive uranium mine. The next best thing is to find oneself On Assignment for a well-endowed national publication that insists on paying all expenses. Which dreamy situation is unlike winning the lottery only in that it requires significantly more scratching. Like way beyond where the fingers bleed.

But what if you’re writing on spec? Or for one of the ever-proliferating legion of yet-to-be-monetized online mags (like, uh, this one)? What if you’re writing a guidebook, where even for a big-name series the budget for expenses (i.e. research) is, as the notorious and oft-reviled and also bestselling Thomas Kohnstamm famously pointed out: zero?

Do you just wander around the hallways of the five-star hotel and maybe sit on the beds? Or maybe just do a little critical reworking of the texts and images on the website? Or—what the hell, in the interest of actual experiential travel—do you accept a free night?

Then: is it enough to make it clear to your host that the free night—and the bottle of Armagnac and the fruit basket and the T-shirt and the go-go dancers, the custom skis and the moonlight horseback ride on the beach—will not necessarily translate to a flattering review? Are you strong enough to walk that line?

One amusing analogy made the rounds and was enjoyed by all:

worldhum Ha! RT @AEEvans Christopher Columbus went on a press trip to the Bahamas paid for by Queen Isabella PR & will never write for NYT #twethics”

Amusing indeed. But specious. The fact is, Columbus was on assignment, out to get the facts for his sponsors (like Marco Polo before him, and all manner of explorers and chroniclers thereafter, from Magellan to Lewis & Clark to Mark Twain to a well-addled Hunter S. Thompson in a hotel suite covering the Super Bowl for Rolling Stone). Had the ambitious Genoan’s ships and provisions been paid for by the Bahamas Tourism Bureau, his reports on the natives might have been filed with a slightly different tint.

Consider, by way of example, the late David Foster Wallace’s hilarious chronicle of a $3,000 Caribbean Cruise he once failed to enjoy, paid for by Harper’s Magazine. Would he have found himself tempering his irreverence ever so slightly had the trip been paid for by Celebrity Cruises, Inc.? Or would he have been able to spin it into even more hilarity?

The sad fact is, even straight-up assignment gigs may not be quite as squeaky as we’d like to think. Check out, for example, Chuck Thompson on NPR discussing the extent to which advertising drives content in the glossy travel mags, and how the result is, as he so eloquently puts it: “witless puffery, or the sun-dappled barf of travel writing.”

A cursory review of the latest glossies (i.e. Nat Geo Adventure) proves we’re headed ever more perilously in that direction. So do we consign ourselves to second-hand service schlock from the comfort of our respective caves? Or do we, as we always have, take it on the road and do our best to find a good couch to crash on?

This one, I think, hit the proverbial nail on the head:

“RT @nerdseyeview readers are best judge of ethics. write like a shill, they’re gone. write honestly, they stay. #twethics”

The reality, alas, is that it may take more than honesty to draw a reader all the way to the end of a piece of writing. But, well, it’s hard to think of a better place to start.

Community Connection

For more on the subject, check out Ian MacKenzie on the fizzle of Travel Channel’s “Confessions of a Travel Writer,” or Tim Patterson on the multiple personalities of travel writers.

What are your 2 cents? WTF are we to do? Help us out: tell us about it below.

VOTE: Should travel writers accept freebies?

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  • Julie

    It’s clear this topic stirs up passions (though more among writers, it seems, than readers): people on Twitter spent hours debating this yesterday.

    Here’s what I’d add to the conversation:

    It was over a pricey Midtown Manhattan lunch–paid for by a PR firm–when I first realized that there’s something disingenuous–or at least misleading– about glossy travel mags’ and newspapers’ righteous “Our writers accept no comps” policy.

    “So I just filed this article about a jazz festival in Panama; you know, a guide kind of thing” a freelancer told me as the heirloom tomato sauce from his seafood pasta speckled his chin when he lost control of a noodle dangling from his fork. “I didn’t know Panama hosts a jazz festival,” I said, tucking away at my own dish, a fish I’d never even heard of. “Tell me about it.” “Well, I didn’t go. You know the magazine doesn’t pay for freelancers’ trips and it has a strict no press trips policy.” I put down my fork and chewed a bit. “So, you mean you wrote about an experience you didn’t even have?” I asked as politely as I could. “Yeah,” he said, slurping up the last thread of fettucine. “What can you do?”

    It’s not an isolated anecdote; it’s one of several scenarios I’ve come across in the past five years in which writers have freely admitted they’re filing articles on places they’ve never visited, about events and experiences they’ve never witnessed first-hand. Or–worse?–they’re writing or updating guidebooks for places they haven’t visited in years with the blithe (and lame) justification that “everything’s probably still the same.”

    Maybe it is–or maybe it’s just like the travelogue you read online–but maybe it’s not. You owe it to your readers to find out; otherwise, what are you writing for? And what are they reading for?

    A certain glossy travel mag is constantly touting its “You can trust our writers because they never accept freebies” policy. But it’s never copping to the shortcoming of this policy: that writers make stuff up or just remix what someone else has written… and who knows if that account was firsthand? It’s the travel writing world’s version of the telephone game.

    Maybe instead of these ridiculous blanket no-comps policies, publications should work with their writers to develop a rubric for using such experiences ethically. Press trips and comps don’t have to be sleazy. You just have to know how to use them appropriately. And here’s what I think about that: http://

  • Karen Bryan

    I’d don’t have any scruples about accepting free press trips, accommodation etc because the sponsor/host doesn’t have any editorial control over what I write. I will always write in the post that I was there on a press trip or that the hotel was my host, so that readers can factor that in when reading my posts.

    As highlighted by Pam of Nerds Eye view, if I just write screeds of gushing praise readers of the blog will evaporate and no-one will take my seriously, I try to write a balanced review and anyway who is 100% objective in travel writing?

    At least I’ve been to the places that I write about. Yes in an ideal world I’d prefer to pay all my own expenses and travel anonymously but it’s hard enough to earn a living as the editor of two European travel blogs as advertising revenue is my only source of income.

  • johan

    Although I am not exactly a travel writer, I must say that this is an interesting topic. And I sometimes face similar problems when I write about a national park where I have not been or have been a very long time ago. I do believe however that because of my experience, I can comment and write about certain areas better than people who have never been to Africa and therefore don’t have an idea what the feel of these places is like.

  • Nick Bowditch Travel


    It is a hard one because people want to read (or at least think they are reading) an impartial and honest appraisal of a hotel/airline/cruise ship etc.

    I always put at the end of posts on my website ( whether or not the trip or accommodation or whatever has been paid for by the subject of the story and I think people can take it from there.

    Mind you, I think the uranium trust fund sounds pretty cool too …


  • Chuck

    The FTC has recently weighed in on the point of reviews that are based on products or services (in this case, comped travel) provided by advertisers. They tie together advertisers and those who write about their products and services in two important ways. The regulations make things more complicated on both sides.

    In one tie, bloggers (or other writers) can become liable for the misstatements or unsupported claims of advertisers about whose products or services they write. This works the other way around, too — advertisers can become liable for the misdeeds of their comped bloggers.

    In a second tie, hidden connections between advertisers and bloggers — such as the fact that a trip was comped, or that a reviewed product was provided for free — needs to be disclosed.

    A recent article summarizing some of these points can be found here:

  • Olivebeard

    The Ad thing gets me all the time: an organization claims to strictly adhere to deep, journalistic principles, then rotates the headlines to woo an advertiser. The organization I write for just did a “special health section” on Breast Cancer–a noble enough venture–and placed a full-page ad for the local hospital system right next to it (the ad talked about their cancer ward, even). It was the first time we’d woo’d this advertiser. A victory for journalistic integrity?

  • Tom Gates

    Great piece. This line killed me: “Perhaps the best way to maintain independence as a travel writer is to have a large trust fund, or a productive uranium mine.”

  • Jon Brandt

    It’s a really tough call to make sometimes as an emerging writer. Someone like Hunter S. Thompson could say what he wanted and still get published because he had created something special that writers knew would sell, even if it was destroying the original intent of the story. But an up and coming writer doesn’t have that luxury.

    You either have to adhere to the guidelines your publication gives you or try not to piss off the advertisers so that you’re never granted a story again. So what does that really mean? Maybe we’re heading to a place where writers simply come up in waves, write what they truly feel like writing until the advertisers get pissed off and they can’t get work anymore. Or more small, independent blogs, newsletters, magazines, etc pop up, and instead of having a singular publication, readers will have to look all over for a story they want. Because it really is impossible to be able to travel continuously as a poor writer.

    • David Page

      re: Hunter S. Thompson… the whole thing begins with him writing about the Kentucky Derby ( for a tiny, short-lived Scanlan’s Monthly (b. 1970, RIP 1971)–was he on assignment?–and flat-out lying, over and over, to one of his subjects. At some point he had to take that leap. Could he have written the same piece on a junket sponsored by the Louisville Chamber of Commerce? Maybe. (He had his allegiances pretty damn clear.) But he might have been kicked out of town sooner!

  • Bill Beasley

    So, a travel magazine (online or off) doesn’t want you to take comps because they think it will influence you to the point of only saying nice things. But they only want you to say nice things because the magazine is owned by the same company that owns the hotel chain (or they are advertising clients). You would think that since the end result is the same — only saying nice things — that they would want it to be on the dime of someone else.
    It’s not an easy issue. Stories are softened, for sure. Who’s to know when a trip has been completely fabricated? The new FTC rules point us in the right direction. And I agree with the comment that our readers are not idiots. If a writer accepts comps, I would hope that he or she would have the sense to see how the trip differed from what the average tourist would see, would have the courage to express (in print) what was disappointing, and would have the honesty to say what was paid for by the entity being reviewed.
    And let us not forget that on many press trips the writer isn’t being served cavier while sitting in the top suite sauna. Instead it’s a free room with free meals and a very tight schedule of events, usually in a minivan with 5 other journalists. Not exactly the life of luxury that so many imagine.

    • Julie Schwietert


      Fantastic articulation of the hypocrisy of the policy!

  • David Page

    Check out Ed Hasbrouck’s post from yesterday on The Practical Nomad ( re: the new FTC regulations. “In general,” he writes, “the rules require that writers, including bloggers, disclose to their readers any “material connections” with providers of goods or services that they “endorse”.”

  • David Page

    And I agree with Julie, there has to be as much disclosure on desktop travel as on the junkets: i.e. it has to be made clear. It doesn’t require all sorts of sirens and flashing red lights; it can be written into the piece, the same way you make clear that such and such a quote comes from a back and forth by email or from a phone conversation rather than from having actually jumped out of an airplane with the person… Again, maintaining the trust of your readers by letting them in on the process.

  • Sarah

    Fascinating and necessary post. Just to add a quick anecdote: my husband used to work at his brother’s cafe in Oaxaca. One day, an expat friend of his came in with another man and introduced him saying “This is the Lonely Planet writer for Mexico!” My husband chatted with the guy, served him his coffee, and then charged him. The LP writer was outraged – and the cafe didn’t show up in the LP guide that year (2002). To the best of my knowledge, it is still not in the LP guide to Mexico (at least it wasn’t in there in 2007 when I bought it) despite being one of the most popular cafes in the city, and one of only two cafes that is still prospering in the recession. I know it’s a bit of a leap of faith to connect being charged with not putting the coffee shop in the guide, and I know that writers’ attitudes towards freebies vary wildly, but it seems to me that there is a creepy sense of entitlement going on in some cases.

    The thought that writers consider themselves entitled to freebies on assignment seems to me really disturbing. This could just be an individual case with this guy, but I wonder if accepting freebies ever gets a little out of control, and turns into an addiction?

  • Julie


    Thanks for the anecdote– it’s a fantastic illustration of one problem related to guidebook writing. Here’s the inverse of that problem:

    Earlier this summer, I was working on a major publisher’s guide to Puerto Rico, where I’d lived for 2.5 years. Because I honestly felt it was non-negotiable to go there to fact-check in person and conduct interviews for the features I’d been assigned, I spent a lot of money–if not the majority of what my actual contract paid–to fly there, rent a car (no reliable public transport between cities on the island, especially in the interior, the region to which I’d been assigned), find places to stay, and buy my meals. Consistent with the ethical and contractual guidelines of the publisher, I requested some comp’ed stays in advance of arriving, though didn’t promise any coverage–favorable or otherwise–in exchange for the lodging.

    Some hoteliers/inn owners were very gracious; others were not. One who was not actually did offer a comp’ed night but was passive aggressive during my interview with him (to update the information on HIS property), and as I was leaving, he said “You know, I usually charge travel writers half-price to stay here” (mind you- it was not an upscale property). Had he expressed his “policy” from the outset of our communication, I would have made the decision to either pay the 50% rate or to stay elsewhere, but he hadn’t said anything other than “Sure, you can stay for one night.” In response, I explained that this major publisher doesn’t pay expenses of writers, nor does it “advance” writers’ payment for their work. In fact, it’s questionable whether the payment is ostensibly FOR the work… most writers who work on guidebooks and who are conscientious about their work will tell you the same thing: despite careful budgeting, most of us spend 3/4 or more of our payment on research. And as Bill Beasly noted above, we’re not blowing our wad (if it can, in fact, be considered a wad) on a classy joint. It’s usually the mid-range or budget options we’re checking out (and whose owners are the biggest pain in the ass). Which is interesting because by being listed in a guidebook, their business could increase considerably… by springing for one night (especially when the place is nearly vacant–as this place was), they’re actually investing in future business.

    This anecdote isn’t to negate the one you told at all… it’s just intended to illustrate the complicated and really dysfunctional dynamics that often characterize the industry.

  • David Page

    Great anecdote, Sarah! I hear that sort of thing way too often. Researching a guidebook is traipsing through a minefield, plain and simple. On the one hand you feel duty-bound to try everything (so as to be able to report it accurately); on the other you have no money to spend. My wife is still sore about the debt I racked up putting together my Yosemite book–and will continue to be so until, if ever, I start getting checks instead of bills from my publisher! The book may eventually cover its costs, over years and multiple editions, but it’s not by any stretch a viable risk to take as a writer. Still, it was all I could do to occasionally ask for a discount on something, just to try to staunch the bleeding.

    Problem is, when you’re out on the road, especially off-season, you can see how these coffee shop owners and mom-and-pop motels, all these sweet folks, are barely making it as it is. Some are a pain in the ass, to be sure (Julie). But many aren’t. Some of them even do the thinking out loud: if I give you 20% off the price of a room tonight can you guarantee me a good review in that book of yours? The answer is no, of course. As much as they may be lovely and generous people you have to be able to say their carpets stink–the ones that haven’t been replaced since Nixon was in office. (And if they’re assholes you have to be able to say their carpets stink because they do–not because they’re assholes.) Fact is, it’s a hell of a lot harder to do if they’ve bent over backwards to give you a break.

    I did once–in the days before I signed away the good life to the NYT–accept a comp room from one of the big corporate parks concessionaires. Honestly, I felt queasy about it. But hell, I told myself (like a kid stealing gum from a chain store rather than money from an old lady crossing the street), they’re one of the largest recreation conglomerates in the world. It won’t even register on their books. It was very clear that I would retain the right to say whatever I wanted about the place and my experience there–or to write nothing at all. Still, from a strictly ethical standpoint, there was a slight leap that had to be made. I now had to imagine how I would feel about the place if I’d had to shell out $400 of my own for the experience–because that’s what my readers would have to do.

    Mind you, it’s not far from the leap I’d have had to make if my publisher had been footing the bill. But it goes even deeper, of course: since the hotel staff knew I was there as a guidebook writer, did they give me the same service they’d have given had I arrived as just another tourist? Maybe. But probably not. I paid for my food in the dining room–through the nose, like everyone else. But was my meal given a little extra attention? Maybe. Probably. So I found myself having to imagine my way through all that too. I snooped around a bit before I checked in, before they knew who I was. I talked to other guests about their less-tainted experiences, asked about the complaints they had. I lurked in corners and looked for holes, maybe even made myself more critical than I would have been otherwise. Then I enjoyed the pool.

    Overall, though, I didn’t like the approach. Was it better than not staying there at all? Of course. But still, there should be a better model: like the one where all expenses are covered by some third-party manufacturer of tires, whose only real interest in the project is that the notion of travel by automobile be promoted. Or, duh, the publication/publisher should take on the risk and pay the expenses, in exchange for their (substantial) cut of the backend. Seems obvious. But as we all know, publishers these days seem less and less able (or willing) to put themselves in that position. Which brings us back to square one.

    My favorite is when I’ve been on assignment with pro photogs and pro athletes and they’re all taking $$ and gear from five different sponsors (and the magazine too) and me, the poor writer, the one who put the trip together in the first place, can’t even get my meals covered! But, and I guess this is why we writers (like teachers) get taken advantage of, I can’t stop doing it. Hell, I’ll write something in exchange for a clean t-shirt. As long as I get to write it the way I want.

  • JoAnna

    Writers of other publications get comps, but that doesn’t seem to be a big debate. Consider all of the gadgets that technology publications get ~ there’s no chance they get all of those computers and phones and tech gee-gads on their own dollar. Or fashion magazines that get accessories and clothing. Why is travel being targeted? As long as we disclose any comped trips / materials and look beyond the freebies, any ethical journalist should be able to provide readers with an *honest* (not necessarily positive) account of a travel experience.

  • Julie


    Thanks for raising this issue of writers/journos in other genres getting comps. I’d disagree, though, that it’s not a big debate. Perhaps it wasn’t until recently, but the NYT recently had to grapple with some (well-deserved, in my opinion) criticism about the seeming dual allegiances of one of its most prominent tech writers, who receives free software and gadgets, writes about them for the Times, and then writes guidebooks (kind of like the Dummies books, I gather) about the same software and gadgets. The article written about the journo by the paper’s public editor ( raises lots of interesting issues that are akin to the same ones we’re discussing here. The public editor seems to advocate a disclaimer that says something to the effect of “Hey! I get this stuff for free and I make money writing about it here and elsewhere.” But honestly–just as in travel writing–I don’t think disclosure necessarily gets to the heart of the matter or eliminates some of the concerns related to freebies and comps.

    • JoAnna

      Thanks for letting me know that this is an issue in other sectors as well, Julie. I didn’t realize there were debates going on in those genres too.

  • david miller

    22 notes on this piece and its comments

    1. solid questions here david.

    2. really like the allusions to dfw, hst, columbus

    3. i’ve been in similar situations as those brought up in the article and mentioned in the comments–questioning just how much hospitality to accept or deny and how it should or shouldn’t ‘play into’ subsequent ‘reviews’, or wondering if that 1.5% of ‘desk reporting’ needed to be ‘disclosed’ if the rest of the story was 98.5% researched ‘on the ground’.

    4. we’ve all been there and all had to make choices.

    5. i feel like the new FTC mandate for full disclosure makes things easier.

    6. if a writer’s voice and style and info is relevant to me, i’d rather read a post from him or her explicitly stated as ‘sponsored’ than the same piece ‘passed off’ as independent.

    7. i’d rather just read the piece knowing the author got paid–and probably feeling stoked for him or her–than wondering as i’m reading ‘damn, were they get sponsored for this. . . or some shit?’

    8. but i feel like the discussion here goes beyond magazine policies, economics, and the ‘ethics of journalism’, and at the center is the question of a writer’s ‘aesthetic’

    9. what effect might it have on the writing itself–the words, the stories, the ‘literary value’– when we espouse transparency on all levels?

    10. i feel like with marketing and advertising, the ability to ‘commodify’ something depends on the the advertiser’s (or writer’s) power to persuade via ‘association’.

    11. association is suggesting something without saying anything, ‘nestled in the heart of the mecca of …’

    12. i feel like writing that contains elements of suggestion is less believable than writing that only contains reality.

    13. i feel like suggestion-y language is so ‘embedded’ in our culture that sometimes it’s very difficult to even ‘establish a frame of reference’ without it.

    14. i feel like i can’t use it without showing that i’m aware i’m using it, which is when and why i use scare quotes.

    15, the internet is fostering a revolution in media, in advertising, in marketing, in everything, and the old marketing strategies of association are being replaced by transparency and authenticity.

    16. eventually the economics will realign so that advertisers will work with travel media in a different way, one that effectively ‘commodifies’ transparency and autheticity.

    17. this is already happening here at matador.

    18. NYT and other publications’ policies of ‘no freebies’ is an extension of an ideology selling you the ‘association’ of a lack of material connection with ‘journalistic integrity’.

    19. and yet this is the same paper that, earlier this year, ran ads paid for by ‘big oil’.

    20. fundamentalism in any form, even ‘no freebies’ policies, usually stems from some underlying fear.

    21. what is the times and all these other big publications afraid of?

  • Paul Sullivan

    As a reasonably experienced writer and photographer of guidebooks for various publishers, this has been a very fascinating thread to follow. From my perspective, I consider creating guidebooks a great and privileged way to experience a city / country – but by no means a realistic way of making a living since, as Julie and others have pointed out here, the pay is modest (sometimes risible) and mostly gets spent on research.

    I balance my travel work with work in the music industry (also as a writer and photographer), where – as it happens – the same question of freebies / ethics equally apply. (Just the other day a PR friend of mine was telling me about a journalist who would call their company regularly and say “Good morning XX Travel Agency, where will I be flying off to this week” – such was the overt understanding that this person would be exchanging words for travel miles.)

    Nevertheless, that journalist happens to be well respected, a complete music fanatic that has built up a large and devoted fanbase due to their vast knowledge and brutal honesty. Evidence, perhaps, that freebies don’t always equal puffy copy, though of course they do in many cases. I think it ultimately comes down to the individual and his or her conscience/attitude to such things.

    But maybe the more pertinent point is that writers (or photographers) shouldn’t be put in this position. As David P pointed out, press trips/freebies have become a necessity in industries like music and travel writing where the publishers or magazines cannot (or will not) stump up the cash themselves, and it is these people who should be questioned, not the poor writers who are not only expected to work for next to nothing for their art but who then face such torturous ethical questions besides.

    This scenario exists partly of course because of the legions of new or emerging travel writers hungry for experience who will take on guidebook gigs for next to nothing for the experience, the thrills and the glamour. And who, really, can blame them?.

    Publishers (and magazine editors – in both the music and travel worlds) take advantage of this surplus of free / cheap labour and of course it pushes fee down. But again, it’s not the fault of the writer. It’s the fault of the publisher for not setting some kind of standard.

    Publishers need to step up their game and give professional writers and photographers decent budgets to do a decent job. If they don’t, they should be the ones hauled in front of the Ethics Tribunal. When you think about it, it’s little wonder many people don’t think twice about accepting freebies or the moral implications involved when they’re generally too busy trying to get a decent job done under time and financial pressure. Where’s the incentive?

    And the reality is, it’s getting worse. A travel-writer friend of mine was recently asked by a publisher if they might be happy to pay all the expenses for a book upfront themselves – and also waive their fee for several months until the requisite amount of copies of said guide were sold. This was disguised as a “Joint Venture” but it really meant the publisher wanting to take even less risks and placing even more restrictions on the book-writing process – all the while offering no discernible advantage to the writer.

    Obviously publishers have their own problems, especially in the recession era, but tightening the purse strings to the point of strangulation can only lead to asphyxiated experiences and choked copy.

  • David Page

    Pam @nerdseyeview drives it home with Ethics, Schmethics: On Press Trips & Writing a Good Story… “Regardless of who’s paying,” she asks, “what am I reading as a result?”

  • David Page
  • Marcia Frost

    This has become less of a dilemma as the print publications taking work and paying expenses have become so rare. It is nearly impossible for a travel writer (who isn’t a lottery winner) to visit places on their own dime, knowing they most likely won’t get paid enough to come close to the expenses. That said, I have walked out of fully paid hotels and restaurants telling the owners exactly what was not up to par and that I was not doing a story on their establishment.

    Remember, there is really no bad publicity because writing about something will always stir up interest. If I don’t like what you are offering — whether you paid for my experience or not — I will not write about it.


  • Bob Berwyn

    So what I don’t get is, how do you all have time to do any travel writing when you’re spending so much time writing about the ethics of travel writing?

    Seriously, I have mixed feelings about this topic. I wear several hats. I’m an environmental and government reporter for a daily paper in Frisco, Colorado, and I’m also the travel editor for the same paper. And, I’m also pursuing freelance travel writiing.

    So when I’m working as a reporter, I operate under a strict code of journalism ethics.

    Are travel journalists different? Should they be exempt from journalistic standards? If so, why?

    I wrestle with these questions all the time. Now for the disclosure. In researching a guidebook the past year, I did accept some complimentary hotel stays. In fact, I asked for them, with the reasoning that I could never afford to stay the places I was supposed to be researching. I chose places that I KNEW I was going to include in the guidebook in any case, based on their existing reputation and and other available information.

    Just the two nights in Aspen alone would have completely killed my entire budget. Did I feel a bit queasy about it?

    You bet I did. Did I have a choice? Not in my mind. I didn’t see how I could write about some of these places honestly without staying at them, and there was no way I could afford to pay the rate.

    Did I maintain objectivity?

    It’s hard to say for sure, but I think I did.

    For all of my other freelance travel stories, I have never accepted, or asked for, freebies. Almost always, the trip comes first, the stories flow from that. That includes stories for the Miami Herald on the Negril Yoga Center in Jamaica, an eco-adventure in Belize for Caribbean Beat, stories on Antarctica for local Colorado papers and many others.

    An interesting twist: After the Jamaica story came out in the Miami Herald, the owner contacted me and offered me a free week’s stay during the off-season as a way of saying thanks.

    Do you think I accepted the offer?

    I did.

    Should I have?

    For me, the bottom line questions remains, why should travel journalists be different from other journalists?

    In a perfect world, travel writers would get paid enough to not have to accept freebies. It’s not a perfect world, but instead of just jawing about this issue, it would be nice to see some concrete steps toward some kind of resolution. I think some sort of code of travel writing ethics would be a good thing, acknowledging that freebies aren’t ideal, but outlining some rules for responsible conduct.

    • David Page

      It’s a great point, Bob. We could saw on this one forever. Here’s the Code of Ethics as set out by the Society of American Travel Writers:

      In general, puts the onus on the “content provider” to “avoid conflicts of interest” and to be “open with editors/publishers about their own activity that could compromise or might appear to compromise their integrity on a given assignment,” including but not limited to being forthright about what sort of freebies might have been accepted.

      • Bob Berwyn

        Thanks for the link, David. I should have known something like that already existed. I think your previous points about publishers stepping up is really getting at the heart of the issue. This gets at my question about why are travel writers different from another angle.

        Good reporters get paid a living wage (most of the time). It shouldn’t be any different for good travel reporters.

        Say hi to Mammoth for me. Lived there from about ’84 to ’94 when I started and ran the HI Hilton Creek Int’l Hostel at Crowley Lake.

        • David Page

          Living wage, indeed. We’ll see how that goes. I do think the next step is going to have to be to retrain readers (like music listeners) that well-crafted, independently researched and fact-checked writing (like a well-recorded song) will have to be paid for somehow, ultimately by readers–whether by micropayment or traditional subscription or by some sort of demonstrable patronage of sponsors (advertisers).

          Hello to Mammoth duly passed along. Its response was muffled by a fresh crust of white blown in sometime in the wee hours, but I can tell it misses you. It’s changed a bit since 94, but deep down and in between it’s as it’s been for the last five or six centuries, at least since the last big eruptions. Cheers.

  • Lyds

    Great article. I composed a long, vent-y (venti?) comment taking in compromised ethics in medical journals and fashion writing but was thwarted by spotty internet. Probably just as well. For now, back to the uranium mine.

    • David Page

      Thanks Lyds. Bring on the essay. Put it on The Eyebrow and link us up from here. Can’t wait to read the venting!

  • Kayte

    As many others have mentioned, there are very few publications that pay enough for a travel writer to both travel and make a living. For this reason, most publications are now fine with writers taking press trips as long as it is disclosed, and the new FCC rules just reinforce this. The ones who stick to hard-core anti-freebie policies and don’t pay expenses are total hypocrites, and end up with the kind of made-up stories, and top 25 lists of places-no-one-visited that others have mentioned.

    I make it clear when I accept a press invitation that there is no guarantee of favorable coverage or that every venue we visit will be covered. I am always surprised by other writers who believe it is their obligation to write something nice about every venue in return for the privilege of being on the trip.

    It is great to be invited to a destination and have your flight and nice hotels and meals covered and visit attractions you might not normally be able to afford, but it’s also a heck of a lot of WORK. In what other occupation are you expected to PAY to work, rather than getting paid to work?

    Flying 18 hours in an uncomfortable plane (rare is the press trip that flies you business or first class), to be rushed from hotel to meal to attraction to meal to attraction to meal to a new hotel every day, taking notes, interviewing locals and tourists, downloading photos until the wee hours of the night, then dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn to do it all again – then spending a day to a week or more to craft one or more stories on the destination…is something I’d rather do than most other jobs, but it’s still WORK! Even if you’re fortunate enough to be making $1 or more a word, you may still be writing for minimum wage. Most travel outlets pay a lot less than that.

    If I’m organizing my own trip for a story, rather than taking a group trip, I still request to have the flight, the hotels, the attractions and a few meals comped, but I choose venues I know I want to write about, and if something turns out to be a bad experience, I just let the PR person know that it was a bad experience and leave that out of the story (unless I feel it’s something I need to warn people about).

    Journalistic ethics are a personal matter, and if you feel you can be unflinchingly objective (OK, sometimes I flinch when I reveal the mold in the AC at an otherwise beautiful hotel), then you should feel comfortable having your travel expenses paid by whoever is willing to pay them in order to find a story you want to tell.

    • Marcia Frost

      Very well said. Those press trips sound exciting to the outside world, and I’m not denying there is fun and great experience, but it is hard work. I’m lucky to get a few hours sleep when I’m on a press trip going from place to place and then working in the room late night or early morning. I love to do it and will continue, but it’s not all fun and glory. And the pay for stories (except for the select few on publication payroll, who may not be much longer) would in no way cover a fraction of my expenses.

      I will not write anything good (or much at all, even bad publicity is publiity) about a place regardless of what they paid, but I am not going to feel bad about it. If they can’t put on their best show for the press, why would I tell people about the place as a travel option?


  • Julie


    My sentiments exactly, especially:

    “I am always surprised by other writers who believe it is their obligation to write something nice about every venue in return for the privilege of being on the trip.”

    Where can we read more of your writing?

  • Lyds

    Thanks for the nudge, David. Here it is:

    I think your point about retraining readers to pay for good writing is a really good one. So you, I, and Rupert Murdoch are all in agreement, then.

  • David Page

    The flap continues… Harvard prof Mary Tripsas relieved from her column at the Times for taking a subsidized trip from one of her subjects:

    Virgina Postrel ( thinks Tripsas should have been let go not for ethical violations but for shoddy work.

    Postrel has this to say: “Instead of focusing on inputs, the Times should focus its quality control on outputs: what actually appears in the paper. Drop the absurd ethics guidelines, hire freelancers who know their subjects and how to write about them, and disclose any potential conflicts so readers can make up their own minds. Think about delivering value to the reader rather than ritualistically adhering to journalistic guild customs. Alternatively, the Times could shrink the paper to include only that reporting whose costs it can cover out of its own budget and stop trying to free ride.”

  • Angela

    Honestly, I can’t even understand why this debate exists. Publications flaunting this ridiculous “no-freebies policy” are just trying to convince people that they are unbiased. Even a little knowledge about the media world is enough to understand that they are not unbiased.

    Every mainstream publication is under direct or indirect influence of lobbies, banks, financial institutes, etc., that really control what it’s written and how, and thinking that a free press trip is going to undermine the trust readers put in a specific paper or journalist, is underestimating readers’ intelligence. Depending on who the paper is influenced by, its articles will always follow a specific agenda.

    Before writing about travel, I’ve been writing about politics, music, theatre and society in general. I’ve never paid for a CD, or a concert: I wouldn’t have been able to buy hundreds of CDs in order to write their review. And if i didn’t like an album, I’d say it, like my other colleagues.

    If every travel article praises every aspect of every trip, that sounds unnatural. I’m a journalist, not a novel writer, I don’t have a huge imagination, all I write stems from research and observation.

  • Kash Bhattacharya

    As a budding travel writer, this is great food for thought and some interesting insights

    Plus being freelance, I get paid peanuts and most of the publications I write for have very tight budgets- with so much big competition in print and online, I think the days of big editorial budgets are over.

    I have sold advertising in a previous guise in many publications so the concept of ‘paid for’ advertorials has sometimes raised quite a fierce debate about the ethics of including advertorials in the same way people are divided for about taking ‘freebies’

    As long as it is stated clearly in the advertorial-at the top for readers to see, at the end the reader is rational and intelligent enough to make its own mind up about the place or product featured-at least its more interesting than a glossy ad.

    I think in the same way as long as writers make it clear that this is a ‘freebie’ and are objective in their reviews -then its perfectly acceptable. Also as long as the hotel being reviewed doesn’t put pressure -at the end of the day there is element of risk from their side that they must be prepared to accept the authors views- just by offering a freebie they cannot expect a glowing endorsement.

    Plus with the time, research from reading reviews online, you’re already have a clear idea of what to expect-visiting the place, gives you more indepth insight and enables to authenticate your article and make it credible.

    Plus yes, press junkets with all their freebies-can be stressful and fun.

    When I go on a holiday with my loved ones-I like to leave my work behind and switch off :)

  • David Page

    Check out Mike Albo’s new-release Kindle single, The Junket. Worthwhile and tragic/amusing read at $1.99:

  • David Page

    Check out Mike Albo’s new-release Kindle single, The Junket. Worthwhile and tragic/amusing read at $1.99:

  • scryberwitch

    This whole topic really reveals a deeply classist (elitist?) vein running through the travel pubs industry. While their “high journalistic integrity” forbids allowing writers to take freebies, they also refuse to pay expenses, leaving the travel writing only to those who can afford such luxuries. Nothing against those who can, but the perspective of a working-class writer might well be different from a leisure-class one, and shouldn’t be excluded.

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