Traveling (and Writing) Free and Easy
Tom Swick: On press trips and the ethics of travel writing in the digital age
01.21.10 | 11:50 AM ET
As the press has withered, the press trip has flourished.
Twenty years ago, the situation was quite different. Condé Nast Traveler had recently appeared on the scene—with its motto of “Truth in Travel”—and sparked an industry-wide debate on subsidized trips. The newspaper where I was the travel editor, the Tribune-owned Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, changed its policy from identifying articles that were the result of free trips to banning them altogether. Whenever I found good stories from freelancers, I had to call the writers up and ask if they’d been a treated guest. Rarely did I get a “yes”—not, I believe, because people were lying, but because the kinds of stories I liked didn’t result from freebies.
In the spring of 1990, a featured speaker at the annual meeting of newspaper travel editors was a freelance writer who pleaded that she and many of her colleagues were at risk of losing their livelihoods. I felt little pity for her. Yes, travel writing was a notoriously unprofitable profession; the fee a newspaper paid for a story rarely came close to covering the expenses of the trip that had produced it. But the ranks were full of hacks who had discovered an unbeatable gig of sponsored travel followed by mindless typing. A cleansing, I thought, might elevate the genre.
That didn’t happen. Newspaper and magazine editors (though not all) objected to subsidized travel on the grounds that it constituted a conflict of interest. A writer who accepted gifts—especially ones as large as airfare and lodging—was inevitably seen as compromised, and destined to write an uncritical piece. Yet these same editors were strangely oblivious to the artificial rosiness infecting most travel journalism, even that which didn’t result from free trips. The publications that stood on high moral ground still made generous use of the word “paradise.”
The press trip had a professional as well as an ethical disadvantage. It put writers in groups and bused them around (rather like schoolchildren); it introduced them to local tourism officials; it showed them what the officials wanted them to see. This was anathema to many travel writers. “The best way to write about a place,” I wrote in a column in the mid-90s, “is to go alone, anonymously, and talk to nobodies.”
That remains true, but much has changed. Newspapers have kept their ethics but lost their clout (and sometimes their travel editors with it). The New York Times still insists that its freelancers be gift trip virgins. (A secular newspaper with a belief in original sin.) But why pitch to the Times when you can have your own blog? (And then get interviewed by a travel columnist for the Times.)
Writers on the Internet are not bound by the rules of old media institutions; they can guiltlessly go on junkets. They are mostly of an age group not known for its loyalty, so it’s possible that they’re less swayed by swag than people who were brought up to write thank-you notes.
The press trip remains a kind of virtual travel, but now for a virtual generation. For the most part, the web’s travel writers are in the information, not the truth and beauty, business. And, since they’re addicted to speed, an organized tour suits their purposes much better than aimless wanderings and chance encounters do. You don’t need to be Wilfred Thesiger to compile a list of Mexico’s 10 Best Spas.
And it must be said, subsidized travel isn’t always the enemy of art. Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious “Labels” is about a Mediterranean cruise he had gotten for free. My favorite chapter in “The Pillars of Hercules” describes a luxury cruise that Paul Theroux never paid for. “I was a guest of the shipping company,” he writes, coming clean while at the same time employing a grandiose name for what was in fact a cruise line. “There was no disgrace in that.”
But it helps if you write as well as he does.