Free press travel: necessary … and certainly not an evil

The blogosphere has been heating up over the issue of ethics and “swag.” There’s plenty of free stuff flowing through the media industry. At Gadling, obviously, the big one is travel, but gadgets, books, liquor, cigars and other products are often supplied for use in writing a story. The Federal Trade Commission has made what was a debate into a legal issue by requiring disclosure by bloggers when they receive these freebies (Gadling already requires this, so no changes will be necessary here). The issue is not only contentious, but it’s emerging unevenly. In the end, it’s the readers who will be impacted.

The FTC rule requires disclosure only by bloggers – traditional media outlets will not be affected, despite the fact that they receive plenty of swag … and that we (the bloggers) learned it from them. If the goal is to help the consumer make an informed decision, this rule will only “help” blog readers and leave consumers of traditional media exposed.

Beyond the question of fairness, though, there’s a greater issue: practicality. Especially in the travel space, the trips and gear provided by hotels, restaurants, manufacturers and their publicists is a vital part of how we can provide more than mere reblogs of “man pukes on a plane.” Original travel content comes at a cost. Travel writers need to be out on the road to be effective, and even 12 months of discount travel can add up quickly. For readers interested in luxury and upscale experiences (and there are many here and at Luxist, where I also write), it would be impossible for impoverished bloggers to deliver first-hand accounts of these destinations.

It can be tough to understand the role that comp’ed travel can play in an operation such as Gadlings – or that of any other publication that covers travel. So, to help clarify the issues involved, here are 10 factors that help make sponsored press trips effective.

1. Boots on the ground make a difference
You can do a lot using other people’s information. Press releases, websites and interviews can provide plenty of insights on what it’s like to visit a particular destination. And, most travel writers, especially when faced with the prospect of daily deadlines, use these resources regularly. But, there’s no substitute for feeling the sand between your toes, breathing the mountain air or smelling a Seoul subway during rush hour (not bad, just very different from New York). If travel writers need to pay for these trips, there won’t be nearly as many … which means that readers lose the on-the-ground observations that make a hotel or city or flight come to life.

2. The money has to come from somewhere
There are three parties that could conceivably pay to send a writer to cover a destination: the writer, the publication or the destination. Contrary to popular belief, travel writing (or any other form of blogging or journalism) really isn’t a road to riches. We do it because we enjoy it. So, paying to take a trip could cost at least as much as we’ll make writing about it. Now, the publications could pay. But, if you haven’t noticed from the number of magazines closing, media companies are about as wealthy as their writers. They can’t afford to have travel writers out on the road frequently. Hell, some of them can’t even afford to have travel writers at all. Finally, there are the PR agencies and the destinations themselves. They realize that they’re taking a risk when they pay to send a reporter on a press trip (they could wind up with a shitty story). But, they generally have the resources to commit to the effort. So, do the math – where can the money come from?

3. An awful trip will be noticeable
If a travel writer has a truly miserable experience on a press trip, you will notice it in the writing. I can tell you I’ve never been pressured to deliver a positive story. I do tend to highlight what interests me or what I think would interest you, simply because that’s what I figure interests you. If you’re heading to Paris, for example, you probably want to know what to look for – what’s fun and exciting. The reason these trips often contain positive information is because nobody I know plans a trip around misery. But, if there is something that warrants your attention – that happens to be negative – the travel writer will probably make sure you’re aware of it.

4. Objectivity isn’t really the point
Travel is inherently subjective. I look at the type of trips Kraig Becker enjoys and wonder if he was dropped on his head (or fell on it on one of those excursions). And, I’m sure the backpack-and-hostel crowd looks down its collective nose at the luxury trips that I usually prefer. The travel writer’s job is to cover the destination fairly and accurately … which is much easier if you’re actually there. As long as you’re honest, it doesn’t matter who writes the check. Disclose who paid for it for good measure, so the readers can make the call for themselves.

5. Informed comments keep travel writers honest
Gadling has hundreds of thousands of fact-checkers: you. And, we make it easy for your voices to be heard. If you have a particular knowledge about a destination and disagree with the writer’s take, you can let him or her – and the other readers – know how you feel. Our articles are really the openings of conversations. Some openings don’t lead to much talking, while others do; the choice belongs to each reader. But, the mechanism is in place to keep the system smooth.

6. Desk reporting should be disclosed
It’s always interested me that desk reporting doesn’t have to be disclosed. If I go to a resort and write about it, I need to tell you if the resort picked up the tab. Meanwhile, a reporter at another publication who writes about the same place and has never been there doesn’t need to disclose a damned thing. If you follow the advice of the latter, you’re making a decision based on someone who’s only seen the walls of a cubicle. The information that that reporter used probably came from a press release or an interview with an executive from the resort being covered. If a sponsored press trip compromises reliability, desk interviews should raise big, frenetically waved red flags. It might make sense to see a bit more of the following: “This story was written from a press release and a short phone conversation with the resort’s managing director. I’ve never been there and have no plans to go. So, act on this story at your own risk.”

7. PR agencies and destinations know the deal
Any publicist who thinks it’s possible to buy a good story is a moron. If they weren’t worried, they would actually enjoy press trips. Instead, the PR folks organizing these things are always stressed out, making sure that a herd of reporters gets to the right place at the right time, ensuring that rooms are in order and so on. When something does go wrong, damage control is immediate. If the story were already paid for, they wouldn’t care.

8. The “best foot forward” problem
Unless travel writers were to go undercover, there’s always the opportunity for a hotel or attraction to go the extra mile for a writer. We know it happens, and we (at least I) assume our readers realize this, too. We try to cut through this to see how things really operate, but a well-run hotel, for example, won’t be able to do too much extra for visiting media. If it specializes in high-touch treatment, for example, they can’t really go extra high-touch for us. The things that bother me most – waiting in line behind an idiot intent on giving his life’s story at the front desk – don’t go away when you’re on a press trip. When restaurants close, they close – even for us. Hotels don’t have special, fluffier bathrobes for travel writers, and a few extra mints on the pillow won’t change the tone of a story.

9. Press trips are work
It’s pretty easy to perceive press trips as free, extended parties. There’s plenty of liquor flowing, the food is great and the accommodations are spectacular. Well, this is generally true (depending on the trip), but there’s a lot of work wrapped around this. In my experience, travel writers don’t get much sleep – after the day’s festivities are done, we actually get down to the business of cleaning up our notes, filing stories (from the road or on unrelated topics) and catching up on e-mail. We format photos, mess with video and try to keep track of the information being fed to us through a fire hose. Sleep is the first luxury to be sacrificed. It’s the nature of the beast. Press trips can be fun, but there’s also a considerable amount of effort involved.

10. The writer asks questions, hides and breaks the rules
Even though this is at least implicitly discouraged on some trips, the better travel writers will push the envelope. If I see something that interests me, I’ll excuse myself. If I’m told that’s not an option, I’ll raise hell until it becomes an option. I ask questions, and I know I’m not alone. At one restaurant, on a press trip, I wanted to interview the chef. The publicist wasn’t moving quickly enough for me, so I barged into the kitchen, interrupted the chef and got my interview. And, I know I’m not alone. When something doesn’t interest me, I skip it. Sometimes, I “accidentally” get lost. The better press trips, though, realize that travel writers can be like this, and they involve the loosest of agendas so we can wander around and cover what we want.

As you can see, I’m a pretty ardent supporter of free press trips, but I can see both sides of the issue. If you’re inclined to leave a comment, I’d appreciate your thoughts on this. It is a serious issue for the travel writing community, as it is for our readers. How do you feel about it?

[Photos via Migrant Blogger]