Gawker, following up on a DailyFinance post by Jeff Bercovici, ignited a mini-controversy last week over the case of Mike Albo, a freelance New York Times travel writer who went on a press junket to Jamaica. Even though Albo did not write about the junket for the Times, he violated the newspaper's code simply by participating in the press trip in the first place. To see this very particular yet marginal debate brought into Gawker's snarky bailiwick was amusing and also sort of surprising.
And then, this afternoon, the NYT fired Albo.
The question of media support and the nimbus of ethics surrounding the practice is old hat for travel writers. We think about these things in depth because we must. Travel can be expensive, you see, and unless we are simply in business to amuse ourselves, we can't lose sight of the objective of actually making money. Media support is an essential part of travel journalism.
Now I'm the first to find fault with junkets. I don't like being herded into particular activities with a bunch of travel writers. I don't like feeling insulated and protected when I travel. But media support takes a range of forms—micromanaged junkets are but one of these—and it is key to service travel writing.
The steadfastness with which the Times holds the line against media support verges on the puritanical. Plenty of excellent, reputable publications—including the Financial Times and Gadling, among many others—allow their writers to accept media support, and those of their writers who do acknowledge having received funding in their articles. Beyond the US travel media, it is interesting to note, ethical questions around media support are much less frequent.
As the Albo case demonstrates, the New York Times does not merely demand that travel writers not receive media support for present assignments. It also requires writers—including freelancers—not to have previously received any media support for a two-year period prior to writing for the newspaper. (This was, at any rate, the nature of the beast in the fall of 2006, when I wrote an article for the Times on budget Caribbean travel.)
Against this backdrop, there are consistent sins-of-omission rumors within the travel writing world—questions, in other words, about how thoroughly editors interrogate their freelancers regarding matters of trip funding. Here's an illustration, though one that is clearly based on hearsay. This past April I went on my first press trip in four-and-a-half years. I accepted it after careful consideration of income, calendar, likelihood of article placement, and type of experience on offer. Regarding the final of these considerations, the trip was one that I could never have executed on my own. I duly sent out dozens of emails to editors in search of an appropriate publication—omitting, naturally, those publications opposed to press trips. I emailed an editor at a Hearst magazine for advice. She candidly informed me that I shouldn't put any energy into worrying about which publications maintain interdictions against media support, dismissing a particularly celebrated editorial line against junkets as "bs," adding that she knew "a lot of writers [at this particular publication] that go on press trips." Fascinating. The more assiduously rulebound of us—like, um, me—might be forgiven for feeling like chumps after receiving this breezy blast of information.
Still, this is but a sideshow to the real issue, which consists, as I see it, of three parts. First, travel journalism would grind to a halt without media support. Secondly, good travel journalism and media support can coexist. Not all travel stories are equal. A detailed review of a hotel or restaurant, for example, arguably should ideally be carried out by anonymous reviewers who have neither identified themselves nor revealed their affiliations in advance. A guidebook chapter assignment, by way of contrast, might end up being far more comprehensive thanks to the involvement and support of a local tourist board. Let's also not forget that a funded trip does not always result in favorable review. Public relations firm imperatives often remain unmet. My third point belabors the obvious—yes, Albo violated the NYT's rules, as silly as they are.
It is difficult to make a living as a travel writer. Few publications pay expenses, and many publications pay terribly. I know I'm not the only travel writer who has taken assignments resulting in a net income loss. For newspapers or magazines to demand that writers not take any form of media support while failing to cover expenses or pay adequately is unfortunate. It attempts to universally map an ethical standard onto a varied and complex terrain. And in an era of slashed budgets, it will lead to thinner travel sections and a further narrowing of the field of prospective travel writers.