Travel Writing Not All Fun and Sun


Today’s guest post is from Susan McKee, a print and digital writer who is also a blogger.  She attended TBEX in Keystone.

I originally wrote this column for the “Freelance Writing” section of the April 2007 issue of The Quill (the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists). When I was at TBEX in Keystone last month, there were many discussions of ethics regarding bloggers vs. journalists – discussions that have continued in other places where travel writers gather. Seems to me that my commentary from back then is even more true now that online publications have (more or less) replaced the traditional travel markets of magazines and newspapers.

Strong ethics, research keys to success

As a professional travel writer, I occupy a place in the journalistic hierarchy somewhere just above pond scum. It’s tricky territory for a freelancer for two major reasons: press trips and poseurs.

Almost all newspapers and magazines still buying freelance will not pick up a writer’s expenses, and the rates they pay don’t come close to making up that shortfall. Freelancers are responsible for their own health insurance and other costs that are typically part of the benefits package for an employed journalist. Add in travel time and, as one writer put it, the profit margin shrivels like salted leeches in the sun.

If you don’t have a trust fund to underwrite your travel writing specialty, two solutions beckon: write only about your own hometown (yawn!) or take press trips.

Like many freelancers, I started out as a general assignment reporter for a major metropolitan daily back in the days when budgets were reasonably flush. If I had to travel somewhere for a story, the editor would approve expenses and send me on my way.

In a perfect world, editors and publishers would cover travel costs. However, it’s not a perfect world, and they don’t. I make a reasonable return combining trips hosted by PR companies and tourist boards with assignments for which my expenses are reimbursed by publications.

The major reason I accept media jaunts is logistics. I have limited time in a given destination, so I rely on the experts for scheduling. During my free time, I can revisit places I need to see more in depth. Occasionally I’ve used the press trips as scouting missions for later returns on my own nickel.

Of course, the risk I run is that the hosts will show me only what they want me to see, something I try to minimize through advance research.

The purists scoff that a writer can’t possibly be independent if traveling on someone else’s money. Yet, in my days as a newspaper staffer, freebies abounded.

Business writers were guests for lunch in corporate dining rooms. Entertainment writers were feted at Hollywood galas. Fashion editors bought designer clothing at “discount.” Automotive and electronics writers “tested” expensive equipment. And the sports guys – well, you know that life in the press box isn’t spartan.

A good journalist does not slant a story based on who paid for what.

Travel writing is devalued partly because everyone thinks they can just dash off “what I did on my summer vacation” and send it to the local paper.

I’m a journalist specializing in travel. I try to inform, entertain and educate my readers about some aspect of the wider world, accurately reflecting the destination or concept. Geography matters, so there’s information on land forms and weather. Weaving in history helps provide context for the present. Interviews with locals remind my readers that the human condition is universal.

As Mark Twain noted, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Most of my readers will never get to the places I’ve seen except through my words. I owe them honesty, good research and good writing.

However, much of the travel writing out there is written by amateurs – heavy on travel cliches and breathless epiphanies but light on reporting and fact-checking. These writers often think “the trip” is payment enough. Journalists in other fields usually don’t have to worry about competing against hordes that are willing to do their jobs for free.

The well-established practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell” also creates problems. Most of the articles you read in newspapers and magazines can be traced back to sponsored travel. Every travel journalist I know has been on a press trip with a writer for a publication that forbids taking press trips. Editors don’t ask, and writers don’t tell.

I, for one, am tired of the subterfuge. Political reporters attend politicians’ cocktail parties. Theater reviewers sit in box seats. Travel writers sometimes get discounted plane tickets and hotel rooms, free meals and more souvenir coffee mugs than will fit in the kitchen cupboard.

Travel writing is not like being on vacation. It’s work any journalist would recognize, filled with reams of notes, countless digital photos and hours spent fact-checking every detail. Nothing replaces good old-fashioned reporting and editing – or a journalist’s ethics.

Photo credit:  SXC

Author bioSusan McKee is an independent scholar and freelance journalist specializing in history, culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter at @Susan_McKee

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3 Responses
  1. I have been doing travel writing for the past 4-5 years, and been on numerous press trips, as well as travelled on my own dime and written about it. The number of people I know who *think* they do travel writing, and instead all they’re looking for is freebies is overwhelming (in both realms, journalists and bloggers). However, I have to say that most of the recognized, well-established travel writers I know are extremely ethical. I recently did a trip sponsored by the Mexican Tourism Board and was INCREDIBLY impressed with my fellow international travel writers. Their ethics were bar none, especially when it came to disclosure (and the PR agency that organized said press trip was VERY clear on not demanding coverage AND requesting that if we wrote about it, we disclosed it was a sponsored trip).

    I have taken to task many “travel writers” (and food writers) for not disclosing when a trip is sponsored or a meal is sponsored. The reality is, your credibility is your currency as a blogger. And being on someone else’s payroll (or appearing to be) is something that may detract.

    In any trip (or meal) I get comp’d, I always make sure to give my actual opinions. If my review is negative (which may lead to never get invited back again), then so be it. My ethics and my reputation are WAY more important than any press trip or free meal or free tickets to anything. I wish all my fellow bloggers and journalists thought the same and valued their ethics as much as I value mine. Not the case.

  2. The key word is disclosure. I have been so fortunate and blessed to end up with the job I currently have (running TBEX and New Media Expo). This is a dream job for me which is why I can read and comment on your post at 9 pm on a Friday night. This isn’t work for me.

    Anyone who has ever interacted with the media which I have been able to do for many years knows just how much free stuff and perks “journalists” get and demand. Every tradeshow organizer knows you have to feed the reporters to put them in a good mood to give you an opportunity for coverage and hopefully good reviews.

    Companies in every industry give them product and you have listed many more examples of similar perks that apply to every single vertical of the media world Susan.

    There is nothing wrong with this and as you point out so well, it is mandatory for modern journalists and bloggers to receive these kinds of benefits in order to pay their bills.

    What is also mandatory is disclosure. Every free trip, meal, hotel room, monogrammed gift bag you receive should be disclosed so you reader knows how you have been compensated and make their own judgement as to your objectivity.

    Traditional media failed to do this at least for the decades I have been aware of and maybe even centuries. New media was born due to technology and a desire from both content creators and content consumers for something better.

    We all owe it to our communities, readers, audiences or whatever you want to call them to do better. To disclose and do our very best to be objective.

    The consumer is the always the ultimate judge when it comes to us earning and retaining their trust.

  3. This writer has done a great job of explaining what I do, and how I feel about it. I earn about 25% of a modest living from travel writing, even though it takes up most of my time. Most magazines these days pay about the same as newspapers, which is often as low as 15 cents a word. If I get one 800-word story plus a few photos at $20 each in a monthly magazine, that isn’t going to cover the cost of even one night’s stay in a decent hotel. Yes, I accept press trips and sponsored travel, and in part I accept that I don’t earn much money, but I get to take great trips. In return I write as responsibly, as powerfully, as honestly as I can. I write essays, fiction, memoir, non-fiction journalism, and interviews for serious magazines like THE SUN from Chapel Hill, and sometimes I also do travel writing. My travel writing isn’t as deep or serious as my other work, but it’s still writing I care about and work hard on. No travel cliches in my work!

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