What the papers say

whatthepaperssayA little while ago, I noticed a timely opportunity to write about a city I know well (let’s call it Destination X). I pitched a few ideas to a National Newspaper Travel Editor contact (let’s call him NNTE 1). He accepted one. He also put me onto a colleague of his in the Features section of the same newspaper, who accepted another. Woohoo – two commissions to write about Destination X.

I approached the relevant tourist board and requested a return flight to Destination X plus hotel accommodation for me to do my research. They got the ball rolling. All totally standard practice – nothing out of the ordinary yet.

As freelancers will know, though, two commissions are rarely enough to make a living. So I pitched another idea from Destination X to a different National Newspaper Travel Editor (NNTE 2), who is responsible for that newspaper’s online travel content. He liked it, but said there was no budget to pay me for it.

Modest proposal

So I suggested an alternative. Instead of having the newspaper pay me to write about Destination X, how about if I asked the tourist board to pay me instead? It wouldn’t be ‘advertorial’ – where a travel article (or whole section) is sponsored by a tourist board or travel company who dictate what gets written. All my research and writing would be done alone as normal and I would file directly to the editor – but the tourist board would foot the bill for my time and, erhmm, expertise. Result: the paper gets great content from which it can generate revenue, I get paid and Destination X gets coverage – all happy, right?modestproposal

Nope. My modest proposal was rejected out of hand. NNTE 2 saw it as tying him to the tourist board. It was a ‘no’ on principle.

So I took yet another pitch about Destination X to a different National Newspaper Travel Editor. NNTE 3 liked the idea and was happy to run it – it tied in nicely with a similarly themed article from the same region that was already in his schedules – but again had no budget to pay me. I suggested the alternative payment method, but again it was refused on principle.

Principles

I wonder, though, what principle is at stake. Newspapers have no (or very little) money to pay for travel articles. NNTE 3 told me he now runs only one freelance piece a week, if that. Other newspapers commission nothing from freelancers at all anymore, running only “What I Did On My Holidays” articles written by celebs, staffers from other sections of the same newspaper and authors with a book to plug. Almost all seem to lament losing the insight, the expertise and the sheer variety of freelance content – but their hands are tied.

Yet I think both NNTEs I approached thought my payment idea risked undermining their credibility. I wonder, with respect all round, how much of that is left. Opening one recent national newspaper travel section, you got a welcome message from the boss of a tourist board followed by a dozen articles praising his region – including the likes of How Great It Is To Walk In The [X] Hills footed by a paragraph mentioning that [X] Railways serves all the destinations mentioned in the article, and underlined by a chunky banner advert for, oh, [X] Railways.

I’m not questioning any individual journalist’s integrity – or the necessity for that newspaper to seek funding through sponsorship – but I wonder how much credibility the public gives to such material. It was, effectively, a brochure in newspaper form. Handy for a spare weekend, but Woodward & Bernstein it ain’t.

Editorial independence

The key point of principle rests on the newspapers’ reputation for editorial independence. That, traditionally, has depended on their ability to fund their businesses through interspersing editorial with advertising. That model is now under severe threat.

Paying the piper...

How to pay the piper?

So far so bad. Yet with travel advertorial, the tail has begun wagging the dog. Companies with a vested interest are starting to be able to dictate terms. With the ongoing financial reshaping of the industry, editorial independence is dangerously threatened.

Putting an end to advertorial – by disconnecting the right of the journalist to get paid from the payer’s being able to control what is written – seems to me to be an innovative and effective route back to integrity and independence.

NNTE 2 queried what would happen if he didn’t like the piece I wrote and chose not to run it. Perhaps he thought he’d be in hock to the person paying my fee. But he – as now – would have no contact, and certainly no relationship, with the tourist board or travel firm paying me. If the story isn’t good enough to run, I simply wouldn’t get paid – but I would then be free to take it elsewhere. Since it would have no price-tag attached, the chances of one or other newspaper/magazine somewhere in the world picking it up for publication would be much higher than at present, where a ‘killed’ story is effectively dead in the water. I would then go back to my fee-payer and renegotiate.

Would a tourist board with extra-deep pockets be able to dictate to a writer what they should write about? Anything’s possible – but any journalist worth their salt would know when they’re being fed a line and would reject it for the sake of their own reputation, and (more to the point) any editor worth theirs would be able to detect a whitewash instantly. Tourist boards and travel firms already heavily subsidise the writing of most travel journalism, with literally thousands spent behind the scenes on a single article for air tickets, hotels, tours, guides and activities. Does it matter where the final, relatively insignificant cash fee to the journalist comes from?

In an industry unable to pay its suppliers, securing outside funding while safeguarding quality could actually put everybody on their toes and, in effect, raise standards. Suddenly, travel journalists would be motivated to double-check their sources. Reputations would be at stake.

Into the abyss

myopera.com/spots

(Credit: myopera.com)

Travel journalism is staring into the abyss. The economics of the industry don’t really work, and haven’t done since newspapers started to rely on travel firms to facilitate creation of content instead of paying to send their own travel journalists abroad. With a shrinking world having reduced the experiential gap between writer and reader to almost nothing, travel journalists – unfairly – have a reputation as just another breed of fat-cats, swanning about being showered with freebies by travel companies and airlines in return for writing more or less bland holiday reports. The quid-pro-quo editorial models currently in place – airline gives journo ticket; journo namechecks airline in return – perpetuate that myth. Overtly sponsored advertorial doesn’t help.

Since newspapers are increasingly unable to pay for professionally produced, independent travel content, I thought my modest proposal to have someone else cough up might work. Clearly, I was wrong. But some alternative system has to be invented soon. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that people still appreciate well-written, insightful, long-form travel journalism – writing that is closer in spirit to the foreign pages than the lifestyle supplement. If I’m right, but the newspapers won’t pay for it, who will?

Footnote

No sour grapes, by the way. I think NNTE 2 and 3 have missed an opportunity, but that’s OK; I can appreciate that now is perhaps not the time to be testing new models on an ad-hoc basis. I’m talking to both of them about other ideas. Meanwhile, anyone thinking of trying to start out in travel journalism should be aware that I also spoke to NNTE 4 (no freelance budget; staffers only), NNTE 5 (Destination X is too far down our wishlist), NNTE 6 (no freelance budget)… It’s a jungle out there. NNTE 1 has my full attention.

16 Comments

  1. Mark Hodson

    Very insightful piece, Matthew. I know of at least one case where a well-known prolific travel writer (not me) was “compensated for their time” (ie. paid) by an airline to write a piece, without the knowledge of the commissioning editor. Maybe it will be a case soon of don’t ask, don’t tell?

  2. Kevin May

    Quite brilliant synopsis of a dire situation for consumer travel journalism.

    I would only mention that trade journalists (and their masters) have been taking the shilling from tourist boards to write about them for many a long year, and readers (other parts of the industry) do not bat an eyelid.

    But, then again, some might argue that perhaps they should care.

    Something else not really mentioned above is that newspapers – and the providers of their original content – have a problem in that consumers see the mainstream media way down the pecking order of places to go to first when researching travel products or destinations.

  3. Marryam

    How familiar all this sounds to a Delhi-based freelance travel writer! In my neck of the woods, tacitly agreeing that a freelance writer and a tourist office join forces is tantamount to accepting that the paper/magazine will get the worst sort of plug. Though why that should happen is not something that I will ever understand. After all, I gotta look after my by-line, don’t I? Maybe that’s why your NNTEs have yet to bite the bait…

  4. Matthew Teller

    Thank you, all.

    @Mark – yep, me too; I know of one case where an excellent travel journalist of unimpeachable integrity had a piece published for ‘free’ but in fact received a fee from the relevant tourist board’s PR representative at home, without the editor knowing. Deception ain’t good, but I don’t see a problem with the model – as long as the PR doesn’t get to vet the copy first…

    @Kevin – thanks for kind words. Well aware that trade is even more corrupt than consumer! Your last point is interesting, though. Why does travel journalism have to be a source of ‘research’ for travel products/destinations? The literary/review pages of a newspaper, to take one example, are only tangentially about suggesting ‘products’ to buy: they are more about fuelling a national conversation by giving exposure to informed, insightful writing from professionals who know what they’re talking about. What happened to the conversation in travel? What happened to great writing for its own sake? The internet is for research; reading a newspaper is food for the mind. Or should be.

    @Marryam – nice to hear from you! Quite agree. When editors start rejecting copy from journos who recycle PR puffery, and instead welcome decent writing (regardless of who pays for it), maybe standards will start to rise…

  5. Nathan Midgley

    Matthew… great post. For me the key line is:

    “Any journalist worth their salt would know when they’re being fed a line … and (more to the point) any editor worth theirs would be able to detect a whitewash instantly”

    In dismissing the idea that quality is tied to particular funding models, you reduce everything to the calibre of journalist and editor. That is rather nice. What you suggest isn’t perfect, but if it represents a way to keep good writing alive under extreme pressure then so be it.

  6. Kevin May

    Matthew:

    I am not suggesting for a second that the trade media is corrupt. I’ll leave that for others to suggest. 🙂

    To your second point, it would be naive surely to think that advertisers decide they want to appear in the travel sections of newspapers because they want to fuel a national conversation about holidays. That’s rubbish. They want to peddle products and ideally want to be featured alongside relevant – and hopefully, positive – coverage of their service or destination.

    The literary pages are indeed about showing how clever the paper and its writers are. It’s a different mindset entirely.

    Readers browse the travel pages – or at least used to – because they are curious about places to go for their next trip.

    In terms of the conversation in travel… unfortunately for newspapers the conversation is far more likely to happen on forums, blogs, destination sites, social networks, etc.

    Newspapers are far too preachy (one-way dialogue) for an audience that, in reality and as research has shown, actually wants to engage with other consumers and, therefore, not be spoken to.

    It’s a shame because travel writing as an artform (and we all know there has been some glorious writing in the past) is in decline because 1) newspapers are not willing to pay for it because it doesn’t make money (newspaper don’t exist for the love, do they!?!) and 2) the attention span of web-savvy consumers means that the long-form is being replaced by a desire for snippets of info, quick reviews, price, etc, not the 1,500-word colourful treatise.

    Bit gloomy really.

  7. Jeremy Head

    The answer is straight forward. Do the deal and don’t tell the travel ed. I really think they don’t give two hoots about what deals are done behind their backs as long as they don’t know about it. What’s the difference between a tourist board organising nights in nice hotels and meals in good restaurants for you (which are often paid for out of their marketing budget rather than the cost being absorbed by the establishment) and a tourist board offering you modest payment for your time?

  8. Matthew Teller

    Many thanks for comments.

    @Kevin – Quite agree: it would be naive to think advertisers want to join in a national conversation. But that wasn’t my point. I was talking about editorial. As I am old-fashioned in thinking people like long-form feature writing, I’m also old-fashioned enough to believe that newspapers are better when they are editorial-led, rather than advertiser-led. Property aside, I can’t think of another part of newspaper publishing that is so completely in thrall to advertisers than travel. But why? The lit pages (I disagree w you) aren’t there to show how clever everybody is – they serve a very clear specific function for a very clear specific market – and that has next-to-nothing to do with what advertisers want. It’s all about what the editors want (not need) to publish, what writers want to say and what readers like to read. It all dovetails. Same with the sports pages. Same with the food pages. Same with the business pages. So what went wrong in travel?

    “Readers browse the travel pages – or at least used to – because they are curious about places to go for their next trip.”
    Do they? I think they just want to read about other parts of the world. It’s interesting to ponder other cultures, and always nice to dream. Do people read restaurant critics because they’re looking for somewhere to eat next weekend? I don’t think so. I think they want to hear what the expert writer has to say, how they’ve summarised the meal, and whether the place gets praised or panned. They know the journo visited anonymously – there’s a thrill in finding out what happened. Nothing to do with advertisers, or real life choices; it’s just a darn good read and a worthwhile investment of 5 minutes’ reading time. So what went wrong in travel?

    @Jeremy. Nice try – but deception ain’t good, partly because it’s not sustainable!

  9. C.B.Osborne

    I feel your desperation, but to expect an editor to run yr piece, to be paid for by a tourism board, is naive.

  10. Polprav

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

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