Some truths about travel writing
Column by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
The first time I covered a Toronto Blue Jays game I walked to the media entrance of the stadium, where I was issued a square card attached to a lanyard that allowed me to make my way to the press box. Once there, I followed the crowd of veteran journalists who queued up for a long spread of food, a complimentary feast that was replenished through the game. This was 1993, the Blue Jays were world champions flush with cash. Had I purchased the food I ate, it would have cost $50 at a restaurant. Had I paid for an equivalent-value ticket, which gave me a view of the field looking down on home plate, it would have been another $50.
But I was a journalist working at the game and I paid nothing. No one ever asked me or any other sports journalist to disclose the price of the meal or the seat value. Readers don’t see notations at the end of sports articles that say the writer received admission to a game that the public is charged to attend. The same goes for concert reviewers, who receive free entry and ideal seats to performances that can cost some members of the public $200 or more. Movie reviewers, who see films for free before they’re released to the public, have their admission sponsored by the movie industry. Those reviewers never have to write that their tickets were handed to them by the production company.
That’s not the case with travel journalists. Some people — including the Federal Trade Commission of the United States — expect a writer to declare if a work trip was paid for by a tourism destination or if business entities mentioned in an article contributed to the experience of a visit. That’s a blatant double standard.
Several large media organizations won’t publish articles if a travel writer received assistance from a tourism board, or they will put a disclosure at the end of the article saying the trip was sponsored. Those same organizations will allow multiple members of their editorial units to accept free entry into big-ticket events — the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics, World Cup soccer games, film festival galas — that would cost large dollars. Those journalists are never asked to disclose in their articles or broadcasts that they received credentials (fancy word for free pass). What they do at these events is considered work by their establishments, but what travel writers do is deemed a perk or play.
The truth is travel journalism, when done well, is the best writing you will read in a publication. It provides insight into cultures and experiences, it adds names and faces to a destination without the trite prose of a marketer or sales agent, it reduces the risk a traveller might feel about going to a place that would otherwise seem uncomfortably foreign. Travel writing should bust down stereotypes and attack outdated ideas of a destination with fresh commentary and an honest, fair portrayal. Doing so is work. More than that, it’s vital.
A Double Standard When It Comes to Travel Writing
With newsrooms cutting their staff numbers dramatically, travel writing budgets are quickly being phased out. Journalists are working for far less. Without the fortune of a company expense account, their travel options are diminished. That means travel journalists are more and more dependent on tourism boards to provide the support necessary to thoroughly gather and disseminate information on a destination. Whether the journalist’s trip is covered by a corporate expense account from a media organization or the expense account of a tourism agency shouldn’t matter and in the case of professional writers it doesn’t matter.
These two articles published on Vacay.ca would not have been written without some form of assistance from a tourism board:
- Bruce Miller’s Rugged Beauty Boat Tours of Rural Newfoundland (includes a video)
- An American Mom’s Perspective on the Underground Railroad
Here are two that received no assistance:
Here are two where the tourism board paid for the transportation costs to the destination but not for the food or drink written about in the businesses highlighted:
If there is a difference in tone, quality, or objectivity I’d love to know. In the five years I’ve been a travel writer and editor, I’ve worked harder and produced almost as much content as I did in 15 years as a sports journalist at some of the largest publications in North America. While there’s no denying the toll an event like the Olympics will take on a journalist, the workdays for a travel writer are often filled with site inspections, abundantly long hours, sales pitches that need to be scrutinized, and lots of note-taking and writing. Almost always there is photography, videography, tweeting, Facebook entries, Instagram uploads, and more tasks necessary in the digital era. This work is not for everyone. It pays next to nothing and you can burn out fast doing it. That’s not to say I don’t love it. I do and I’m not trying to convince anyone it’s a chore. The job has all the great benefits everyone knows about: guided tours, exclusive entry into attractions and activities, and many things for free — including meals and drinks. The point is I consider it demeaning to professional travel writers if a government or editorial organization says a disclosure on how they accumulated the facts for their work needs to be revealed when writers focused on other topic areas are not required to do the same.
At Vacay.ca, our journalists don’t mention if a trip they took was subsidized because I know it doesn’t make a difference in their work. We practice advocacy, featuring the experiences, people, and tourism businesses in Canada that are deserving of attention. A writer who gets a free hotel stay and writes glowingly about the property risks her reputation if it’s not truly worthy of praise. Writers who aren’t dedicated to the craft are more likely to make such unscrupulous decisions.
As readers search for the voices to listen to in a fragmented media world, the same principles should apply with the travel writing they consume as with other choices they make. Is it a quality product? Do the content providers really care about the end result, or is it just a job to them? Are they in it for perks or is passion behind the work? Is there a level of craftsmanship as well as professionalism?
Those are questions for advertisers and sponsors to ask too. When you invite a journalist to your destination is his or her audience going to act on what is written? More than ad impressions and circulation numbers, it is audience action that many advertisers and marketers are starting to focus on. Rightly so. If a niche publication has a core audience that acts on the content they view, it is much more valuable than a large outlet with many content areas and whose readers flip from one section to the next.
At Vacay.ca, we’ve demonstrated leadership in advocacy in the digital publishing industry. Here are examples:
- More than 8,000 entries from the Canadian public to name the Top 50 Restaurants in Canada
- CBC report on how Vacay.ca traffic crashed the website of a featured destination when it was ranked at the top of one of our listings
- Cape Breton honoured us at its annual tourism conference because Vacay.ca’s content delivered significant revenue to the Nova Scotia island.
Destinations, restaurants, and tour operators want to be featured in our publication. Some will offer to fly us out for a visit. Some we will venture to on our own. In all cases, we will only write about the people who have inspired us and the destinations that offer visitors a true sense of place. In the end, our team of professional journalists treats the topic of each article the same, using years of experience and critical thinking to offer a fair assessment. That standard of objectivity is the only value media executives, advertisers, and readers should be concerned about when reading or viewing any piece of content, no matter the publication or the subject matter.