October 2012

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At least once a week I get a pitch from a freelance writer who wants to do a travel piece for us. This is typical:

“Dear Steve, I just returned from a wonderful five-day trip to [insert exotic destination] and thought it would make a great travel story for your magazine!”

Okay, I’m listening, though exclamation point probably not necessary.

“As you might know, Delta recently began daily nonstop flights from Atlanta to [insert exotic destination], so it’s of great interest to your readers.”

You’re probably right. Our surveys show our readers love to travel, especially when it’s just a quick flight from Hartsfield-Jackson. Keep going.

“I know times are tough for magazines, so I wanted you to know that there’d be no expense to you other than my assignment fee.”

You mean you don’t want us to reimburse your flight? Your hotel? Not even your meals?

“My trip was part of a special outing designed for a select group of travel writers, and sponsored by the [insert name of hotel] at [insert exotic destination]. We were able to try all the activities, from parasailing to a hot stone massage in the newly renovated spa that’s made of a special Mayan brick. I even burned my—”

Where’s the “delete” button? Ah, there it is.

Travel writing, I’ve come to realize, is one of the last great boondoggles of journalism. Fewer and fewer publications have the budgets to fund trips, so they rely instead on PR companies, airlines, chambers of commerce, and resorts to invite journalists to their destinations for a few days, all expenses paid. After they’re wined, dined, and suitably sunburnt, the writers are flown home (sometimes first class!), where they shop their experiences to whatever newspaper or magazine or website will run them.

So what’s the problem with this? Two come to mind. First, how can we know that the resort’s employees are treating journalists—obviously on assignment—the same way they treat a regular traveler? The truth is, we can’t. The writer’s experience is altered—let’s be honest, enhanced—by the recognition of what he does. And here’s the second problem: If I’m getting a five-day trip to a swank resort completely free of charge, what are the odds I’ll say something negative about my experience, even if there’s something justifiably bad to say? If I call it like I see it, this gravy train of free trips could come screeching to a halt, and then I’ll be like every other schmuck, having to actually pay for my vacations.

Is this cynical of me? Maybe. But it’s why Atlanta magazine continues to travel anonymously, paying our own way. I was reminded of the importance of this policy when I went to Blackberry Farm last fall, as part of this month’s Mountain Escapes package. Had I been part of a press trip—or had they even known I was on assignment—would they have put me in the room they did? Maybe, maybe not. But when I left, with every dollar I’d spent reimbursed by my bosses (thank you, corporate overlords), I knew I could call it as I saw it. It’s a privilege that doesn’t come cheaply. Compared with the price of our credibility, though, it’s a bargain.

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