June 30, 2009

Gutless

Members of the ASTW have been outraged by a few events in the media recently that challenge the validity of travel journalism in Australia. This comes at a time when genuine journalistic standards are under extreme financial pressure, after a decade of decay and an appalling lack of editorial integrity sweeping the media landscape.

The art of travel is being squeezed into a lowest common denominator scenario, a race to the bottom.

Two events recently brought the mood of gloom to a head. First a posting on a blog that rather naively claims that Australian travel journalists are the worst in the world because they accept free trips (link here) (yes, does rather sound like someone *didn't* get a free trip and now they've hit the bitch button). Second was the promotion of Travel + Leisure Magazine as "the travel magazine you can truly rely on because their world-class editors, writers and photographers pay their own way wherever they go."

My first reaction to that little jibe was "bollocks, ya tossers". Some of the other ASTW members were a little more wounded by this, and the reaction was potent. This seemingly innocuous piece of self-congratulatory skyting really dug at a decade of hard knocks for the professionals in the business. Having had their incomes slashed, their content shoe-horned into increasingly smaller slots, their access to sponsored travel stripped away year after year the real travel journalists (freelancers who are committed to travel and make a living selling their work) are now being slapped in the face with a wet haddock.

The suggestion is that you can't trust other travel writers because they accept sponsorship. Which is like saying a review of a sports car is tainted because the writer didn't buy the car, or similar for movie critics, culinary writers, wine editors, etc. In essence, if you didn't have industry sponsorship of critics and writers you wouldn't have much media left at all.

It especially irks the real travel journos because they live or die on the quality of their work. If you don't sell the story to an editor you don't get paid. Travel + Leisure are a little bit different of course. It's not clear how their travel gets paid for - are they earning such a substantial salary from the magazine that the cost of the travel is fully compensated, or is the magazine directly picking up the tab by way of an allowance. Either way, the point is the employer is ensuring the costs are covered, not the writer.

It means the travel is not paid for by a hotel chain with a vested interest in the outcome. That is true. Compare that to a freelance journo who accepts a limited number of famils each year and writes up the ones that are sellable were worthy of coverage. If the hotels were rubbish and the destination a bore then the writer isnt going to waste time writing them up, they go write something that's actually worth *reading*.

As one of my editors put it, why fill a travel section with stories of where NOT to travel. That's not what their audience wants.

Travel writers are people who chose a lifestyle based on sharing what is wonderful and inspiring others to broaden their horizons. Life is too short and the world too fascinating to waste too much time talking about what sucks in travel.

And here's the rub - the off-handed remarks by bloggers and well-paid staff journalists strike an off note because they call into question the motives of the freelance journalists. They drop words like freeloaders and have a laugh about snouts in the trough. One particular editor has earned himself a reputation for denigrating the very writers he buys content from - again a case of sour grapes having failed as a freelancer himself.

Such casual character assassination of freelance writers is particularly nasty because the real motives of the writers are nearly always far more noble. These are people who gave up other career opportunities and better paying jobs in order to do something worthwhile. They are humanitarians, they fund raise for charities, they actually give a damn about the inequality they see overseas and in Australia. They are the ones who have opened their minds to a bigger world and have made a decision to share that world as best they can.

Instead of being respected for giving up the security of a staff job to invest their lives in the real world, they are simply labelled as freeloaders and told their stories are lies - all because someone else picked up the bill for a hotel and an airline ticket.

That's gutless.

Let's not forget why travel is important. It broadens our appreciation for life, makes us aware that there is more to life than the narrow confines of a job, a house in the suburbs and two cars in the driveway. Without travel the scope of our appreciation for humanity is restricted to what we already know.

And for the most part we know very very little. The more you travel the more you realise how little we know. It's humbling, expanding and inspiring.

1 comment:

Roderick said...

My, Ewen, you are a thinking and passionate man. Finding I agree with almost all of what you say, except that, in truth, there are a few ruthless self-centred and unrepentant egotists among the flock. Fortunately these tougher times will sort them and the responsible, thoughtful travellers, readers (and editors) will pass them over. The future looks bright for you.