Friday, 12 November 2010

Press trips: good or bad for writers?

Back in September I took my very first press trip. While I've been to many press events over the years, this was the first time I did a long trip on someone else's dime. VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire footed the bill for ten Canadian and American travel writers to spend a few days in Yorkshire seeing sights related to the Brontë sisters. The result was a series I wrote for Gadling titled Exploring Yorkshire: Ghosts, Castles, and Literature in England's North.

Press trips are controversial in the industry. Many markets don't accept articles written about press trips, citing conflict of interest and inherent bias. Those markets that do use press trips are selective and tend to use them sparingly.

Fellow Gadlinger Tom Johansmeyer has written an excellent post about press trips that all travel writers should read. His main point is that press trips make our job possible. How else are brokeass writers supposed to fly over Zambia in a Cessna or review some luxury resort in the Caribbean? I fund much of my travel by double-dipping, combining book and blogging projects. That's how I managed my travel series on Ethiopia. Not everyone can do that.

Tom also makes the point that while writers have to mention that they had their trip paid for, some guy sitting at a desk working off a press release doesn't have to mention he never saw the place he's writing about! Press trips actually improve reliability and objectivity because the PR filter is somewhat broken down.

My personal experience on this was educational. Our schedule was pretty tight and so we didn't have much time to wander around independently. This is the complete opposite of my usual relaxed wandering. People make a lot of noise about press trips leading to biased coverage, but I didn't experience that. There was some boring stuff they made us see that I simply didn't cover. Good restaurants got a mention, but one hyped-up place that served mediocre food didn't get appear in my series. If a sight was important and popular enough that I had to cover it, I was honest. The Jorvik Viking Centre is one of York's biggest attractions and my article reflects what a cheesy tourist trap it really is.

So press trips aren't the bugbear many people think. It does lead to some bias because all writing is biased. My travel in Somaliland was shaped by my preconceptions and experiences on the ground, plus the eagerness of the Somalis to paint their emerging nation in the best possible light. My series on Yorkshire was shaped by what they showed me and what they didn't show me. The mere fact that I went on it changed the coverage. Would I have written a positive series on England this fall? Yes. Would it have been about Yorkshire? Probably not.

So press trips are a vital part of the industry. They can work as long as writers and readers all know what's involved.

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Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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