The Problem of Press Trips
by Keph Senett
Freelance writers are masters of ingenuity. We have to be. Decreasing wages and increasing demands have made full-time freelance writing a losing proposition. Those of us who wish to remain in the field quickly develop strategies to make it work: We stack assignments, boost our incomes with part-time jobs, and network like crazy. It’s part of the job now, like photography or social media management. One tactic, though—working press trips—draws a particular brand of condemnation, and this censure may be hurting readers as much as writers.
I write for my living, but even though I have no dependents and no debt, I struggle to pay my bills. When I began as a freelance writer, my specialties were human rights and grassroots soccer—two niche topics not typically commanding robust per-words, never mind travel budgets—but by adding travel writing to my areas of expertise I was able to expand my reach. The way it works is simple. I partner with a tourism bureau or destination management organization and they fly me somewhere and show me some things. In return, I produce and place well-written travel articles in various media. And while I’m there, I extend my trip (on my own dime) to interview soccer players or activists, or attend an event or do whatever it is that I need to do to get the story I’m after. It’s a win-win—but it depends on the press trip, and the press trip is considered…vulgar.
The New York Times won’t accept work resulting from a press trip; writers need to find other ways to report their stories. The issue becomes more complex when you consider that the publication also reserves the right to reject work from writers who have received comps in the past. The price of admission to publish in one of the world’s most prestigious papers is not producing original writing of outstanding quality—or at least not only that—it’s also doing it without taking advantage of one of the few partnerships available to writers. Boiled down, this policy affects those writers without access to their own money, or a patron, or a grant. The nasty result is an implicit bias based on socioeconomic class.
It could be argued that if any publication has earned the prerogative to police writers’ past and present research methods, it’s the Gray Lady. But it’s not just The Times doing the policing. Recently, I pitched a story to a publication with which I’d worked several times before. They are young; they say they don’t have a budget to pay writers properly. I earn less than two hundred bucks for each original feature I place with them. They do have promise, however, and they publish some interesting work so I identified them as a potential outlet for a researched piece I was working on. I mentioned in my pitch that I was travelling courtesy of the local tourism board, but the story—a first-hand experiential feature—had nothing to do with tourism or any partners. The pitch was rejected, I was told, because they didn’t want work originating in a press trip.
I was stung. The implication was that in the face of sponsored relationships, my journalistic integrity could not be trusted. The attack on my ethics ate at me; this was a publication that knew me and my work. As I reflected, though, I became angrier. This was also a publication that paid me far under market value. Past features I’d placed with them had come from places as far away as Russia. Did they think I dipped into the trust fund to finance that travel, I wondered. Of course I hadn’t—I had leveraged all of the tools I had at my disposal so that I could get the story. The publication had been happy to run it.
I wish I had more options to fund my work. Sometimes the press trip is vulgar. Sometimes it’s a cattle call, attracting disenchanted freeloaders, and I try not to go on these trips because they’re fruitless and depressing. I also think that I should be trusted, based on the merits of my work, to make that call. Consider this: I’ve dedicated the past half-dozen years to doing on-the-ground first-person interviews with girls and women who play soccer. My work has taken me to places like South Africa, Peru, Mexico, and Russia. These are fresh, original conversations about the world’s most popular sport had with people who have never been asked. None of this work would have been possible if I thought it was beneath me to accept sponsorship.
The story I pitched is still looking for a home. It’s about working class people in a changing industry—not the most glamorous stuff, but still worth telling, I think. What does it matter that a tourism bureau paid for my flights?
Publications are free to set their guidelines, of course, but they can’t have it both ways. They can’t command fresh, original first-person reporting but pay intern rates. Somebody has to foot the bill to get these stories, and if that expense falls to the writer, then readers will have to settle for stories told by a very select few.
Keph Senett is a Canadian writer and activist whose passions for travel and soccer have led her to play the beautiful game on four continents. When not writing, she spends her free time trying to figure out how to qualify for a soccer squad in Asia, Australia, or Antarctica. You can find her on Twitter at @kephsenett.