There are few humans who do not feel a delicious tickle of warmth in the gut upon receipt of a ticket to some far-flung, delightfully five-star slice of the world, absolutely free. While most publications have policies on how to deal with the vast range of freebies sent to them in the hope of attracting a few words of positive coverage, the print travel sector has its own concerns.
Travel magazines or newspaper supplements need to fill a certain number of pages with desirable destinations, either weekly or monthly.
And since travel and tourism companies are keen to see their luscious lodges or hotels appear on editorial pages, a cosy, mutually beneficial relationship has been established. As a result, some journalists travel more often than our deputy-president - and in as much luxury.
Accepting ‘sponsored’ or ‘educational’ trips can make sense. Dave Marsh, publisher of the trade journal Travel News Weekly, uses the example of a small, luxury cruise ship now voyaging around the South African Coast. “This is cruising unlike South Africans know it and is newsworthy,” he says. “To write an independent report will cost the editor seven days of a journalist’s time and some R50,000. If the subject merits 1,000 words, then the expenses are R50 a word.” Needless to say, the story would never appear.
Yet sponsorship definitely leaves footprints in editorial content. Marsh believes that “when someone hosts you or gives you something, you tend to lose your independence”. Successful players in the print travel sector - like Getaway, Weg, the Sunday Times Lifestyle’s Travel & Food section and travel supplements in The Star - all extol editorial independence. “Travel in the Star and Saturday Star is editorially independent,” says travel editor Carol Lazar. (The Saturday Star attracts a swathe of weekend readers, selling an average of 144,972 copies a week.) “If our journalists are invited on a trip, we do not sign any agreements, we do not promise to write glowing editorial, we go on the understanding that the reporter will write it as it is - which is what we do. If our journalists are guests, we put clearly at the bottom of articles that our writers are invited by so and so— so that our readers know from whence the writer comes.” Lazar believes this policy, plus a balance of local and international destinations, is key to their growing readership.
Yet - no surprises here - editorial concerns can clash with what sponsors or advertisers want. “Personally, I think the stated principle of ‘we have to preserve the integrity of our editorial independence’ is a load of bull,” says Pentravel director, Robert Crankshaw. “If there is a free trip, there must be promotion of the sponsor who organised and paid for it.” Pentravel, which spends about R4-million a year on advertising in a range of regional and national newspapers, occasionally offers free trips on behalf of its suppliers. While Crankshaw says in theory these trips come with no strings attached, “in practice, if we sent someone overseas at our cost and got nothing out of it, we would never do it again.”
Crankshaw also notes that from Pentravel’s point of view, “it is better to get informed, competent coverage of a high end product, like a cruise to Alaska, than a holiday at Sun City”. Local destinations are thus at a disadvantage. Angela Wood, marketing manager for Thompsons, has another take on this: “We get more of a response to international press trips and resistance to domestic travel,” she says. “It’s sad, because a lot of South Africans can only afford to travel domestically.”
Thompsons advertises primarily in the Star and Sunday Times and considers press trips a better way of obtaining coverage in magazines. Wood admits they favour publications or journalists who “give us good coverage - by that I mean if we know the article is likely to result in six pages.” But, she says, they do not attempt to influence content, other than to “try to make the destination and trip as good as possible. We expect journalists to tell the truth.” Carrie Hampton, freelance travel journalist and chairperson of the Southern African Freelancers Association, believes that telling the truth (although essential) is seldom a cause of conflict. “It’s often hard not to write good things about a trip,” she says. “Generally good news in travel is more important than bad news.”
But Crankshaw says he finds it hard to get “quality” reporting on trips. Another gripe sponsors have is that inappropriate people are sometimes sent on freebie trips, and little or no coverage is received in return.
Sunday Time’s Travel & Food publisher, Susan Russell, says the paper has set strict guidelines to ensure that misunderstandings with sponsors do not crop up. “Each trip is assessed very carefully and the question is asked every single time: Can we write a story that is credible and has integrity, and what does the sponsor expect? If we can’t give them what they expect, then we must say no.” The Sunday Times (the behemoth of weekend publishing with an ABC of 505,066, January to June 2005) also pays its travelling journalists a hefty allowance to ensure they escape the five-star surrounds of luxury freebies and track down stories that will appeal to the supplement’s audience. “We expect journalists to find their own story, not regurgitate screeds of copy about what a fantastic business class seat they had,” Russell says.
She believes advertisers, editors and journalists have become lazy. “Make the journalist work,” she says. “If you really want a story that is going to create interest in the readers’ minds, put the journalist into the hotel your reader is going to stay in. Also, the kind of advertorial drivel [so often printed] happens because the tour operator is so desperate for value for money that they pack the trip full. Blame also lies with tour operators. If they want advertorial, they should do what tour operators do overseas… buy space and put in their own advertorial.”
If advertisers are difficult to keep happy, readership is also volatile. Like most magazines and newspapers, the travel sector is fighting to grow their share of a shrinking pie. Total newspaper sales are down from 3,1 million from January to June 2004 to 2,9 million for the same period last year. Magazine sales for the same period have increased by about 275,000 - but the number of titles on offer has leapt from about 340 titles in 2004 to 376 titles in 2005.
One magazine feeling the pinch is Getaway (ABC 80,323, January to June 2005, steeply down from 92,334 copies in 2004). Editor David Bristow believes the falling sales were influenced by accepting the wrong kinds of freebie. “At one stage Getaway was absolutely inundated with invitations to travel,” he says. “But it began affecting content. We started visiting too many places of the same kind. At the time when the rand was dipping, there was this explosion of international-style luxury lodges in South Africa, and we pushed our content too much in that direction. We thought we were following a trend, but suddenly realised that was not where our readers were going. It worked against us in the long run because our competitors saw what we were doing and jumped into the gaps.”
Getaway’s most obvious competitor is Weg (previously Wegbreek), aimed at high-income readers of LSM7 and above who “can afford to stay in a lodge but prefer to camp”. Editor Bun Booyens believes free travel negatively affects coverage. “You may write very truthfully about duck-hunting in Albania, but it’s because you have visited Albania courtesy of the duck-hunters’ society that you are writing about that particular subject,” he says. “The choice of subject matter is not independent anymore.” He argues that a bias towards certain destinations means publications can find it difficult to fulfil their obligations to readers. Unacknowledged sponsorship is also dubious: readers must be able to follow the money and know when a journalist has been given a freebie.
Weg has taken the unprecedented step of paying its own way - and travelling anonymously. Booyens says that “I buy [a travel magazine] because I believe the editorial team 100% carry my interests at heart. That means they visit places on my behalf, select those places according to my needs, then report back honestly to me.” The bottom line: No free travel is accepted, unless offered by somebody like South African National Parks (as custodians of public land, Booyens believes Weg has an obligation to report on what they get up to). And if the magazine did deviate from policy, Booyens says readers would be informed. He doesn’t find Weg’s policy limiting, although the fact that it focuses primarily on African destinations probably helps control the budget. “Our thinking is that if as a magazine we can’t afford to visit a destination, then probably Joe Soap won’t be able to either.”
Sales reflect reader approval: Weg has galloped up the circulation charts. It currently sells just over 74,396 copies a month, 30,000 of which go directly to subscribers. Booyens believes Weg’s editorial policy has “turned out to be a considerable strategic advantage”. He points to the recent furore around Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s trip to the United Arab Emirates, estimated to have cost some R700,000. “If the media is to fulfil its role as a watchdog, then it has to have at least the same standards as those set for public officials,” Booyens says. “We can’t say well, we accept freebies; we don’t keep a register of gifts; just trust us. Are our own ethical codes, bookkeeping and registers kept to the same standard as those expected from public officials? It would be irresponsible if this was not the case. The media in South Africa cannot set higher standards for public officials than they set for themselves.”