Journalists should pass on free Amtrak tickets

Freelance writer Jessica Gross just has a thing for writing and trains. So when Amtrak offered her a free $400 roundtrip train ride from New York to Chicago, she hopped on board. Now, hundreds of writers, musicians and journalists are on Twitter asking Amtrak to consider them for a free ride, too.

She writes for a wide range of clients. “I write for the New York Times Magazine,  I interview writers about literary things,” she explained. “I am not really a travel writer.”

The notion of an Amtrak “writer-in-residence” started in a Twitter exchange, one of those “I wish..” musings. Novelist Alexander Chee was asked in a December interview the location of his favorite place to write. He responded, “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers. And after trains, libraries at night, especially empty ones.”

The wish struck a chord with other writers who tweeted it. Gross picked up on the thought:

 

She comes by her interest in trains naturally. In an essay about train travel she wrote, “My father is a foamer. That’s the technical term for a rail fan so enthusiastic he foams at the mouth at the sight of a train.” And she said she has her own affinity for the rails, finding comfort in the coziness of the compartmentalization of a train car.

Amtrak says “yes”

Gross’ tweet caught Amtrak’s eye and that lead to her January trip. She produced a story for The Paris Review. The Wire reported about the trip and over the weekend, Twitter exploded with writers wanting to find a way to belly up to the club car.  Fiction writers, poets, travel writers, playwrights, musicians, photographers and illustrators wanted in.

As Amtrak would say on its blog, “We loved the idea.” Amtrak started a hashtag and the accolades rolled in calling it “brilliant” and “awesome.”

I have no troubles with a novelist or song writer taking handouts from Amtrak if they want to. But where journalists are concerned, or for anyone who practices what they consider to be “journalism” in whatever form, The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is clear:

Journalists should:

— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

Gross didn’t hide her $400 handout. In fact, she was quite clear in her article that she wrote for The Paris Review that her train ride was paid for by Amtrak.

“Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)”

“It was important to do the disclaimer,” Gross said. “I would not want to do a piece without being forthright. It is important to readers that they know I am not doing some secret payment situation. I let my editors know how all of this came about.”

The Paris Review article links the reader to a headline on the Amtrak blog “Tweet Lands Writer Best Workspace Ever.”

“Amtrak told me they wanted to do an interview with me for their blog,” Gross told me. “I feel like I could have said no.” She said Amtrak accurately used what she said, and what she said after her free trip was glowing. Here is a passage:

Amtrak: What advice do you have for other writers who haven’t tried Amtrak before?

Gross: Try it! Don’t be too ambitious with what you plan to get done: Allow for time spent gazing out the window, letting ideas work themselves out in your mind. It’s that kind of deep thinking that the train is particularly good for, and that can be more difficult to achieve in the interstices of busy day-to-day life.

Amtrak also wanted her to share her train ride with Twitter followers.

“They also asked me to send tweets during my trip. I called them back and said because of my own standards, I won’t tweet unless it felt organic. They said that was fine and I filed three photos along the way, I also included their hashtag in the tweets.”

This is familiarly squishy ground for journalists who have seen travel budgets slashed. Freelance writers are even more pressed for the money to travel for a story. “Even after the free train ticket I still lost money on this story,” Gross said. She paid for her hotel room and other expenses in Chicago.

“For years some travel writers have asked hotels to comp their rooms or food,” Poynter ethics leader Kelly McBride said. “Of course it sets up a direct conflict when the journalist writes about that hotel or destination. They are accepting gifts from the very subjects they are covering.” In fact one #AmtrakResidency journalist tweeter said:

 

Amtrak has not said if it will expand the writer-in-residence program beyond “a test run.” But it is encouraging writers to keep using its hashtag while Amtrak sets up a formal application policy, an indication more writers will become riders.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • jenniecoughlin

    So, since my editor and I are talking about this topic, what’s your opinion on the line for those of us who are both journalists and novelists and want to apply for a residency to work on our fiction (and take vacation days to do so)? (Assuming Amtrak/transportation isn’t on your beat when you’re in the newsroom, of course.) And does that still hold if it’s a more traditional writing fellowship/residency through a college, nonprofit or government arts program?

  • atompkins

    If you think there is no problem taking free trips, then take the free trips and explain why you did. But to pay one dollar as you suggest says to me that you knew it was wrong to take a free trip and wanted to pretend you paid for it. It would be even harder to defend. If you want to take free trips, don’t be a journalist. It is not that hard. There are tons of honest ways to make a living that do not present the restrictions on lifestyle that journalism does.

  • JerseyPete1

    I have written about Amtrak twice since I started at this small paper a year ago. Once a train ran over and killed a guy. The next time the train totaled a pickup, but the driver escaped. LOL! I don’t think they’ll want to pay me.

  • atompkins

    Dan,
    The SPJ code is pretty clear for journalists. Other organizations have similar prohibitions against journalists accepting gifts. I don’t think of that as being pedantic (narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned ) but clearly we live in an age when that is up for debate. Sounds like good fodder for a column, which is why I wrote it. (Your issue with spelling is not pendantic. It is a right-on and deserved kick in the shin. Lesson sheepishly noted and edits made.)

    Now, on to facile. Facile means “appearing neat and comprehensive only by ignoring the true complexities of an issue; superficial.” That is never my intent.

    As I see it, the true complexity here is not that complex. By the dozens, writers of various types are jumping on Twitter to tell Amtrak they want to ride a train and don’t want to or can’t pay for it. It is the same thing I have heard from people who call themselves “travel writers” for years. They say they are doing a great public service of reporting on cool places while staying and/or eating for free while writing about the very people who pay the bills. I sympathize with the notion that they could not make those trips if they had to pay for them. I cannot square the conflict for them. Maybe they will have to report on things closer to home. At minimum they have to do what Jessica did-disclose the deal.

    This is a half-step away from an issue that was serious enough
    that no less than the Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines for
    bloggers to disclose compensation related to advertising marketing and
    sales. I would consider this Amtrak experiment “marketing.”
    See FTC guidelines: http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-staff-revises-online-advertising-disclosure-guidelines/130312dotcomdisclosures.pdf

    We all have faced these pressures. We want to go here or there to cover a story and the boss can’t or won’t pay for it. There is no need to abandon the idea. It is not a now-or-never kind of story. Seek alternatives. There is no urgency to write this essay now. Find other assignments you can do along the way that would pay for a self-funded trip.

    In any case, I am glad you weighed in with your concerns. It is nice to see an editor fight for his writer, even if we don’t see the issue the same way this time.

    Pendanticly yours,

    Al

  • Dan Piepenbring

    As the editor who published Jessica Gross’s piece, I’m astonished at how uncharitable you’ve been here, and at how willfully facile your analysis is. I knew when I accepted her work that it was not attempting an objective answer to the question “Does Amtrak provide a nurturing environment to writers?” It is, unmistakably, a personal essay, not a work of objective journalism: it’s about trains as muses, and approaching it as such, Jessica is acting more like a novelist than a journalist. Had she set out to write a five-part investigative series on a plot to
    conceal inefficiencies in locomotives, well, that would be another
    story. (A story I would’ve rejected.) But no: she wanted to ride the train, and write on it. In this country, a writer interested in trains has no choice but to take Amtrak. I knew, then, that this piece would reflect kindly on Amtrak, but that kindness is incidental.

    If all writers were to adhere so unswervingly to the criteria you
    cite here, a piece such as Jessica’s would’ve been impossible; neither
    she nor the Paris Review could have paid for the train ticket. How,
    then, would you suggest pursuing this piece? It seems as if the only option would be to abandon it. That feels like a pity—Jessica would have been denied the opportunity to pursue a longstanding interest, and our readers
    would have been denied her thoughts about the experience, which, given
    their enthusiastic response to her piece, they’ve enjoyed.

    I would just as readily publish a piece claiming that trains are awful places to write, and I’m sure that had this been Jessica’s experience, she would not have hesitated to say so. For what it’s worth, though, I don’t consider the Paris Review Daily to be an
    outlet for capital-J Journalism, at least not in any conventional sense. It’s the web presence of a literary magazine; impartiality has
    never been one of its watchwords. It aims to publish stylish, provocative, thoughtful writing. Were it to hew too closely to any one definition of journalistic integrity, it would be no fun to read, as indeed most bastions of Journalism are no fun to read.

    In short, to apply any code so strictly is pedantic—just as it would be pedantic
    for me to point out that you mean “playwright,” not “playright,” and
    “struck a chord,” not “struck a cord.”

  • steve849

    The Code of Ethics is clear that journalists “should,” not “must.”

  • http://www.lascheratlarge.com/ Bill Lascher

    There are still so many questions about the shape of this residency that dismissing it outright (or celebrating it whole-heartedly) doesn’t make sense. If someone receives the residency to cover Amtrak, yes, there are ethical questions. But first of all, there’s no indication that Amtrak will only give the (still very amorphously defined) residencies to travel journalists discusisng rail travel generally or Amtrak specifically (or travel more broadly). One may, for example, use the residency as a way to tell the stories of the people aboard the train, people to whom one may not have access without the residency. Or one may use the residency as a wrting space about totally separate subjects having nothing to do with trains or travel or Amtrak. Someone might use the retreat of being on the rails as a distraction-limiting environment as, perhaps, one travels between two different source locations. That’s no different than other writing residencies in remote cabins, seaside retreats, college and university campuses, etc. Do we question the ethics of a journalist accepting a multi-thousand-dollar stipend from a university to study at and write at the institution in exchange for for teaching a couple classes or presenting there? That’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but if we’re going to question one award, we should question them all. I don’t think it’s clear, first of all, that any expectations have been made that these residencies will only go to travel reporers and, secondly, whether they’re even only directed at journalists. Writers residencies target a far bigger universe than just reporters, and, as you noted, this isn’t necessarily limited to them. Gross was right to be transparent about the award, and to be clear with Amtrak about expectations associated with it. Transparency isn’t a one-way street, and we begin to address perceived conflicts of interest by being transparent.