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.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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