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I just returned from the Editors Council for the Society of American Travel Writers. This group of travel experts mostly work for newspapers. I don’t have to describe the level of angst among these people. As newspapers declare bankruptcy or travel sections get folded into “lifestyles” sections along with Dear Abby and the crossword puzzle, most of the these editors have taken or were considering obligatory unpaid furloughs; pay freezes or cuts, buyouts or layoffs.

These newspaper editors were understandably consumed by their own troubles, but unfortunately this led to something I did not expect – a sad reconciliation and unquestioning acceptance of the current state of travel reporting on the Internet. They were so concerned about their newspaper jobs they seemed willing to accept anything anyone told them about working on the Internet – including that it is OK to give up their newspaper-based journalistic standards.

With one brief chance to speak to this distinguished group, I told them how much they have contributed to American travel journalism – primarily because of their “no free trips” editorial policy. Newspapers had the business model to afford truly unbiased travel reporting because they made enough money to pay the salaries of reporters and editors. This policy saved newspapers from the ripoff puff-pieces freelancers sometimes would write merely in exchange for a free trip.

The newspaper policy against free-trips is generally not in force on the Internet – a subject that I am sure has been thoroughly discussed at previous travel editor’s meetings. But something even worse is happening on the Internet now that I did expect to come up at this meeting, and sadly it did not. I am referring to undisclosed “pay for post” advertising that some online travel editors are allowing to happen on their web sites. This is actual paid advertising under the guise of unbiased user generated content.

There is currently an unbridaled exuberance happening in the media world with what is called social networking. I am referring to sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. The problem is that these sites allow people to post under any name with no requirement to disclose whether or not they are professionally affiliated with any company. If these three social networking sites choose to run their online worlds that way it is their business.

But it is just plain wrong for the editor of any NON-social networking site that also does professional reporting to allow anonymous people posting undisclosed advertisements on their sites – whether it is in message boards or reader submitted reviews of travel topics.

Yes, there are people, LOTS of people it turns out, who are “advertising” to you in message boards and you don’t even know it. Furthermore, there are web site editors who are not only allowing this to happen, they are encouraging it. And they pretend it doesn’t reflect poorly on the journalistic integrity of their entire web site. Needless to say, Cruisemates is NOT one of these sites.

Unfortunately, these newspaper reporters were so distraught they were hoping the web can save them, but they also mistakenly believe embracing the web means accepting this scourge of “undisclosed social media advertising”.

These expert travel writers are not stupid or without integrity. They have merely encountered a phrase they all despise, “dead-tree journalism,” one too many times. Well, I for one hope they can endure their pain long enough to realize that if they are going to bring their undisputed talent to the Internet that they must bring their ethics with them.

Fortunately, some travel Web sites are well-enough established to always write the truth without the fear of losing advertising business. CruiseMates is in this league. Another one is which is frequently picked up by

A Tripso contributing reporter, Anita Potter, just wrote a piece exposing a web site that allows anonymous readers to create forum posts about a certain cruise line without disclosing they are actually receiving compensation from this cruise line.

Why a travel Web site that is large and successful enough not to need this taint of their editorial integrity is giving air time to undisclosed “pay for post” editorial content is beyond me.

The truth is that there are travel product suppliers who will give compensation to web sites as long as they write only positive things about their product. Here is an example. The maker of a product called the “cruise caddy” asked us if we would review her product. Based on the picture alone I replied I was skeptical of the design. I told her that no cruiser carries keys anywhere. cruisingcaddy   Best in Biased Cruise Information Sure enough, when we received the product we tried it out and found it to be unsatisfactory, especially at the price of about $25.

We found a similar carrier better suited for cruisers onboard a Carnival ship selling for just $5.99. At the Cruise Caddy maker’s request we sent a copy of what we plan to write, which we thought was more than fair and balanced. She actually ordered us to change our review based on “her” research, not our own.

I have to say I was insulted by her insinuation that she could dictate what we write. We have not yet published our review of the product, but when we do it will be our own opinion. To test her, I offered to send the product back to her in lieu of writing our review. She asked us to send it back, presumably at our own expense. We told her (surprise) that we had chosen to go ahead with the review of her product, but we did not reply to her order to change our review according to her wishes. In case you are wondering, we are not going to change it.

Now, if you go to other cruise sites you will find glowing reviews of this product. So, when we see evidence of travel sites writing glowing reviews of overpriced products which we know the makers were distributing to the writers for free we have to ask, “where is the veracity in online consumer journalism?”

CruiseMates just released a full disclosure about our editorial policy. As far as I know, we are the only site online to fully divulge its editorial policy for covering cruises and our stated goals for making our reviews as unbiased as possible.

Truth in editorial is essential for the Internet if it is going to be the only place where people can get travel information. As the gatekeepers of travel writing, it is incumbent upon the travel editors of the SATW and the world to insist upon honest travel reporting on the Internet. We need to insist upon it in our own web site and in the web sites of our colleagues. What is fair for one must be fair for all.

So, to the Society of American Travel Writers Editor’s Council, I ask, “Please show us the outrage over undisclosed paid editorial content online! It is a shame that newspapers as a business are failing, but please don’t let become a free ticket for online travel editors to throw ethics out the window.

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