The Los Angeles Times has often acted like a poor man's version of The New York Times. And why not? The East Coast paper is considered the paper of record, has legions of readers and gobs of reporters, foreign bureaus all around the world, podcasts where a guy cries while talking to a coal miner, cool videos of people jumping in slow motion, nationally respected (OK, ridiculed — but nationally!) columnists. The Los Angeles Times ... does not have those things. But hey, at least the president doesn't call it "failing!"
Anyway, The New York Times recently caused a bit of a stir by announcing plans to organize lavish, private vacation packages for $135,000 per person, flying guests around the world to nine different countries aboard a private jet. Best of all, the lucky tourists would be accompanied by such New York Times luminaries as Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, columnist Nicholas Kristof and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
The jet tour is simply the latest "journey" offered by The New York Times — trips that have been criticized in some circles.
"You have people who may wield some influence paying for some one-on-one access with journalists," says Andrew Seaman, a reporter for Reuters and the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee. "It’s bad optics. Especially at a time when trust and confidence in the press is in jeopardy, I don’t think we can spare that."
Now the Los Angeles Times wants to get in on that journo-tourism action. In a very special message emailed out last week, publisher-editor Davan Maharaj announced the West Coast paper's answer to New York Times "journeys": L.A. Times "expeditions."
Now, for just $3,995, you can spend six wonderful days and five magical nights in Chicago with L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. Or, for just $4,995, you can spend a full week with Hawthorne exploring the architecture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In addition to providing photo ops with obscenely tall skyscrapers, the trip also promises to be educational: "Delve also into the darker side of such rapid expansion — accusations of worker abuse and human rights violations. Come away with a balanced perspective and new insight into this fascinating and dynamic part of the world."
Other, non–Hawthorne related trips include a week in Vienna with culture writers Jessica Gelt and Deborah Vankin for $6,295; 11 days in South Africa with Johannesburg bureau chief Robyn Dixon and deputy managing editor Scott Kraft for $6,795; eight days in Mexico with reporter Kate Linthicum and culture writer Carolina Miranda for $5,995; and a six-day romp around the Grand Canyon with photojournalist Mark Boster for $5,395.
There's also a trip to Tuscany with the one and only Jonathan Gold, with details and price yet to be determined (typical Gold, always blowing deadlines).
L.A. Times director of communications Hillary Manning explains the new venture thusly:
Similar to the 100 or so events we produce throughout the year — including Festival of Books, Food Bowl and the Taste — the travel program is another way to share the expertise in our newsroom and bring subjects that we cover to life. It’s also a way to develop another source of revenue, to help fund our journalism, as advertising and circulation revenues have declined.
In short: Not enough people pay for journalism. Maybe people will pay to vacation with journalists? (Try ruining that, Facebook!)
Right then, let's get to the handwringing.
"The L.A. Times [trips] are a lot cheaper than what The New York Times is running, but I still have concerns," Seaman says. "The fact that you have these journalists going along with people paying a lot of money is sort of a conflict."
Manning doesn't see the problem.
"Los Angeles Times journalists are available to the public throughout the year — by email, phone, social media and in person at events, many of which are free to attend," Manning writes in an email. "I don’t think there’s been a time when people have had more access to journalists than they do now."
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Former L.A. Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky doesn't see an ethical conflict either. He just thinks the whole thing is a little embarrassing.
"It’s typical of the L.A. Times," he says. "They don’t pioneer much. They’re always a bit late in copying someone else. But I guess you can expect them to do anything to make a little money. This is another revenue stream. But you wonder if it’s worth it."
After all, four or five thousand dollars — roughly half of what The New York Times is charging for a typical "journey" — is "what a trip costs [with] any tour guide," Wolinsky says. "You have to wonder, at that rate, if it’s worth the staffer's time to be out not reporting. I could understand if they’re getting $135,000 a person. This hardly seems worth it."
In a related story, L.A. Weekly is pleased to announced its own set of journalist-guided tours, tentatively called "Vacays." For just $895, you can spend three days with me and Dennis Romero in Ojai, where we'll, I don't know, go on a hike or something. Send cash.