In response to a press release we issued for a client this week, we received this e-mail message in response:

Please remove me from your email lists since we are no longer publishing travel information. Thanks.

Carol Parker
The Tampa Tribune

This came on the heels of the news last week that the last full-time newspaper travel editor in the state of Florida — Jane Wooldridge of the Miami Herald — had been appointed business editor of the paper. The news story noted that the Herald would announce when it named someone to “oversee” the travel section. Translation: there’s not going to be a full-time travel editor at the Miami Herald.

Wooldridge had done about as much as any travel editor could have to make herself indispensable to the paper. She wrote at least one article every week, she branded the section and she even spearheaded the creation of an annual travel trade show in Miami.

But the fact is that newspapers realize there’s plenty of wire service and syndicated travel content out there that can be had for less than the cost of maintaining a travel editor and actually paying for her to travel — despite the fact that the travel section remains one of the newspaper industry’s advertising bright spots.

By turning to freelancers, wire services and syndicates, newspapers avoid the sticky wicket of the ethical quandary of accepting complimentary travel, which, heaven forbid, could pollute any resulting story with smarmy public relations influence. That this tacit quid pro quo effect does not really exist is beside the point. For years newspaper travel editors have responded to our trip pitches with the lordly “We don’t accept free travel” or “We don’t take press junkets.”

Now that many of these same ex-travel editors have been bought out and find themselves among the masses of freelancers, their ethical qualms seem to quickly evaporate. As have the newspapers’ since now they have an extra layer of ethical protection between themselves and the writer, the wire service or syndicate. That tag “Special to the Herald” under a writer’s name does wonders to insulate the paper from any potential conflict of interest, regardless of whether the writer paid his own way or got a free ride from the travel supplier.

In the article announcing Wooldridge’s ascension to the business editorship, the Herald noted that in these harsh economic times having a seasoned editor of the business section was essential, and Wooldridge’s 26 years at the Herald certainly qualify her as seasoned. Whether it makes sense to not have a travel editor at a major newspaper in a major travel destination and feeder market remains to be seen.