Lonely Planet: We don’t accept freebies – except when we do

Lonely PlanetThe Age today digs a little deeper into Lonely Planet’s editorial policies following the Thomas Kohnstamm affair and the both the Melbourne daily newspaper and the travel icon emerge from the encounter looking more than a little worse for wear. The Age contrasts the strict editorial policies of Lonely Planet regarding its policies on freebies and desk-updates with comments from authors. Much more damaging, if true, are the admissions Lonely Planet rep Piers Pickard makes, particularly the pattern in which clear rules (no freebies, no “desk updates”) collapse under the weight of reality after closer questioning.

On freebies Pickard says

Lonely Planet lets its authors accept free entry to state-run institutions such as museums or national parks. Prodded further, he says the company also allows freebies when obtained through a tourist office. He says the wording of its policy will be tightened further in future books to close any perceived loophole.

And, about desk updates

“We don’t do desk updates. We’re really proud of the fact that we invest a lot of time and money sending our authors as far as we possibly can around the world,” he says.

Were there any exceptions? Mr Pickard pauses. He says there are cases where writers cannot travel to dangerous areas, such as parts of war-torn Afghanistan. “But I want to make it really, really clear, we go so much further than our competitors,” he says.

Asked about [allegations of desk updates regarding the South Australian outback], Mr Pickard admits that the time and cost taken to travel to particular areas is sometimes too high — particularly in the face of tight publication deadlines. He says the chunks of outback untouched by Lonely Planet will be updated in a subsequent edition, by which time the relevant portions of its guidebook will be six years out of date.

“We can’t cover the whole of the Australian outback. That’s like imagining our authors sleep in every single hotel,” he says.

The Washington Post recently compared Lonely Planet’s freebies policy with five other major guidebook publishers and it demonstrates just what a high bar LP sets for itself compared to the competition. It’s sad seeing Lonely Planet hoist with its own petard – its paying a high price for idealistic but impractical editorial policies which are inevitably flouted in Lonely Planetpractice. What’s becoming crystal clear is the public relations price of maintaining these impossible to uphold policies, so expect idealism to give way to pragmatism (even at the guidebook born on the hippy trail). However, if the experiences of Lonely Planet contributor “interviewed” for The Age article, Zora O’Neil, are to believed then the Lonely Planet still probably has a thing or two to teach The Age about editorial standards. O’Neil in her blog ‘Roving Gastronome’ labels the article ‘tacky, lazy journalism’

I had a sinking feeling after my phone interview with Peter Munro. It was a good twenty minutes of him fishing for me to say Lonely Planet was hypocritical…

I spent a lot of time in my phone interview saying, in fact, that I thought LP generally has great intentions, and maybe it had written its freebie policy without a loophole in mind. And executives have been very responsive to my comments on the freebies issue, which is more than I can say for any other employer I’ve ever had.

But because I was uncooperative and my rational response doesn’t make a great story, Munro just resorted to quoting my statements on this blog–without even attributing them, so Age readers can’t come here and read my full comments. Worse, it’s in a larger context that makes it sound like I have taken freebies while on the job with LP, which is completely untrue.

The latest chapter in this unfortunate affair which is doing nothing for the reputation of Lonely Planet, guide books, travel writers or telling travellers anything they couldn’t already guess. But like a traffic accident, you can’t bring yourself to avert your gaze.

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