President Obama’s trip to Asia next month should prove to be reasonably newsworthy, given its regional summit meetings in China and Burma and a stopover in Australia. For the news media, however, there is a more immediate concern: the heart-stopping cost of covering the president’s travels.
News organizations began reacting with surprise and exasperation when they learned this week that a ticket to ride on the press charter plane that follows Obama throughout Asia will be $60,000. Per person.
That cost — the most expensive total ever — does not include hotel stays, meals and shared “ground costs,” such as the rental of hotel ballrooms for use as press filing centers. Those additional expenses could push the total bill to about $70,000 per person for nine days of travel, according to some White House journalists.
All told, it could cost news outlets as much as one-third more to cover this presidential trip — which is set to begin Nov. 9 — than it did when Obama traveled to Africa last year, or to Asia in 2012.
In an e-mail this week to members of the White House Correspondents’ Association, which makes press travel arrangements, the organization’s president, Christi Parsons,acknowledged that the cost was “staggering.” Parsons wrote in the e-mail: “No one is happy about it, and the WHCA board and the TV producers are looking at some creative ways to cut charter costs in the future.”
The cost of press charters is determined by a competitive bid among air carriers based on the number of people who sign up for the trip. Since the cost of the charter is shared among all those who travel on it, the price of a ticket decreases as the number of travelers increases. But the reverse is also true.
In this case, only two charter carriers bid on the trip, and the number of passengers who signed up to travel was relatively low — an average of just 51 passengers as of Thursday, or about half the usual number. Among others, the TV networks, the wire services and the New York Times are sending smaller contingents than usual. The Washington Post will have one reporter on the trip. Among other outlets committed to traveling on the press charter are the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, the Wall Street Journal and Tribune Newspapers.
The result of fewer passengers is increased costs for everyone on board. Based on 51 travelers for each of the trip’s five legs, the prorated cost for each leg would wind up at about $12,000.
The smaller media contingent might reflect declining interest in Obama, particularly given his lame-duck status immediately after the midterm elections, some White House correspondents said.
But some organizations might have been put off by potentially limited access to officials and official events, particularly in China and Burma — not the most press-friendly of nations.
“I know there’s been a lot of grumbling” about access, said Steve Thomma, a former WHCA president and senior White House correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. “We’ve been asking to see [Obama] more.”
In a statement, the WHCA’s Parsons said, “These access decisions are far from over — they tend to go right down to the wire — and we’re fighting like hell for all we can get.”
McClatchy is among the news organizations trying creative — that is, cheaper — ways to cover the trip. One of its White House reporters, Anita Kumar, will fly on commercial flights to and from Australia.
Thomma says, however, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the president by flying commercial for the entire trip. The presidential caravan departs and arrives at odd hours, often immediately after each event. “It’s too slow” to go commercial, he said. “I think we have to cover the president, especially 12 times zones away. We have to double down on finding ways to cut costs.”
Post journalists say the trip is too crucial for the newspaper not to travel on the press charter.
“We considered alternatives, such as relying on our colleagues on the Foreign staff, but we don’t have correspondents everywhere the president is going,” said Cameron Barr, The Post’s national editor. “The issues are too important — China, the U.S. role in Asia, the emergence of Burma — not to cover Obama’s trip firsthand. The Post’s readers expect nothing less.”