It’s the trip of a lifetime — around the world in 26 days, with stops in nine countries. Just 50 people will travel on this guided tour next year via a private Boeing 757 to places like Marrakesh, Easter Island and Reykjavik, Iceland.
The price: $135,000 per person.
And that’s not all. Those who make the journey will be accompanied on various legs by journalists from the New York Times. The newspaper is organizing and promoting the package, which it calls “Around the World by Private Jet: Cultures in Transformation.” Among those scheduled to join the traveling party are Washington bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof and Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
The super-luxe journey and other Times-sponsored travel packages are a lucrative source of income for the paper at a time when news organizations are under increasing financial pressure. The round-the-world trip — which could gross as much as $6.7 million — is part of a range of products and services designed to “monetize” the Times’s brand name, from $100 tote bags to event sponsorships. Other news organizations, including The Washington Post, which sells T-shirts and other merchandise, engage in the practice.
But the Times’s trips raise a question among journalism ethics experts about ethics and access: Is the Times effectively selling its journalists to private interests? Could, for example, corporate lobbyists or political operatives sign on and seek to influence the Times’s coverage?
Although the question is largely theoretical, the issue has come up before in a somewhat different context. In 2009, The Washington Post aborted an effort to produce “salons,” or small private dinners that would bring together the newspaper’s top editors and publisher with government officials and industry lobbyists. The off-the-record dinners were to be sponsored by individuals or corporations willing to pay anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000.
Media reports about The Post’s plans triggered a public outcry. Critics said the paper was violating its own principles by peddling its journalists to vested interests and cutting its readers out of the dinner party. The acrimony prompted the paper to back away from the idea before it was ever implemented.
The Times’s round-the-world excursion is by far the most elaborate and expensive package it markets using its journalists as a lure. But it also offers other packages under its Times Journeys brand for those with somewhat less disposable income.
For example, a 13-day cruise in October around Southeast Asia aboard a “megayacht,” as an online brochure describes it, starts at $10,790 per person, not including international airfare to the trip’s embarkation point. The cruise features lectures on “Donald Trump’s grand economic plan” by Gretchen Morgenson, the Times’s assistant business editor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.
Prices for a 15-day cruise around Scandinavia featuring columnist Maureen Dowd and chief Washington correspondent Carl Hulse start at $5,129 for an interior cabin. The fare rises to $16,489 per person for a “pinnacle” suite on the tour, which the Times is marketing as “Fjords, Falls and Foreign Affairs.”
Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said the paper’s travel packages are “educational travel experiences” and that its journalists don’t engage in any reporting or writing while abroad or afloat.
“We see no comparison to The Washington Post’s much-criticized concept to host private parties that were marketed as having the potential to alter political debates by interacting with elected officials, policymakers and others,” she said.
On the other hand: The Times doesn’t control who signs up. The passenger manifest isn’t screened, she said.
That means the Times “essentially gives unrestricted access to some of the paper’s best-known journalists and names,” said Andrew Seaman, the chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists and a reporter for Reuters.
Said Seaman: “No matter what safeguards the paper puts in place, it looks like a bunch of journalists flying off to far corners of the world with incredibly wealthy people. Of course, it looks like that, because that’s what it is.”
Even without an actual conflict, the arrangement is bound to raise questions, he said. “An already skeptical public is left wondering if the paper may give preferential treatment to the person who just gave a very large chunk of change to their news organization. I don’t think that’s the question the Times or any news organization wants floating around in the world.”
But Indira Lakshmanan, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism-education organization, points out that other news organizations have long sponsored private travel packages without ethical repercussions. For example, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff is the featured attraction for a 10-night cruise to Alaska in August that costs between $7,300 and $20,000 per person. National Geographic and NPR have also used their journalists to attract travelers.
“More than anything, it raises a sad commentary on the state of our business, that there’s a need for newspapers and news organizations to raise money like this,” Lakshmanan said. “This is another high-end way to make money.”
Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet declined to comment, as did several Times journalists who are participating in one of the paper’s “Journeys.” But others at the paper doubted that their involvement raised any ethical concerns.
Veteran reporter Adam Nagourney said his last trip — a 12-day cruise around the Greek islands and Turkey in 2015 — involved about 60 to 70 people, most of whom were “intensely interested in current events and the Times.” Much of the shipboard conversation, he said, was about how the paper operates, how decisions are made and who makes them (“It’s like, ‘You know Maureen Dowd!’ ” he said).
Nagourney, who is featured on a Times cruise around the Gulf of Mexico in late November, added, “I get [this enthusiasm] completely. I would be one of those people if I didn’t work here. . . . But movers and shakers? Advertisers? People trying to get access to influence things? Honestly, I did not find that at all.”
In her only comment, Dowd wrote via email, “I’m not involved in that pricey plane trip one. I did a normal boat one. You should ask one of those people.”
Morgenson, who will participate in her first trip this year, said the Times’s travel packages are “quite different” from The Post’s aborted “salons.” The Post’s concept was designed to “connect people in power like lobbyists in intimate settings,” she said. “The Times Journeys seem focused on the reader.”
Morgenson added that no one has to buy an expensive travel package to reach her. “I’m accessible to anyone who has a phone or an email address,” she said.
Still, Seaman, the journalism-ethics maven, said it might be time for the Times to stay home.
“My suggestion would be to skip Easter Island, Iceland and wherever else these trips may go,” he said. “The Times and other news organizations should send journalists to communities around the United States to teach them what responsible journalism is, how it’s made and why it’s important.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Indira Lakshmanan’s name.)