Poynter to journalists: No free Amtrak rides

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There should be no such thing as a free Amtrak ride for a journalist, the Poynter Institute said Monday.

The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based journalism school responded to reports that Amtrak would consider offering writers a "residency" that involves giving them free rides to allow them to work while riding the company's railways.

The Poynter Institute said in blog posted on its website on Monday that working journalists should not apply for the potential free train trips.

"I have no troubles with a novelist or song writer taking handouts from Amtrak if they want to," Poynter professor Al Tompkins wrote. "But where journalists are concerned, or for anyone who practices what they consider to be 'journalism' in whatever form, The Society of Professional Journalists [SPJ] Code of Ethics is clear." 

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The journalism society advises reporters to "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility [and] refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity."

The idea of Amtrak creating a writer's residency began last month when the company seized on a tweet from a New York City-based writer about wishing Amtrak "had residencies for writers."

Amtrak said in a blog post of its own that it "loved" the writer's residency idea.

"Thanks to social media, we get direct access to our customers like never before—sometimes when they’re not even on our trains," the company wrote. "A recent tweet particularly caught our attention. New York City-based writer Jessica Gross tweeted about wanting an Amtrak residency--her ideal workspace-- allowing for uninterrupted creativity and window gazing. We loved the idea."

Amtrak moved quickly to offer Gross a free trip from New York to Chicago as a "test run."

"Within days Jessica was rolling through the snow-covered landscape of New York, Pennsylvania and the Midwest, making her way toward Chicago," the company wrote in its blog post, liking to Gross' articles. "When she returned home to the NYC, we caught up with her to see what she thought of the experiment to give her the best workspace ever. Here’s what the contributor to the New York Times Magazine, TED.com and The Paris Review had to say about her unique trip."

Poynter's Tompkins said the situation was "familiarly squishy ground for journalists who have seen travel budgets slashed.

"Freelance writers are even more pressed for the money to travel for a story," Tompkins wrote Monday.

Gross told Poynter that she paid for her expenses after arriving in Chicago.

"Even after the free train ticket I still lost money on this story,” she said.

She told Amtrak last month that "there’s something about the train that offers unparalleled space for writing as well as reading and contemplation.

"The credit goes to the writer Alexander Chee, who said in a recent interview that he writes best on the train, and added: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” That struck a chord with me and many other writers."