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Architectural criticism has a problem but it’s not press trips

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The issue is who grants—and gets—access

Many of Chicago’s site-specific biennial installations must be seen in the context of their surroundings.
Courtesy of Chicago Architecture Biennial/ Francis Son, 2019 © Chicago Architecture Biennial / Francis Son, 2019

Chicago’s architecture biennial opens this week, welcoming a half-million festival-goers to the city. One would think the architecture critic for the local paper—of which there are fewer than a dozen employed full-time in this country—would use this platform, at this moment, to preview as many highlights of the homegrown design scene as possible.

Yet kicking off this week’s coverage, the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin wrote a story about how the biennial is paying for flights and hotels for some journalists to attend.

“Reader beware: Chicago’s architecture biennial pays travel expenses of some who cover it,” read the story’s headline. “Can you trust journalists on a junket?”

Junkets, or press trips, are often organized for events like Chicago’s biennial as a way to bring out-of-town journalists to cover a particular building, product, or fair. In addition to booking and paying for flights, hotel rooms, and meals, a PR firm often coordinates a rigorous itinerary that gives journalists access to the story’s major players and local context in a very short amount of time.

Some publications, mostly newspapers, don’t let their staffers go on press trips at all. (Kamin’s Tribune does not, he notes.) But other publications sometimes allow the practice, including many publications outside the U.S., because they don’t have the money to pay for travel.

“We can’t afford to send everyone everywhere, so if it’s the right scenario, an organized or sponsored trip can suit our editorial needs,” says Curbed’s editor-in-chief Kelsey Keith. “Press trips can be worthwhile in terms of in-person scouting, meeting people whom you can interview, or providing context for larger stories we might publish in the future.” Curbed never guarantees coverage, and all disclosures, including financial sponsors of trips, must be listed as part of the published story.

The problem, Kamin insists, is that the coverage will be overly positive if publications aren’t paying for their writers to travel.

But lucrative jobs in journalism, and particularly in design journalism, are vanishing. Many well-respected critics have been laid off in recent years. There aren’t very many people left who are paid full-time to write about architecture, let alone at publications that have renounced press trips. And for architecture in particular, the opportunity for a critic to see a building in person or tour it with the architect is essentially priceless.

Kamin’s argument dismisses the financial burdens of independent journalists, says critic and curator Mimi Zeiger, who called his story “hugely ungenerous to his fellow critics, reflecting his privilege/power while casting shade on the ethics of others.”

Zeiger argued that sometimes the time and effort required to cover a project out of town, compounded with low pay rates from publications, can result in losing money—even with travel subsidized.

“I’ve raised questions that make you and other freelancers uncomfortable,” Kamin replied, calling Zeiger’s reply an “agitated, overheated response.”

No one wants to defend the practice of junkets. But to focus on the transactional nature of a press trip ignores the larger issue when it comes to design journalism: gatekeeping.

Architecture publicists hand-pick which journalists get stories, and when. Prestige publications will always end up getting a more nuanced, detailed story for their readers—not just because they have travel budgets, but because they are offered exclusives. These are carefully negotiated deals between PR companies and editors that allow critics to tour projects and interview architects long before other writers are granted access. These highly orchestrated stories are sometimes published before other writers are allowed to publish what they’ve reported on their press trips. This fact is rarely disclosed to readers.

Kamin’s argument that journalists shouldn’t accept press trips isn’t surprising coming from someone who has worked at such a publication since 1987.

But to insinuate that other journalists somehow can’t be “trusted” because they don’t have the same level of access is a troubling message in a field overwhelmingly dominated by white male voices. Being paid to write in-depth, nuanced architecture criticism by a publication that gets first dibs on stories and can fund your trip remains an exclusive, paywalled club of which women, nonbinary people, and critics of color have been largely locked out. Reader beware.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Kamin has worked at the Chicago Tribune since 1992. He has, in fact, been employed by the Tribune since 1987 and was named architecture critic in 1992. The story has also been updated to clarify that the column on junkets was not the first story Kamin wrote about the biennial; he had previously published other pieces, including an interview with the artistic director.