- by Tom Eastman
Covering the Ski Slopes
The Life of Professional Ski Writers
Writing about skiing may seem like a glamorous way to make a living. Ski resorts, paid-for condominiums, rubbing elbows with the healthy people of the ski world, pristine days spent with notebook in the pocket and skis on the feet - what more could you ask for? Well friends, as someone once said, the grass always looks greener and the snow always looks deeper on the other hill or ski slope. Writing about anything is both hard work and fun at the same time, and ski writing is no more so than anything else.
The difference between ski writers and police-beat reporters is that the former like to ski, and they usually look better for it. Seventy-two of them arrived in Mt. Washington Valley last weekend to attend the Eastern Ski Writers Association's early winter meeting and partake in a number of activities being held there such as the Race to Beat Cancer and the 1st stop of the season on the Peugeot Grand Prix pro ski tour at Attitash. All came and some conquered, but most skied and generally enjoyed themselves.
Depending on which of them you talked to, that pleasant experience enjoyed by the writers can either be very important or quite non-essential to the coverage they give the area in the media. Some writers aim their stories for the recreational skier who is looking for an enjoyable vacation experience, and consequently will include such items as the quality meal they had, the type of lodging they were provided with, and their favorite apres-ski spot along with their report on the skiing at the local mountains. On the other hand, other writers will tell you that the amenities may be nice, but the only thing that counts is the quality of the skiing they found on the mountain. "Everything else," this latter type of writer will assert, "is nice but not of exceptional importance."
A writer who fits this latter category is noted ski media personality I. William Berry, a man who has the reputation for pulling no punches when he covers an area. Sometimes controversial, Berry is a prober with a keen eye for finances and the more technical aspects of skiing. A hard-liner who takes his writing and skiing seriously, Berry makes his views known as a contributing writer to Ski Magazine, Skiers Advocate magazine, and to the Ski Industry Letter, a trade magazine covering the ski business. In addition, Berry runs his own financial consulting business.
Like the other members belonging to the Eastern Ski Writers Association - a 20-year-old organization that included members of the print, radio, and television media as well as associate members who work for ski areas - Berry has little respect for writers who keep a pen in one hand while holding the other out for freebies and trade-offs from ski resorts. The entire organization has made an attempt to stop that type of practice over the past 10 years, and now casts a critical eye towards those that lean towards that inclination. As Berry typically noted in his characteristic terseness, "We constantly review our members to see if they're writing factually. If we learn that writers are trying to trade off room and board or lift passes in return for writing a favorable article, we throw them out of the Association, period."
Berry noted that while he feels no personal obligation to write an article which favorably portrays a ski resort, he will do so if it is deserved. Mt. Washington Valley regulars still recall the article Berry wrote for Ski last winter in which he stated why he thought the region was falling behind other ski resorts in the country. The article did not win Berry many friends
in the Valley, but it did present what he felt was true. Likewise, he recently wrote an article which lauded Attitash for its bold snowmaking system because he felt it was a constructive step in the right direction.
Berry well recalls the backlash that was generated by the negative article but stands by that story as well as others he's written because he felt that he owes it to all of his readers to be honest. As he explained, "When ski areas start to believe their own PR or when a writer starts believing it, that's when you get caught up and really do a number on yourself and ultimately on the reader who's counting on you to tell it straight. A good journalist doesn't let that happen - he asks the tough questions and does his research so that when he's fed some stuff that doesn't hold true, he knows it."
Examples of where Berry has called the ski business's bluff include the articles he wrote discrediting industry reports on the number of skiers practicing their favorite sport. "There was a series of three reports which, when you totaled up their figures, said there were 110 million skiers in the US. We chopped those figures right up," Berry stated. "After the anger died down, everyone took a look at what we were saying, and they found that the numbers didn't work." He has written similarly hard-biting articles on ski areas that have become more condominium/resort minded while placing less emphasis on the quality of the trail conditions and the value the skier is receiving for his dollar.
"There's nothing wrong for a ski area to be involved in the real estate business," says Berry, "but the fact remains that putting up a condo has nothing at all to do with the quality of the skiing on the slopes, and that's what concerns me. And without good skiing, you have nothing." While he contends that most Eastern areas have managed to keep their primary responsibility of providing good skiing to the public intact and ahead of their real estate plans, Berry complains that few areas in the West have been as successful. "With the exception of areas like Keystone and Copper, most Western ski areas have forgotten that, above all, people come to an area to ski. Everything else should flow from the simple skiing experience of strapping on two boards and heading down the mountain," he bluntly comments. "The ski area owes that to the skier as a matter of professionalism."
For that matter, Berry and the other writers feel that the only things they owe ski resorts is professionalism and honesty in the nature of their coverage. These are the same things that they expect back from areas and what the public expects from them to achieve that professionalism among their own ranks. The Eastern and National Ski Writers Associations conduct a number of training seminars with writers throughout the year and critically review other writers' material. The commitment the writers share is not necessarily one devoted to the promotion of skiing, but rather on protecting the rights of the skier. Whether writing for the expert or the beginning novice, the writers never lose sight of that commitment.
That obligation places the writers in the potentially difficult position of accepting a discount or free ski/lodging offer from an area without feeling guilty later when writing a negative article about the resort. As ski writer Bob Dunn noted, "Any ski writer is free to accept anything that comes his way or do as he sees fit, but he should do those things only if there's an understanding that he's not obliged to write a favorable article. That is, I'd say, a very important point to remember, whether you're a writer or a resort owner." Radio broadcaster and Eastern Ski Writers Association member Bob Weiss of WHNY Radio in New York described the situation as being analogous to receiving tickets from the management of a sports team to watch a game that the team then loses. "When a resort owner expects you to write only good things about his place just because he invited you there, it's like getting asked to cover a Patriots game but being unable to write that they lost," said Weiss. "You can't allow yourself to be caught in a situation like that."
Like Berry, Weiss says that he's always somewhat skeptical of glowing reports that come his way about ski areas and ski conditions unless he can verify their accuracy. To illustrate, he noted that he has sometimes found that mountains resort to a tactic of shortening the length of their trails in order to increase the total number reported open. In other words, they sometimes find it advantageous to bend the facts a little. "It starts getting a bit ridiculous when a ski area starts reporting more trails open that what their overall total is listed as in their brochure," says Weiss, noting that a cut-off does not a ski trail make.
Where Berry and Weiss are more concerned about the quality of the skiing conditions to be found on the slopes, writers such as Bob Dunn gear their articles more to what the average recreational skier seeks in a ski resort. A skier who learned to maneuver his way down a trail in 1934 and who first visited the friendly slopes of Mt. Cranmore the same year that Hannes Schneider - the father of American skiing - arrived at the North Conway mountain to teach in 1939, Dunn is a middle-aged, jovial fellow with a friendly and fun-loving demeanor. His entertaining articles have appeared regularly over the past 20 years in the Beverly Times, the Peabody Times (both of Massachusetts), Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. Billy Kidd or Tyler Palmer may not learn much about the sport from reading Dunn's articles, but the average skier who wants to know how and where to spend his money in the most enjoyable way would.
The topics Dunn might choose to write about while on assignment vary considerably, but his overall focus does not. Quite simply, he looks for fun. More often than not, he finds it. "Bill Berry writes from a technical or financial point of view but not me," the eclectic electronic manufacturer remarked in between puffs of his ever-present cigar while watching the action at Attitash among the Peugeot pro racers last Sunday. Rosy cheeked from the sun and cold, he looked to be enjoying himself considerably. "Like Bill, I write for the consumer, the skier, but I'm just as apt to included a restaurant review in my article or I might describe a great inn or shop I found as I am to cover a particular ski area," he elaborated.
A key point Dunn notes when judging an area is the way it approaches its responsibility to provide the public with an enjoyable vacation or skiing experience. That's what he looks for in a vacation, and that's what the majority of his readers living in New York and on Boston's North Shore want in their ski writing. Explains Dunn, "I look at your Mike Hickeys [executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce], your Jeff Lathrops [operations manager at Attitash] and your innkeepers to see whether they're energy people who like what they're doing and who are making an effort to make skiing fun and enjoyable for the public. That's what matters."
Dunn concurred with Berry and Ski Magazine Eastern editor Dana Gatlin of the Christian Science Monitor that those efforts made by a ski area really do count, whether extended to writers or visitors making their first trip to the Valley. They all emphasized, however, that while they may have enjoyed themselves on a particular trip to an area, those favorable experiences might not work their way into an article until later down the road. Stated Gatlin, "When you come up for a weekend, you can't help but notice the little things people do for you, and we appreciate these efforts. You keep those favorable impressions in mind, long after you've left. You may not include it in the first article you write after returning home, but you'll remember it all and will make a point to include it in a second or third story."
While none of the writers opted to tip their hat and divulge what they would write when they did get back home from their weekend stay in Mt. Washington Valley, Dunn and Gatlin did not hold back any of their enthusiasm when asked to comment on the Valley's strongest appeal as a resort. Said Dunn at trailside, "This truly is a special place, and I love coming up here. There's something to do for everyone - shop, sightsee and socialize, let alone ski. Plus, you have and have had a lot of good people like Dave Ingemie [former executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce and present director of Ski Industries of America] working for you." His colleague, Dana Gatlin, agreed, adding, "You have the best apres ski here in all of New England." And although the purpose of the ski writers organization in its earlier years was to cover competitive racing, the recreational aspects of the sport now constitute the group's primary focus.
As for the glamorous life of a ski writer, Dunn and Gatlin remarked that they probably wouldn't use the same adjective to describe their work. "Like any job, the further away you are from it the more glamorous it appears," commented Gatlin, "but not all of the time is spent on the slopes. There are many hours spent beating deadline and writing inside that isn't great." And why does Dunn, an electronics manufacturer, spend his time on the slopes and at the typewriter? "I write about skiing because I like it," he related, lighting up yet another cigar as the Peugeot Race wound down to the finals on Attitash's competition slope behind him. "Some guys, they collect stamps, "he laughed. "Me? I like to talk about skiing because it's fun. It's my hobby, and I'd rather do it more than anything else."