Some Writers Not So Hot on Amtrak’s ‘Writers’ Residencies’ Campaign


Oh hai there, 1991

Today in This Might Be Too Good To Be True news, we really liked the story about Amtrak’s (proposed) “writers’ residencies” campaign, in which the company would provide round-trip tickets for working writers as long as they agree to mention the program on social.

Some writers (well, one particular writer at n+1 magazine) question the wisdom of the idea. Evan Kindley writes:

“Clearly online publicity is an essential part of the Residency: a single free round-trip train ticket (for a seat that, in all likelihood, would have remained empty otherwise) has now resulted in several significant online clips for the company’s press kit, not to mention however many hundreds of tweets and Facebook posts referring directly to the company’s largesse, many of them conveniently logged with the hashtag #AmtrakResidency.”

He’s onto something here. Key fact: the writers themselves would not get paid to do this.

Much of the rest of the (excellent) article summarizes the status of the residency in the creative writing community. While this concerns primarily fiction writers rather than journalists, Kindley’s point is that the residency is the equivalent of an internship for up-and-comers:

“Writers, whose lives tend to be anxious and solitary, are especially prone to feeling homeless and unloved, so the idea of taking up residence—whatever the terms of such residency actually involve—is deeply comforting.”

In other words, Amtrak is taking advantage of the sad state of writing as a profession to get a lot of positive press mentions without actually spending any money. This is a new proposal for such relative unknowns, because most corporations turn to familiar faces when looking to get attention.

“…there is something disturbing about the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign.”

We absolutely agree that this situation is not ideal, though we still feel like Amtrak’s campaign is far more encouraging than any sort of comparable deal with professional athletes, actors and/or reality TV stars.

At any rate, it’s an interesting perspective on the viral campaign that should be a must-read for anyone who ever took part in an academic writing program.

It’s also a painful reminder that our economy places greater value on content itself than the people who labor to create it—unless, of course, it’s sponsored content.

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.