Carroll: You get what you pay for |

Carroll: You get what you pay for

Rick Carroll
Above the Fold

The best thing about being a journalist and paying your way is that you can actually be objective and not be beholden to any person, organization, business or movement.

So when I went online Friday to buy two tickets to Elitch Gardens — one for me, the other for my 4-year-old daughter — I had no qualms about forking out the cash.

I dropped nearly 90 bucks just to get to the downtown Denver amusement park — that includes parking — with no designs to share the story of the experience with anyone outside my immediate circle of friends and family. Really, do readers want yet another spiel about how yet another columnist spent his (or her) summer vacation?

But there are those journalists — bloggers being the worst offenders — who live off free stuff, unabashedly taking it off the hands of anyone offering. They’ll hoard your tickets, booze, food, VIP passes, discounts, samples, rollout products, free lodge stays.

They’re the first ones in the buffet lines and the last ones to leave the bar. They’re not ashamed to be shameless because they rationalize that they make dirt for pay in the first place.

In return, they provide gushing press about their experience, objectivity be damned. Some throw in subtle plugs, while others are blatantly transparent that they’re on the take.

This isn’t the general rule in larger metro markets, where taking something for free and writing about it in an unnecessarily pandering fashion is taboo and can lead to termination. That’s why a publication like The New York Times can issue a blistering review of a restaurant with little concern about an advertising fallout.

In many smaller markets, however, newspapers simply don’t have the budget to dispatch their reporters to restaurants or other establishments to give objective critiques.

And in markets like Aspen, neither daily newspaper publishes restaurant reviews because a scathing critique about the neighborhood eatery could result in the loss of advertising dollars. And if the restaurant dished out a free meal to us in exchange for a fluffy review, the readers would catch on, and the critiques would have no credibility.

To be clear, were a restaurant sued for underpaying its staff or cited for unsanitary conditions, we’d cover that. A news story is different from going out of our way to report that our steak tasted like leather and our waiter had B.O.

Event coverage is also different. We receive press credentials to attend the Aspen Ideas Festival because it’s a major event in our backyard that’s of interest to our readers. It’s no different from a Denver Broncos beat writer receiving a season media pass to cover the team.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m not a beat writer for Elitch Gardens. And its owners and operators probably are, too.

While the staff there was more than friendly when we were there Saturday — perfectly pleasant, actually — the park seems to be in dire need of a makeover. Or, better yet, they should probably just tear down the thing and rebuild it from scratch, beginning with the bathrooms.

Having lived in Aspen for 16 years, I shoulder some of the blame for this jolting experience because I’ve become a sheltered sort, forgetting what the real world is like — including amusement-park lavatories. And I knew I was taking one for the team — that would be my wife — for soldiering our older daughter to Elitch’s before picking my son up from Denver International Airport.

If you go to Elitch’s, be prepared to mingle with, well, let’s just call it an interesting state-fair-type crowd. Hygiene — both the dental and personal versions — doesn’t appear to be a high priority for a majority of the park’s patrons.

Maybe Elitch Gardens was observing Amnesty Day for Colorado’s penal system and I didn’t get the memo. Whatever the case, I’ll refrain from going deeper with my opinion about the general conditions within the park’s dirty walls.

That’s not because I hope to get something in return. Unless, of course, that return is a ticket refund from Elitch Gardens. No questions asked.

Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at