What’s really under the sheets?

Investigative journalism aims to hold powerful institutions to account, and it does so with a method that is methodologically sound and free of bias.

But it also has to tackle subjects worthy of public attention. Do hotel reviews qualify?

The creators of Oyster Hotel Reviews seem to think so. They have assembled an impressive team of reporter/photographers to stage undercover visits of hotel rooms and provide unbiased reviews of what they see. The result is easy to dismiss as inconsequential. But you might change your mind if you’re about to embark on a trip and need a hotel room.

Searching on the Internet for hotel rooms can be frustrating. Just about any property can be made to look clean and luxurious, and the reality sometimes doesn’t present itself until it’s too late. Even sites that offer user reviews can be suspect. It is impossible to know whether establishments are somehow pumping up their own venues with planted reviews, or dissing the competition.

The team that created Oyster sensed an opportunity. They put together more than $10 million in financing, hired about 20 reporters, and set up an ambitious project that is labour-intensive and financially risky. They send reporters to hotels around the U.S. and the Caribbean at their own expense, where the employees anonymously check out every aspect of the property and their rooms. Then the reporters file exhaustive reviews, often with hundreds of photos detailing everything from the shower stall to the coffee maker.

The reviews are rigorous. Reporters have to follow a 60-page manual, allowing readers to compare amenities precisely. At the end, in addition to the length review, reporters provide a condensed bottom-line assessment and a 0-5 rating.

The reporters’ credentials are listed for all to see, though the site coyly protects their identities by just giving first names and initials for the surname.Most are former journalists at places like the New York Times, the Village Voice, BBC World Service and other large mainstream organizations. One has investigative experience with the New York police department. Some are former financial services reporters.

The site highlights one of the distinctions between professional journalism and user-generated content. While travel sites such as TripAdvisor can be useful if there are large numbers of reviews on single properties, their value becomes less clear when the numbers of comments are sparse. Anyone who regularly wades through comments on online news stories knows the ranting and uninformed discourse that can dominate. Oyster is offering a far-more unbiased and professional approach.

So far, there are no ads on the site. And the expenses are huge. Oyster pays its reporters full-time salaries and sends them on all-expense paid trips. Still, they believe the business model will eventually become clear. Owners hope to keep building the reporting team and expanding the coverage areas. The goal is to become the largest U.S. travel media outlet by the end of this year.

OK, I confess to clicking on the Jobs portion of the site to see if there are any opportunities for journalists. Could this be the dream job, travelling to exotic locations with the onerous responsibility of jumping on the mattress and photographing the shampoo bottles? I couldn’t find any current opening for a reporter. But I did notice one for editorial assistant. One of the job benefits? A catered lunch.