The Free Press is Costing Interns Dearly

PICTURE-1Rarely a day goes by on Twitter without some kind of large scale spat taking place, and amidst dodging the heavily manufactured uproar about Jack Whitehall being an aberration to society, or whatever it is the tabloids are claiming, something of actual importance was brought to light yesterday.

The escalating row about unpaid internships was highlighted by Guido Fawkes, who criticised left wing organisations Political Scrapbook and Left Foot Forward for preaching about fairness and justice – but refusing to pay their own workies. The Commentator also came under fire for the same crime – although they were quick to defend themselves on Twitter by saying they had never let an intern go unpaid – but these blogs just seem to be tiny drops in the ocean of intern exploitation.

Exploitation might seem like a strong word, but that’s what it is. When it comes to the media, or journalism specifically, there seem to be few rules or regulations about what you can be made to do for free. While outsiders might question why young journos fresh out of university sign up for this in the first place, the truth of the matter is that there really is no other option. In this industry, the choices are either forking out for an extra journalism degree (because the £30k you spent on getting an undergraduate one isn’t enough), or start working somewhere for free on the off chance that maybe, one day, they’ll offer you a few pennies for your trouble.

There are two major problems with this culture of working for free, the most pressing of which is, to my mind, the way it makes journalism an elitist industry. The average person comes out of university saddled with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt, and can’t afford to keep working for nothing until they finally land a job they actually want. The only people who can afford to this – and these are largely the people who could also afford to go to university – are those who can rely on the bank of mum and dad to bail them out. Journalism is increasingly becoming a luxury career, one only available to the middle and upper classes, and this simply is not right. Privilege alone does not make a good writer, and newspapers and websites alike would do well to remember this. By refusing to pay interns, they are denying would be journalists no less talented than their richer peers the opportunity to succeed in their field. They are denying themselves the opportunity to publish some of the best up and coming writers in the country. And they are denying people the ability to dream big, because they are unabashedly promoting the mantra that money makes the world go round, and that anybody without it may as well not bother.

The second issue with the incessant debate, and then re-debate, about unpaid internships is that they never actually come from the mouths of babes. I cannot begin to express how disappointing I find it that the mainstream press occasionally opts to berate those who do not pay their interns – yet it is never the interns who get the chance to speak up on a national platform. It is the staffers at these publications who get to boost their own profile as apparent do-gooders and do what they’re paid to do, rather than those actually in the thick of the unethical process. If you want a real story, go to the heart of the source – not to unaffected observers. I studied philosophy as part of my degree (bear with me here), and an issue we often discussed was whether knowledge could ever really be complete without first-hand experience. For example, can Prince Charles ever really know how black slaves felt in colonial America? He might have read every history book on the planet, but surely no amount of literature can ever compensate for  what it feels like to be the target of injustice. Similarly, although of course on a far lesser scale, nothing written by full time paid journalists can ever truly encapsulate what it feels like to slog your guts out for free and spend every penny you have pursuing a career dream that may ultimately come to nothing.

Since graduating with a 2:1 in an academic degree from a Redbrick university in summer 2012, I have had a few writing gigs that have cumulatively earned me around £1500. That’s £1500 in around seven months. I spent the last three of those in New York, again interning on a newspaper where I didn’t even have the luxury of reimbursed travel (this has also happened to me at nationals in England), let alone payment for the dozens of articles they happily churned out with my name on them. The way I see it, if I’m decent enough to be published, I should be getting paid for it. And yet, like so many others in my shoes, we continue desperately fighting each other for unpaid positions because, quite frankly, the only other option is giving up. I’m lucky to have parents who recognise how hard I have worked for eight years (yes, I had my first article published aged 13) and thus are just about holding off on forcing me into the job centre, but not everyone has this privilege, and publications hiring interns are intelligent enough to know this. The only way of restoring justice to this system is for newspapers and the like to fix up and start doing the right thing. People shouldn’t be punished for wanting to be journalists, they should be encouraged, and the current climate of unpaid labour is doing the exact opposite.



20 thoughts on “The Free Press is Costing Interns Dearly

  1. Have you never thought that the market won’t bear you.

    There are millions of people more-or-less ‘qualified’ wanting to be ‘journalists’. Value, ZILCH. You are, independently of your talent, two-a-penny. And that is why nobody pays.

    Porter laid it out: differentiation or cheaper. Cheaper than a fiver is nuttin’. You are going to have to try differentiation or change career.


    1. Unemployment is when there are more people seeking work than there are jobs for them. Do you think everyone should be prepared to work for nothing? You realise, don’t you, that if there is work to do there is a job and a job should be paid for? When I started off in local journalism as a trainee there were about a hundred vacancies a year. If you got in you were paid the rate. The employer didn’t say, ‘A lot of you are applying, I think you should work for nothing.’

  2. I find it deeply ironic that left-wing newspapers who vehemently condemn any form of elitism are creating a workforce that is drawn almost entirely from the privileged and affluent.

    It’s hypocritical too that those who shout most about creating opportunities for the poor are the ones taking those opportunities, and talent, away, in the name of profit.

    But maybe that’s also why newspapers like the Guardian and sites like Huffpo are losing money and readers – they’ve lost any relationship to or understanding of the lives of real people.

  3. Let me say first that this is a well-written and argued piece, fully up to par with those turned out by established columnists. In fact I found it easier to read than the utter twaddle churned out by the likes of Tanya Gold or Zoe Williams. However would I pay to read it? No, sorry.

    Why not? Because I can find more such articles than I can possibly read online for free. The Guardian loses £44m/year and would have folded long ago without subsidies from its sugar-daddy tax-avoiding parent trust. Other qualities are just about holding their own for now but it’s just polishing the brass on the Titanic. It’s all going down.

    Successful journalists of the future will either work for mass-market lowest common denominator tabloids or be syndicated online through a myriad of links worldwide, each generating enough of a tiny sliver of money to add up into something worthwhile. Working as an unpaid intern for a newspaper or magazine right now is sacrificing yourself for a not just uncertain but quite probably non-existent future.

  4. Charlotte’s main point is being missed here. It’s not just about journalism; it’s about the unacceptability of any employer requiring people to (in effect) pay to work for them, for some very spurious future benefit. And on a practical matter: if interns are not ‘on the books’, how do they stand regarding insurance? Are they covered if they suffer a work-related accident or illness? If not, that just compounds the immorality. It’s astonishing that any employer with alleged left-wing principles would even consider this form of exploitation, but most of them seem to have no trouble squaring that particular circle.

    1. Tom Sawyer surveyed his last touch with the eye of an artist; then he gave his brush another gentle sweep and surveyed the result, as before. Ben ranged up alongside him. Tom’s mouth watered for the apple, but he stuck to his work. Ben said:

      “Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

      Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

      “Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

      “Say – I’m going in a -swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

      Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

      “What do you call work?”

      “Why, ain’t that work?”

      Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

      “Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know it suits Tom Sawyer.”

      “Oh, come now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

      The brush continued to move.

      “Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

      That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticized the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

      “Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

      Tom Considered, was about to consent; but he altered his mind:

      “No-no-I reckon it wouldn’t hardly do, Ben. You see, Aunt Polly’s awful particular about this fence – right here on the street, you know – but if it was the back fence, I wouldn’t mind, and she wouldn’t. Yes, she’s awful particular about this fence; it’s got to be done very careful; I recon there ain’t one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand, that can do it the way it’s got to be done.”

      “No-is that so? Oh, come now – lemme try. Only just a little – I’d let you, if you was me, Tom.”

      “Ben, I’d like to, honest injun; but Aunt Polly – well, Jim wanted to do it, but she wouldn’t let him; Sid wanted to do it, and she wouldn’t let Sid. Now, don’t you see how I’ fixed? If you was to tackle this fence and anything was to happen to it –”

      “Oh, shucks, I’ll be just as careful. Now lemme try. Say – I’ll give you the core of my apple.”

      “Well, here – No, Ben, no you don’t. I’m afeared –”

      “I’ll give you all of it!”

      Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy fisher for a kite in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to sing it with – and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling wealth. He had, besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spoon cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar-but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated window-sash.

      1. Didn’t Tom’s aunt keep him in food and shelter? I mean, he didn’t have to pay his way, did he? Do you want to keep people infantilised for ever?

  5. Sorry – but isn’t ‘intern’ just another word for ‘apprentice’?

    You’re learning your trade, if you’re any good – and you seem to be OK – then you’ll find work.

    With academic standards being systematically devalued over the past 20yrs, a 2:1 in an academic subject from a ‘red brick’ university does not count for a lot these days; and anyway neither you nor your generation is ‘entitled’ to anything at all.

    You seem not to realise that you have chosen a very competitive field. Rather than working in a physically and emotionally demanding environment – like many other young people, you have chosen to work flexible hours, with like-minded people, in a nice heated/air-conditioned office. Moreover, let us be frank, you have chosen to ‘work with your mouth’ and avail the world of your opinions and ‘make a difference’ – really feeds the ego eh?

    In consideration of the above, it is really not surprising that this particular job market is fairly crowded.

    Not for you the drudgery of routine jobs, you’re better than that, you’re special eh? Yet you want to be ‘encouraged’ to be a journalist. Do you really believe that you should receive the financial rewards that you feel are your due simply because you are passionate about writing? Life really doesn’t work like that. What makes your work more valuable than that of soldiers, teachers, policemen, psychiatric nurses?

    Lots of people ‘pursue dreams’ but get nowhere – actors, sportsmen and artists most prominently spring to mind…….

    If you are talented and diligent then you’ll succeed. In the meantime, why not find some part-time work to get you by and get you out of your parents’ pockets? Sure, it would probably be a struggle, but the effort would quite probably make you a better journalist……..we have far too many opinionated pricks who quite clearly have cushy lives and churn out correspondingly vacuous crap.

    Smell the coffee my dear. Stop whingeing – it’s a cliche, but the world does not owe you a living……..honest.

    1. I don’t think it should be classed as whingeing to ask that people from financially disadvantaged backgrounds should be given equal opportunities in journalism, and that the people who find ‘work’ within the industry are paid for it.

      1. An intern is an apprentice – in no way are you an ‘equal’ with experienced journalists…… your digression into the realm of slaves and Prince Charles amply demonstrates.

        Moreover, playing for sympathy (‘financially disadvantaged’ etc.) will get you nowhere……..this is the real world not the students’ union, and money DOES ‘make the world go round’.

  6. From my experience, the job market in journalism/tv/politics/PR seems like a video game – you have to finish one level to get to the next. A university degree is only one level. Getting a 2:1 or better from a good university takes you onto the internship level. An internship puts your CV into the interview pile for the entry level jobs and you progress up the chain as such. It’s not easy but unless you were born into comfortable wealth this shouldn’t come as a surprise because little is.

    I lived within a 30 minute train commute to Paddington so the distance to travel wasn’t a massive issue for me – although the cost still was. I have great sympathy for those who don’t have this advantage. Unfortunately, the UK economy is so London/SE centric that this is an issue for everyone though, not just interns. Although I concede that it hits them uniquely in this way.

    Also the fear of having to service university debt shouldn’t put anyone off thinking about taking up an internship. If it’s unpaid, you aren’t required to make any repayments anyway.

  7. As you are effectively a freelance, ie. you don’t have a contract of employment, you should join the ALCS and at least get some money for the articles you write. It’s not enough to live off, but I was surprised at how much you do get and it all helps. For those genuinely in need of assistance (some of the most vocal participants in the debate actually seem to be quite well off), there is the trade charity for journalists, which offers financial help to those struggling to make ends meet.

    Unpaid internships were standard even when I graduated (this was ten years ago), so I sometimes wonder why everyone’s making such a big fuss about them now. I think it has a lot to do with the false promises that were made by the Labour government when they introduced tuition fees. They must have realised that the the stats they proffered were skewed by the fact that until recently only a small fraction of the population went to university. Perhaps it was once an automatic ticket to a secure career where the pay far exceeded that of non-graduates, but when nearly 50% of your cohort also have degrees, it’s clearly not going to have the same cache.

    Whilst I’m generally quite sympathetic to the difficulties faced by those graduating, I do sometimes wonder whether people have unrealistic expectations. The sense of entitlement displayed by some people is actually quite nauseating. Children have their dreams and aspirations encouraged and reinforced, but at some point you have to get real and realise that nobody is special in other people’s eyes, until they have proved otherwise. This current generation of graduates – or at least the blowhards who claim to speak on their behalf – seems to be stuck in an extended childhood and when things don’t work out as they expected they stamp their feet and cry “it’s not fair” rather than finding a way round the obstacles in their path.

    For some, devoting their energies to campaigning against internships seems to be a full time occupation and a kind of self-constructed unpaid internship in that their astroturf campaigns are a way of drawing attention to themselves and getting ahead in the world of left wing politics and the Labour party.

    As was noted above, you are one of countless people graduating every year with a 2:1 from a Redbrick University and if that’s how you set out your stall to potential employers, you will be found lacking unless you have something else to distinguish you from all the others.

    Speaking as someone who came from a very low income background, my advice would be to find ways to make it work, even if that means taking flexible paid work that may not be that desirable in order to build your portfolio and experience. Then, when one of those rare opportunities comes up, you’ll be ready. I worked evenings and some weekends doing bar work and was for a while working 7 days a week as well as being unfashionably thrifty and living in a cheap part of town. When I suggest this to recent graduates they look incredulous and say things like “why should I have to choose between my social life / taking a holiday with my mates / living in zone 2 etc and my career?” And therein lies the problem. Life is about choices and if you chose to prioritise other things, then why should you be given the same opportunities as someone who has knuckled down, worked bloody hard and made sacrifices to build their experience and contacts rather than carping on about how unfair it all is?

    Yes, life is tougher if you are born into a poor family without the means to carry on supporting you (surely that much should be obvious to apparently intelligent young graduates). That does not mean it is impossible – this isn’t Jude the Obscure – but it does mean you will have to work harder than someone who has it all handed to them on a plate. The payoff is your success will be all the sweeter for the fact it was hard-earned.

  8. I don’t have a problem with the content of this piece. It is well reasoned and I agree wholeheartedly that organisations should not effectively rely on free labour to prop up their output. It does however touch on a wider issue that I suspect will not disappear even if the practice of not paying interns was outlawed today.

    First my disclaimer. I am a journalist. I’m regettably not one of the high flyers who uncovers corruption in the highest echelons of government but am instead a freelancer producing a variety of magazine, web and TV research pieces mainly centred around the technology and consumer electronics sector. I’m delighted to say that I’m paid for it and I am not asked to produce work for free. I wrote my first piece of paid work around four years ago when the job market was far from rosy.

    My sector of the press operates almost exclusively without interns paid or otherwise (I have to inset the ‘almost’ because the law of sod dictates that there must be one somewhere). This is because we are reliant on people who have accrued sufficient experience in the industry to work effectively from their own base of knowledge and consistently demonstrate this.

    Between graduating and writing anything, I worked in the consumer audio industry for six years gaining the experience, contacts and understanding that allows me to do what I do now. I’m sure convention dictates that I say I did it for a pittance and it was unrelentingly hard work but in truth, it was often huge fun and comparatively well paid. I could not have even tried out for the work I do though without it though. I also have a degree from a Red Brick (albeit in a subject rather more peculiar than most) but these days it does little more than sit on my CV as the culmination of the education section. Throughout the length and breadth of the specialist press, writers and contributors are made not born.

    In the section you have been operating in, the rules are a little different but certain constants remain. The vast majority of people gunning for these internships can write, of that I have no doubt and there isn’t any area that your unpaid work has any inferiority to my paid output. The problem is that these new arrivals are versed in the method but less so in the subject. The unpaid internship is arguably replacing the period where journos were out picking up their speciality area of knowledge and understanding. As you point out, this is a somewhat unfair means of doing so and favours those with the resources behind them to stick it out but the problem is that a graduate is rarely a specialist in anything and this period must be costed somehow.

    The accrual of knowledge is rarely quick or easy to do in any depth and the current state of the press means they won’t be falling over themselves to pay for it. The alternative is the slower and less glamorous method that I and my peers took, where we arrived at the press with knowledge, contacts and experience from our subject industries that cannot be replicated with interns. Neither approach, I am afraid leads to a routinely paying job in journalism straight out of university. I wholeheartedly recommend thinking about what area of journalism interests you the most and at least trying to gain some experience in that area. At the very least, most other industries will pay for your output.

  9. You won’t get paid by an industry that is in sharp decline and which can recruit people who are willing to work for nothing.

  10. Your article is very poignant and I agree with about 90% of what you are saying, but as a journalist myself, who also had published works from a young age and has worked for free for a portion of my working life, it is unfair to say and assume that a majority of journalists writing on the subjects have no understanding or feeling of what you are going through.

    More so, it is rather sweeping to assume that all who write about unpaid internships are privileged to the extent that they hadn’t have to worry about money or when the next pay cheque comes in.

    Lots of people, myself included, freelanced or worked for free at a number of big organisations and when a paying job wasn’t going to happen, I had to get a paid job at B2B publications and hope to work my way through the industry to get to the nationals or consumer mags.

    Yes, there is an elitist culture to some extent at the nationals as there are few jobs and few nationals in the UK but unfortunately there are thousands of people with the same CV as yourself for a job that, whether paid or unpaid, can only be filled by one person.

  11. ‘… freelanced or worked for free…’ Which are entirely different things and shouldn’t be put together as if they are synonymous. Working ‘for free’ means doing a job that exists but that the employer isn’t prepared to pay someone to do. Theft.

  12. People always say the same things when arguing the case for unpaid internships: “You’re whinging”, “I’m a journalist and I had to work for free.” Both such comments make me incensed.

    Young people have a real reputation in 2013 for being entitled, and perhaps some are, but the fact is that since the recession, employers (not just in journalism) have seen an opportunity to save money by employing interns to do what a years ago someone in a junior role would have done. It is hard for young people today. My dad’s best friend was a reporter at the BBC and he never had to work for free in his entire career – from the moment he was offered a job at a local paper as a rookie he was paid. Things have changed. As an apprentice, you were usually given some sort of stipend that goes beyond just travel expenses – interns do not enjoy the same compensation.

    In oversubscribed industries, using interns (and I don’t mean two-week work experience placements, I’m talking months upon months of unpaid work) is seen to be a good way of separating the wheat from the chaff, but, as this blog post quite rightly points out, it merely sorts those whose parents can foot the bill from those who might have talent but can’t realistically afford to work for free.

    “If you want it enough you will do it”, right? That’s as may be if you have a few quid behind you or savings from a part-time job and you are prepared to use it all up to go do a 9-5 work placement in London whilst living at your parents’ house or in cheap accommodation, but what if you aren’t so lucky? What if you’re estranged from your family and have no financial back-up plan, or you have to look after a young child? How can you justify a full-time internship that’s unpaid when you can work in Tesco and support yourself just fine? This is how social mobility is stalled.

    “I’m a journalist, I had to work for free.” This does not make it right. If you managed it, living on Pot Noodle and not buying any new clothes for three years, you are still pretty fortunate. This is part of the problem – those who have recently made it in industries like journalism, PR and Fashion feel that since they had to work for free, newcomers must pay their dues too, which exacerbates the problem.

    I don’t think positive discrimination is the answer – I’m not saying that companies should be forced to take on paid interns from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, elitism and meritocracy should not be confused. However, there is no shortage of evidence that unpaid internships shut those who can’t afford to work for free out of certain industries. Things need to change, which is why I’m glad that movements such as Intern Aware and Graduate Fog exist.

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