Unpaid journalism internships: For or against?

Recently there has been a lot of debate about unpaid internships in the journalism industry. There are good and bad things to be said about them, and most of these points have been covered many times by lots of publications and bloggers. I’ve done a couple myself, and would like to share my opinion with reference to these.

Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that while I’m aware that lots of these unpaid internships are actually illegal, I can’t honestly say I’d be able to tell the difference between a legal work experience placement and an illegal internship. I think that that’s probably the case for lots of other people in my position. If you want a career in journalism and you’re at the bottom of the ladder like I am, it can be tempting to collect all the placements you can. It all boils down to what will look great on a CV and what will impress when you go for an important interview.

On the plus side, I found that I was able to pick up and refine lots of different skills very quickly. The NCTJ is obviously the best thing you can do to learn the theory and the skills you need, but it doesn’t just stop there. The whole point of the NCTJ is to set you up for the workplace, and it gives you an excellent foundation to take into the office. At Men’s Health, I found myself liaising with the PR companies of designer retailers, transcribing interviews, researching products and learning how to update the website using the CMS. At marketing and design firm Harrington McDermott, I was learning to Photoshop and how to write a white paper. At The Argus, something as simple as learning the virtues of persistence proved invaluable as I made my millionth phonecall in an hour to chase a vital quote for an article.

Another good thing is that you get to build your portfolio very easily. While you are working for free, you do still get something out of it in the form of clippings and links you wouldn’t otherwise get. Not a lot of places at the moment are willing to pay people for their work experience, and whether or not this should be the case, the fact is that right now, us wannabe journos might have to do at least a little bit of work for nothing more than seeing our names associated with publications. At The Argus, I got lots of articles published in the paper and online in just one week, so it’s not even like you have to slog away on a six month ‘internship’ to get yourself published. Once you’re published, you can start to build a portfolio, and with a portfolio comes evidence that you can actually write, which is what everyone wants to see.

Of course, the downside of all this is that the vast majority of people aren’t in a position where working for free for any extended period is a viable option. I was fortunate in that I managed to find a solution to this problem. I deliberately organised my uni timetable to give myself two days of lectures a week, so I had three days left to play with in which to do work experience. Most places only advertise for full time placements, but I asked very nicely at Men’s Health and was allowed to split it into half weeks so I had my student loan to support me. Freelancing is another obvious solution. If you can get yourself paid to work when it suits you, whatever that is, you can do internships during the day and work in the evenings. It’s intense, but it might be worth it.

The main problem with these internships that a lot of the time these huge, insanely wealthy companies completely exploit this new culture where newcomers to the industry are expected to work for nothing to prove their worth. Nobody in retail would ever expect to work for six months for free before they were offered interviews for paid work, so why should journalists have to do it? We have to live, and we’re still producing work. Expenses only isn’t enough. Paying for lunch isn’t enough. While there are some huge benefits of internships (gaining skills, building contacts and creating a portfolio to name just a few), it isn’t fair that us eager young things should be taken advantage of for our free labour. If, indeed, many of these unpaid internships are illegal, we need to take a serious look at why this has gone on for so long and why it has been allowed to become such a ‘normal’ part of a journalist’s early career.

I would love to know what you think about the matter. Please vote in my poll below and feel free to leave a comment about your experiences and whether or not unpaid internships are a good thing.

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