Paying for the 'Privilege'

One of the first journalism work experience placements I ever undertook saw me sitting in a freezing cold room reading a book. When I’d finished it, I was to write an 80 word review. Intermittently I made a truckload of tea and coffee, ran errands and called local businesses to get up to date contact details. I did this so I could bung it on my CV and increase my chances of further placements (some of which were largely similar in nature), and by extension, a place on a graduate journalism course. Would I have paid for that experience? HELL NO.

So news that some employers are considering charging individuals for the privilege of sitting at (or most likely, near) a features desk and being at the beck and call of staff members wanting very specific kinds of coffee, or envelopes of a certain GSM, completely dumbfounded me. Sure, not every company is as lacklustre with their workies as the one described above, but – and correct me if I’m wrong – work experience candidates need to prove their mettle to publishing houses in order to actually get the placement, so surely introducing this paid-for dynamic only serves to eliminate some of the more able individuals on the grounds of financial discrimination? Certainly there has been a lot of murmuring lately about the merits of graduate courses, but in the absence of absurdly expensive qualifications in this area, eager wannabe journos could rise up through the ranks through work experience. Charging for placements, then, will only serve to discourage talent and cram the industry full of Tarquins and Petulias who have trust funds or executive daddies who work for the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Those without such luxuries will instead be forced to find the upfront costs of the placement (incidentally, will regulations be put in place to govern the quality of said placements?), living expenses for the duration of the placement, and then inevitably the cost of a graduate course. Journalism could end up being the most expensive industry to enter, and for what ends? Terrible job security and comically low pay.

So what in hell’s name is the point of this? Are there too many applicants for work experience placements and this is the only way to reduce the unending barrage of requests? Perhaps. But the industry is only weakening its already fragile self if it allows this to happen.

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7 thoughts on “Paying for the 'Privilege'

  1. Josh G says:

    I find the idea of an unpaid intern rather ridiculous, so actually paying to make the tea, sort out the reference library or, in the case of Andy Brown, wander around Soho for an hour looking for two bags of Wine Gums of the appropriate size to satisfy some knob at Zoo, well that’s just beyond the pale. You’re getting help, for free, they’re getting a free lackey for a week – it’s a good deal all round.

    1. Interestingly, a couple of weeks ago I received a furious email from a new journalist who couldn’t believe my company was offering an internship on an unpaid basis. I wonder what she’ll make of this?

  2. Laura Murphy says:

    Agreed. However, I think there’s already that financial barrier in place – I’ve come across quite a few workies and potential workies who have had to turn down placements at my last place of employment (a market-leading commercial magazine and website) because not only could they not afford to survive for weeks on end at just a tenner a day living expenses, they weren’t lucky enough to have relatives or friends living in London so that they could kip on their floor for a few weeks. And that’s just for short placements – although many companies do pay more for longer-term internships, it’s still below the NUJ-recommended starting wage for London journos of £18k, and so again it restricts these placements to people who can afford to live in London for extended periods of time, paying the kind of rental prices that make even people who are a few rungs up on the job ladder wince as they hand over the cash.

  3. I couldn’t agree more, and I also agree with the woman who was angry about unpaid “internships” (back in the early 70s when I graduated we’d have called it slavery). Basically, there was a time when employers thought it part of their business to train new entrants. They also saw the benefits of it, in the form of better workers (as someone said, if you think education is expensive, wait till you see what ignorance costs). Then came the era of Thatcher and nasty little men in red braces, and all of a sudden it was a privilege if bosses allowed you to work for them at all. It is, IMO, the reason journalism is now so infested with the Tarquins and Petulias you describe; they are the only ones who can afford to get into the trade.

    It will be even worse if the practice spreads to other professions, as I fear it may. As it is, employers are constantly whining that new entrants do not arrive fully trained for whatever they are going to do, as if the goal of education were to fit people for particular jobs. That is the employer’s business, but it might take a generation before they see this again. (I do hope they realise that people who entered their employment in this way cannot be expected to feel the least degree of loyalty to them.)

    If, of course, people are daft enough to elect a Tory government this year, it will take far more than a generation to bring about an equal playing field in this or any other employment matter. Things may be far from ideal now but take it from one who was alive and picketing in the 80s, they could be worse.

  4. Companies should be aiding and helping future talent into their business. Without up and coming people entering the industry, things would soon turn stagnant and styles both boring and predictable. Of course, this not only covers journalism but a lot of other industries, with companies expecting not only a degree but actual real life experience too….

  5. Hear, hear! I’ve had to stop myself from applying to a lot of unpaid internship opportunities because I simply can’t afford to take the time off work (my shitty little minimum wage shift work) at the moment. The idea of actually paying someone to have me there is ridiculous. I’d rather put that money towards furthering my education. As Harry said, companies should be aiding and helping future talent.

  6. natasha says:

    This actually makes me feel a little ill. The odds are already stacked against me because, as others have mentioned, it is difficult to take on an unpaid placement because I don’t live at home and need to work part-time in order to pay for rent, bills, food etc.

    I am almost at the end of my Masters degree in Journalism and the way I’ve been treated on the numerous unpaid placements I’ve undertaken has left me feeling disheartened and unsure about the industry and my place in it.

    I have just had a thought that counters my initial reaction, though: perhaps paying for a placement could be a good thing, IF you were paying for the assurance that you would be well looked after and given valuable experience while there. I say this because while doing work experience at one magazine, I was given the task of building a book case. I wasted a week there doing nothing worthwhile, and since time is also money, I would pay to spend my time well.

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