Richard Doherty: Young journalists just get dumped for the next free person, says former NUJ General Secretary
Richard studied philosophy from Glasgow University before going onto do journalism at Strathclyde, all the time working in from various Glaswegian watering holes and restaurants. He specialises in long form journalism and blogs here. Richard’s piece was orginally called ‘I’ll bet nobody pays £200 to publish this’, £200 being roughly the going rate for a 1,000 article in a national publication.
The roles of work-experience and unpaid freelancers have never been so important to the newspaper industry. Facing losses of print readership, redundancies and a far from certain future, how much is it to the benefit of the industry to make use of this free labour, and how much is it short-sighted exploitation of workers, detrimentally affecting those who cannot afford to toil for nothing?
Kieran Canning recently finished studying postgraduate journalism at Strathclyde University, he has been published in national newspapers several times in the previous few weeks – with it agreed each time his work would be unpaid. “They know there are people willing to do it for free to make a name or get a byline.” he said. “My experience is along the lines of them not really having any money to pay, from what I can gather. If the stuff I was writing was exclusive or breaking stories I wouldn’t settle for non-payment. As it is purely analytical it is cheap and easy to write but also needs someone to give it a space before I can build a reputation for doing it and start charging.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) are currently highlighting abuses of the industry’s work experience system, believing it should be well-structured, provide training, be of short duration and be mutually beneficial for the intern and the company. However many aspiring journalists currently have little option but to move from one unpaid placement to another – generating a steady supply of cheap labour across the industry.
Former NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, suggests two factors are responsible for the increased use of free-labour. “Media companies have become increasingly profit-hungry and so they have sought to cut costs at every opportunity – in practice that often means getting rid of experienced journalists who earn higher salaries and replacing them with cheaper, younger journalists. In some cases it means exploiting aspiring journalists to get them to do jobs that they previously paid someone to do for free. The second factor is the increasing numbers of aspiring journalists – this means people increasingly believe they have to work for free or be denied an opportunity.”
As to the difficult question of how justifiable the practice is from the point of view of publishers and writers, Mr Canning said: “It is justifiable for the writer as long as they don’t do it for too long. As long as they have a plan of what to do in the short to mid-term then I think it is just something they have to accept. For the publisher I think it depends on their intentions. If they intend to just use people in that situation on a loop, never paying them or offering them future work, then it is not justifiable. If they do offer genuine financial or professional incentives, and are just testing to see what kind of quality the work is, then I think it is justifiable.”
However, John Toner, NUJ National Organiser for UK freelancers said: “I certainly do not accept that it is justifiable from the point of view of the writer. If work is worth publishing it is worth paying for. A freelance can always refuse to work for someone who will not pay and, instead, approach someone who will pay. [However], there will always be the fear that someone will do the work more cheaply or for free. That’s why the NUJ has been running its Stand up For Journalism campaign, to make the point that quality only comes from professionals and professionals have to be paid.”
It seems in particular that it is the ‘inevitability’ of having to work for free – at least initially with no firm view to a job – that dissuades talented writers from pursuing journalism as a career, while at the very same time, allows media groups to lay-off well-paid, established journalists, to be replaced from the constant supply of unpaid workers. This in itself can amount to the industry avoiding its duty to abide by employment law.
Dear said: “Breaking the National Minimum Wage law is never justifiable – and aspiring journalists should not be placed in a position where effectively they are being exploited. For the writer it is something to put on their CV but in reality most don’t get jobs at the end of a period of unpaid work experience – they just get dumped for the next free person.
“The real loser is the industry,” he continued. “You lose skilled professionals and you force out aspiring journalists who don’t come from a wealthy enough background to work for ages for free. That means the talent pool is drastically reduced and you lose the diversity which should be a hallmark of the media industry. Only 3% of those entering journalism come from households headed by an unskilled worker, it is why entry in to journalism for black and ethnic minority students is harder because they tend to come from less well-off backgrounds. “
Considering whether there is a degree of weakness in the ability of newbie journalists to stand up for themselves when it comes to demanding pay, Mr Dear strongly agreed, though believes it is not the responsibility of aspiring writers to refuse free work. Rather, it is the responsibility of the industry and government authorities to ensure a fair system is in place.
“If you are new to the industry you fear blotting your copy book if you stand up for your rights. That’s why it is so important that HMRC and those responsible for policing the National Minimum Wage act against companies which are persistent offenders. It is also important to use the collective strength of the union in the workplace to get agreements for proper internships which open up genuine opportunities for all.”
The media industry is certainly in a perilous state, but those in charge must surely be aware that if one cost of the current model of journalism surviving is that the viability of a career within it is now expendable to them, then there really is no industry left to protect. The health of the soil and seeds is a prime concern for responsible elements within news media, yet many appear willing to sacrifice any future generation, purely for more water to pour on the decaying flowers already on display.
- The worrying trend of ego in young journalists Paul Bradshaw, in his inaugural lecture at City University London,...
- Simon Murphy: Should more young journalists be saying “show me the money”? Simon is a Newcastle University graduate, where he was news...
- The Wannabe Hacks nominate their best journalism placement for our top 50 Wannabe Hacks have launched their quest to find the top...
- Being a Huffington Post free blogger – what’s in it for wannabe journalists? If you’re an aspiring journalist, unless you’ve had your head...
- Why a class action lawsuit against unpaid internships in the US is overdue You may or may not have seen the news yesterday...
After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look