Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Day 185 - "Let My People Go!"

So the title's not a song lyric, but a line from the movie The Ten Commandments.  I find it fitting given what I came across today.

I had just gotten home from work and was sorting through the eighty-some Twitter updates that I had on my phone since my break.  One of them was from Poynter, linking to an article about internships.  Specifically, about student journalists in internships in order to "gain professional experience."

I was intrigued, so I sat down at the computer to check out the article while still sifting through messages.  That's when I came across an update from my college classmate Ashley, who had already blogged about it on her website.  (I guess news travels fast when things are retweeted - is that even a legitimate word?)

Here's the point: major publishers, such as HuffPost and the NY Times, are using student journalists and interns to create content for websites and the like after buying out contracts for hundreds of professional, established writers.  Okay, you may say, that's good that these students are networking and getting experience, yadah yadah yadah.

This is where it gets hairy - they are not being compensated for their work.

For example, journalism students at NYU have been enlisted to help the Times create a new blog called "The Local East Village."  The students are writing, editing, photographing, and working with a deputy metropolitan editor from the Times as - get this - a part of a class called "The Hyperlocal Newsroom."

Excuse me?

Basically, student journalists and interns across the country are getting roped into (or forced if they are required to have an internship to graduate) these "programs" where they do the work of a professional journalist, one who has probably already been laid off or told that they have "become redundant," without appropriate compensation, and in many cases only a byline and clips for a portfolio.

As Ashley put it, this equates to modern day slavery.  Work for no compensation?  I don't think these students are looking for community service hours to work off a residence hall violation.

Some may argue that, well, these students are getting class credit for their work, which eventually turns into a degree and a line on a resume that could land them a paying position with a company that they once basically allowed to enslave them so that they could get through a course requirement in order to get a job in an industry that is about as unstable as they come right now.

Wrong.  I was in one of those communications programs that required an internship, and I interned with a non-profit organization working on press releases, event management, and grant writing.  I more than likely made the organization absolutely no money.  I received course credit, but no monetary compensation, which doesn't bother me one bit.  Why?  Because I genuinely, professionally, benefitted from the experience.  My supervisor took the time out of his schedule to make sure that I learned the skills necessary in order to succeed in the job world.  That outweighed the monetary compensation that I could have received.  It's like the old addage about the fish.  Instead of eating now, I was taught to fish for a lifetime.

For these student journalists and interns, that's not the case.  These companies aren't looking to create an educational experience, but instead are looking to create a quick buck with as little overhead as possible.  And hey, if they can get some kid off the street who needs a couple of credit hours in order to graduate and they can write their way out of a paper bag, then hire him (a.k.a. enslave him) and not compensate him for his work.

The line needs to be drawn somewhere.  Integrity is a huge part of the publishing industry, and how can we as media practitioners continue to hold our heads up and try to save our industry, our way of life, if our future colleagues are basically selling themselves into slavery for a couple of weeks, and then we turn our backs on them when they need a job the most? 

This needs to come to an end.  There are ways to create unpaid internships that are of benefit to both sides, but enslaving journalism students and recent graduates is not going to eliminate overhead, cut expenses, or save the industry.  We have to save ourselves before we can save our craft.


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