Internships and Unpaid Labour in Journalism and the Arts

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
Internships and Unpaid Labour in Journalism and the Arts

Times, HuffPo, Expand Unpaid Workforce

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Having just bought out a hundred paid reporters, The Times continues to grow its burgeoning army of unpaid assistance. The paper announced today that--in addition to the non-profit help it already gets in Chicago, the Bay Area and Brooklyn--it's now enlisted the journalism students of N.Y.U. to help produce a new Times blog called The Local East Village.

"We want to continue to expand our network of collaborations, in the New York area and across the country, through associations with individuals, companies and institutions that share our values - foremost, increasing the volume and scope of quality journalism about issues that matter," as Jim Schachter, the digital iniatives editor at the Times, put it in a press release this afternoon.

N.Y.U. will apparently help coordinate the content--much of which will come from a class, appropriately titled "The Hyperlocal Newsroom"--with Mary Ann Giordano, a deputy Metropolitan editor.

Arts Internships: Chance of a Lifetime or Cut-Price Labour?

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A young acquaintance of mine recently got her first paid job in theatre. She left university two and a half years ago and, since then, has worked part-time in a bar, while also undertaking a series of unpaid or expenses-only work experience placements and internships. Six, to be exact. Now approaching her mid-twenties, she has just got her first salaried employment in the arts. She counts herself lucky, even though it is only a part-time job. She knows people who have been working unpaid in theatres and companies even longer.

Unpaid work has become the accepted route into the creative professions. The Arts Council's jobs website is awash with such unpaid opportunities, and there are theatres and companies who have become over-reliant on this free graduate labour and couldn't run without it. Effectively it has become institutionalised.

Of course, nobody embarks on a career in theatre expecting to get rich, and – as we've said before – the greatest subsidiser of the arts is not the government, but the artists and other arts professionals and volunteers who are prepared to sacrifice income for the chance to do something they love and believe in. Many theatres couldn't open their doors without the volunteers who act as ushers; most festivals rely on armies of eager young people. When they are run well, such initiatives give genuine benefits to both theatre and volunteers.

But when does opportunity become exploitation? A recent report called Emerging Workers, produced by the Arts Group, a body representing arts students and graduates, is not mincing its words. It has called the large number of unpaid jobs in the creative sector "exploitation" and is calling for legislation to regulate the use of unpaid internships by arts organisations, suggesting that all placements over a month should be paid the national minimum wage.

Internships: the New Form of Slavery

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According to the résumé you churned out with the help of Wasserman, you were in charge of "streamlining social media initiatives and expediting data organization." In layman's terms, you sat behind a desk all day and filed papers while swapping nouns and verbs on the company's "about" page on Facebook.

It's difficult to call this work vital or beneficial in any way, yet the majority of us are buying into this system of the "cosmetic internship" — the one that looks pretty on paper, but it has close to zero practical significance.

The old-school method was to go out there and get your feet wet, dedicating yourself to a field in a full-time capacity. We certainly live in a different world now, but there's something laudable about gaining practical experience. Real jobs offer risks and rewards. They show you your interests and your aversions, your strengths and your weaknesses. More importantly, they give you the feeling of being the low person on the totem pole, but with the very real opportunity of being able to work your way up as you become more experienced and adept.

Interns, on the other hand, are expendable and exploited. Internships keep you imprisoned as the corporate errand boy with the tenuous promise of maybe being able to use the big, shiny photocopier one day if you can master the outgoing mail. And while it may come as a shock to hear that you were never part of Morgan Stanley's 10-year plan, the employer is not the only one complicit in this dupe of an internship. Admit it: You had your right foot out the door since day one, ready to leave at the drop of a hat once the internship looked good enough on paper. The charade has to end somewhere.

 

pogge

skdadl wrote:

A lot of good bloggers are committed to doing what they do for nothing and would and will keep doing it that way, but they aren't necessarily immune to the temptations of getting a bigger readership fast, maybe even seeing their names in lights, so they don't think these propositions through.

I wonder if you're referring to things like the National Post Full Comment section which has been picking up selected content from selected bloggers without paying them (though with their consent, I hasten to add). I haven't been asked but if I were, I'd refuse. If they can pay Jonathan Kay and Lorne Gunter, they can pay me. Otherwise, I'm subsidizing the wingnuts other side.

Michelle

It really is a condundrum for alternative media, too. Who has money for investigative reporting - or heck, even just straight news reporting? Certainly not alternative media sites or bloggers, even larger sites like rabble that do regular fundraising. We get the occasional scoop here and there, but we definitely don't have a stable of full-time paid journalists sniffing out the difficult stories?

So what's going to happen when the mainstream newspapers go under because the finances just don't work anymore? Who will do the straight reporting?

It's a good question, and it will be interesting to see how news will happen in the next 10 years when the current financial model has completely collapsed.

skdadl

I'm speaking here only to the first subtopic, the clever insight that more and more corporate media seem to have had, that there are a lot of smart people out there already writing for free, so ... why not co-opt them for free into saving the bacon of the corporate media?

 

I don't know how much that is happening in Canada, but it is happening. A lot of good bloggers are committed to doing what they do for nothing and would and will keep doing it that way, but they aren't necessarily immune to the temptations of getting a bigger readership fast, maybe even seeing their names in lights, so they don't think these propositions through.

 

If they are agreeing to let the NYT or HuffPo pick up their stuff for nothing, then they are helping to undermine the workforce of paid reporters, and that, I think, is a bad idea.

 

I know some exceptionally good investigative bloggers, capable of analysis miles better than anything the corporate media produce, but they are not capable of doing much of the front-line reporting that we and they still depend on. That costs money. The corporate media are happy to be selling out their own skilled workers if they can get salable copy elsewhere for free. Good bloggers should not be complicit in this slide to the bottom imho.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Well, there's a difference, isn't there, Michelle? From the Guardian article in the OP:

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Of course, nobody embarks on a career in theatre expecting to get rich, and – as we've said before – the greatest subsidiser of the arts is not the government, but the artists and other arts professionals and volunteers who are prepared to sacrifice income for the chance to do something they love and believe in.

This is key, of course. It's when corporate media tap in to this belief not to extend the quality of journalism or the arts in general, but to institutionalize it as a path to income.

skdadl

We say that in book publishing too -- nobody subsidizes the business as much as the editors and designers and other craftworkers do. The typesetters (in the old days) and the "operators" (now, except that more and more, the editors are also the operators) were for a long time unionized and were paid decently. Editors and designers were supposed to rejoice in their "psychic income." That's a quote from a former director of U of T Press.

 

I'm not averse to seeing the whole industry reorg'd, given new technology. It's just that I suspect the wrong people are doing the reorging. And while the upheaval is going on, a lot of highly skilled people are just left stranded. I'm so happy I finally aged out, because I would find this a very mean period to be trying to work through anywhere in the arts.