Media Study: The unpaid work debate (journalism intern deflation)

Media Study: The unpaid work debate
Going the distance to get a job in journalism: Drew Barrymore plays a 31-year-old newspaper intern in Going the Distance
This past week we have seen the Fair Work Ombudsman launch an investigation into firms exploiting unpaid interns. Now there are suggestions that Australian universities are over-supplying the market with journalism graduates. From within this over-inflated market dichotomy, Erin Stewart writes of her unpaid work experience.

Recently in the US, an unpaid intern for Harper’s Bazaar brought a lawsuit against the publication asking for minimum wage. The intern had worked long hours and that the magazine was guilty of exploiting her. Her legal counsel argued that had the magazine relies on interns to do "crucial" tasks, and that "if the interns weren't doing the work then they would have to hire someone else to do it."

Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation, is particularly critical of the way many industries (including publishing) leverage the time and skills of students in order to create value for themselves – while giving nothing in return. He argues that internships have been slowly replacing paid apprenticeships and cadetships. In some industries, it is normal to have ‘serial interns’, who, despite being well-educated and well into their twenties, are only able to develop their careers by taking on internship after internship.

As someone who has done work experience at a number of publications (though I could hardly be called a ‘serial intern’), I think the lawyers and Perlin have a fair point that needs to be answered.

The life of a work experience girl (or ‘workie’ as they are known on the inside) involves doing a range of little jobs essentially contributing to the place of work. During my work experience I collected and sorted a lot of mail, I changed printer cartridges, I did a lot of photocopying, I cleaned out vases, I was sent on a couple of coffee and Vietnamese food runs, I sorted through shelves and shelves of old magazines, I transcribed interviews, I devised search terms so that old articles could be retrieved electronically and I put basic data in spread sheets.

I was paid nothing. In fact, I had to buy my own insurance to cover the work experience, as well as travel and accommodation expenses because the magazine was based interstate.

This is one of the first concerns of the growing need to spend long periods of time in an internship to build a career: however glamorously it might be portrayed on reality TV (The Apprentice, The Hills), not everyone can afford to work for free.

There are great potential writers and designers and lawyers and traders out there who simply don't have the financial support to whisk themselves away for weeks upon weeks of unpaid workplace stints. This essentially puts these candidates out of circulation for jobs should they come up.

Paul Smith and Vogue’s Grace Coddington aren’t worried by this. They think interns "should suck it up". They have a point, too. The magazine industry is notoriously competitive and the staff are often really busy. So many people call up magazines wanting to do work experience that just to be there washing vases technically makes you one of the lucky ones.

Furthermore, the work isn’t going to equate to whatever unrealistic expectations you might have (interviewing celebrities; writing feature stories; sitting in on editorial meetings and having your say). In a harried publishing office, nobody really has time to go through with you the ins and outs of their exciting job or to teach you how to do it.

While being a workie wasn’t exactly enthralling, it was a positive experience for me in that I could submerge myself in the environment; to get a taste of what it might be like. It’s quite informal and there’s a late start time, which I didn't expect. Nonetheless, people do tend to be dedicated to their job, each responsible for certain elements of putting together the publication. It was fun and interesting, and I perfected my mail carrying technique.

Given the sheer volume of 'workies' and interns within the industry, it's obviously not economically efficient to pay them all. But I do think that magazines should show more regard for the huge range of little tasks workies and interns do for the magazine, and the fact that their time and labour are worth something.

This idea is reflected by a myriad of interns surveyed by New York magazine who report doing a large amount of inane and "mostly menial" tasks unrelated to their dream job while getting little or no reward in the way of university credit or money in return.

Giving interns and workies something valuable doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to give them money. Whether letting her sit silently in the room during an editorial meeting, attend interviews or do some preliminary research, allowing her her write a little book, CD, or film review, or having her read and edit letters to the editor – or even simply giving her the contact details of who she could pitch article ideas to in the future – would hive him or her a sense of value.

Despite his criticisms, even Perlin suggests that work experience and internships can be valuable to everyone. "Even if their exact content often remains murky, [they] signal a go-getter applicant, already fluent in office culture . . . internships are a 'test-drive' for both the intern and the employer," he writes.

Work experience programs don't have to eat up the time of magazine staff, nor do they have to take away from the workie’s completion of office odd jobs and mail collection. It could be a way to actually make work experience profitable for everyone: the magazine staff get their mail and coffee, the intern gets to exhibit a small part of their potential in a future career.

Erin Stewart is a student who enjoys writing and photography. She blogs at


Hannah said...

I don't have a problem with work experience but there are a lot of companies abusing serial intern positions for cheap labour and I do think it needs to be addressed.

As a photographer and as someone who worked in media and publishing, it is quite clear to me that there are serious issues when it comes to remuneration in fields where supply far exceeds demand for workers. People work for free because they are desperate for a break and companies abuse that. It's rife in the fashion industry and the onus lies on someone else to support those trying to get their break.

Anonymous said...

Here we use interns to perform little tasks, in the US it's different. They use interns to perform large tasks and basically work a part-time job for free. Some people are so desperate to get their foot in the door, though, they will actually move and take on debt in order to be an intern. It's horrible.

Camilla @ Girls Are Made From Pepsi said...

This this this x a million!
I've done a billion internships, and by a billion, I mean 6. I've never been mistreated though, or over worked, and all of my editors have been gloriously delightful to work with.
I feel that in the fashion industry it's far, far worse. You basically perform all the same tasks as a paid employee and wait for someone to get pregnant or die so you can take their spot.

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