Unpaid internships are not “free” work since you still get something valuable out of it—a byline, writes Andrew Snook.
By Andrew Snook
There has been a significant amount of debate around writers’ water coolers lately on whether it is appropriate for journalists to work for free.
This is an understandable concern for anyone working in the newspaper industry, which has witnessed the virtual gutting of some of the industry’s best and brightest.
Personally, I think writing for free should be left to the people trying to break into the industry that would otherwise have very few avenues for proving their abilities to a prospective employer. And any assignments handed out to those people shouldn't affect the livelihoods of the people already working in the industry.
When I decided to go back to school to study journalism at 30, my portfolio consisted of one article I had written for a community sports magazine, where the editor was nice enough to give me a chance.
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I was the oldest person in my class, and knew I needed to build a portfolio and sharpen my skills in a hurry, so I cold called and emailed the editors of several community newspapers and local magazines, letting them know who I was, and that I was interested in volunteering my time to write articles to build a portfolio.
Most of the companies I contacted never responded, but the editor of one weekly community newspaper in the area called me up and offered an opportunity to cover a local junior hockey game. I happily took him up on the offer and covered the game. After submitting the article, I offered to cover the remainder of the season for him for free. He accepted my offer, and at least once a week I would attend a hockey game and submit an article to him. They didn’t always get published, but he made an effort to put the majority of them into the newspaper each week, and even gave me the front page photo a few times. By the time the hockey season ended, I had more than 20 articles and three front-page photos to slot into my portfolio, all thanks to that one editor.
Those articles helped me obtain my six-week internship with the same company, which allowed me to cover stories for four different community newspapers. By the time I graduated, I had more than 80 articles and standalone photos from nine different publications, and all of them were done on a volunteer basis.
Some people hear the “volunteer” part of my story and cringe. But here’s the catch: my articles and photos didn't cost anyone any work.
The stories I covered would not have qualified to dip into any of the newspapers’ freelance budgets, so they would have just fallen to the editors and reporters at the papers or not been covered at all. Instead, they got a little extra time to work on more complex articles, thereby improving the quality of the editorial at no cost to the publication.
It was a win-win scenario.
I personally feel this is an appropriate use of so-called “free” writers. I hate the term “free” since those articles hold a great value to the person receiving the byline—I received two job offers from community newspapers months before I graduated the journalism program, just using my junior hockey coverage and j-school articles in my portfolio. After my internship I ended up securing a job as a community reporter in the Ottawa area for close to two years before moving to Toronto to work as an assistant editor for a couple of B2B magazines. Fewer than four years after graduating, I am now the web editor and associate editor for a very successful B2B magazine. All of this was made possible due to my willingness to put my feet to the pavement and secure as many items for my portfolio as possible when I was starting out.
Any publishers and editors who hand off important stories to people willing to write for free should remember they’ll likely get what they pay for. Nothing turns readers off a publication faster than poor quality editorial, and no readers means no advertisers. When it comes to the editors and publishers that expect experienced, proven journalists to write for free, they need a reality check. These people make their living writing and are good at it. So why should they be expected to write for the price of a byline? They don’t need to prove themselves to anyone.
If a publisher was approached by a company and asked to publish a newspaper or magazine for free, they would likely either laugh, yell or do both. That same response should be expected when a publisher or editor approaches an experienced journalist or writer with a similar offer.
The only thing more dumbfounding than a publisher or editor asking a proven journalist to write for free is having that experienced journalist or writer accept the offer.
Andrew Snook is a web editor and associate editor for Mechanical Business Magazine.
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