Expanded report online

What about the workies?

WORK experience for student journalists, and its implications for paid freelance work, was the theme under discussion at April's London Freelance Branch meeting.

Vanessa Edwards, a former BBC journalist, lectures in journalism at the University of Bournemouth, one of the biggest journalism courses in the UK, with over 100 graduates annually. It's one of very few course accredited by all three journalism-accrediting bodies. Vanessa said internships and work experience placements have only recently become problematic. Two months ago, Vanessa "got email from a newspaper asking whether a student would do two months maternity leave for free."

Photo © Matt Salusbury
Bournemouth University's Vanessa Edwards

Such cases present a "serious problem both for you as freelances and us as educators - we want to be producing journalists who can make a living and if we undermine that we are cutting ourselves off at the roots. "

Teenage students are captivated by the glamour and "sheer allure" of journalism. While students on accredited courses "should be properly looked after, " students from non-accredited courses are more vulnerable, and those who arrange their work experience "off their own bat" without the guidance of a college are the most at risk of exploitation.

Simon Crutchley. a veteran of union battles at the BBC, teaches at the Centre for International Studies at SOAS (University of London). He lamented the fact that journalism is now "in the hands of amateur accountants" who regard TV presenter Jonathan Ross as "worth a thousand journalists. " Simon recalled how he admired "people on my team who asked questions - now they're (regarded as) 'difficult'," while "slack thought" reigns in the blogosphere, and a caste of hereditary interns from wealthy families has grown up - "there are fewer surnames than journalists in the BBC. " Being the child of a certain famous novelist now also seems to qualify you for an unpaid work experience gig at the Indy, Simon observes.

Photo © Matt Salusbury
Soas journalism lecturer Simon Crutchley

But the "squabble over access" to jobs in corporate journalism is, in Simon's opinion, less important than the battle over "whether anyone gets paid in the future. "

Victoria Neumark Jones, formerly of the Times Educational Supplement, now teaches journalism at London Metropolitan University. It's such a new course that it can't yet apply for accreditation. London Met recruits locally and with the aim of widening participation, which means ethnic minority students, students from poorer backgrounds, with many others who are international students, often from very different cultures. This demographic means that some students on Victoria's course express confusion about the meaning of elections. Victoria agreed with Simon that "the battle is not about interns, it' about the shape of capitalism in this country. " Teenage "workies" are "bright-eyed youngsters and as such they have always been ripe for exploitation. These are not your enemies. "

While Victoria recalled having difficulty finding her "workies" things to do back in her TES days, nowadays a consumer magazine staffer told her, "we couldn't manage without workies - we need them to get the models, call taxis". One local paper praised a brilliant student who filled "a gaping hole" on three pages - another on a local paper got the front page splash. There was no suggestion from their hosts that these students should be paid anything in recognition of these efforts.

Victoria stressed that students are now used to paying fees for their education, so they see nothing odd about having to pay for work experience too, even if it's only for lunches and fares. Many media outlets now think she's joking when she asks about paying workies' expenses, which presents her with a dilemma: she still has to place students, even if the terms appear unacceptable.

But it's not all bad, Victoria notes that interns working for nothing after graduation are still rare. Vanessa added that students graduating from Bournemouth are "fit to work - it's absolutely clear that it's illegal to work for six months for nothing."

Photo © Matt Salusbury
Victoria Neumark Jones of London Met

LFB's Mike Holderness asked whether today's journalism courses teach students how to negotiate a fair fee for freelance work and about their copyright in their work. A bit, was the answer. Speakers noted that it's harder to convince today's students of the value of intellectual property, accustomed as they are to helping themselves to material from the free-for-all that is the internet.

Are there any solutions to these problems, and what in practice can be done? Vanessa has helped get students to employment tribunals, and said that broadcasting union BECTU had recently got someone to a tribunal where they won £2000 - "enough to show a smaller company" that such exploitation is not worth it.

Simon had brought with him two betting slips for "catastrophic runners" from the recent Grand National - Comply or Die and Niche Market. He was cautiously optimistic that freelances could survive by working on strengthening their niche market "unique selling points" and looked to the strengthening of intellectual property rights as crucial to the survival of current and future journalists.

From the audience, former editor of the Journalist Tim Gopsill pointed to the NUJ Code of Practice for engaging workies - under which the Journalist's interns get expenses and proper supervision, and are paid proper freelance rates for everything that's published. While speakers were divided on whether it was practical to insist on these terms for work placements, Vanessa wondered whether the NUJ could come up with some kind of kitemark for employers using interns.

There were also concerns expressed about the proliferation of journalism courses. Do these really equip future journalists for the job? Why are more places on more courses opening while journalism jobs are disappearing? Approaches to our colleagues in the lecturers' union UCU was one suggestion for how this could be practically addressed.

Vanessa also recommended that freelances go to their local college and "go and meet students - students don't realise most of their work will be freelance, the don't meet freelances."

Last modified: 22 May 2010 - © 2010 contributors
The Freelance editor is elected by London Freelance Branch and responsibility for content lies solely with the editor of the time
Send comments to the editor: editor@londonfreelance.org