Wednesday, March 3, 2010...9:11 pm

How to avoid paying for internships – be more valuable

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There’s been a recent flurry of condemnation in the J-blogs over the question of whether employers should charge interns for work experience (“No!” is the answer).

Emily Fraser Voigt [Update: original blog post deleted] asks “isn’t it hard enough already for new graduates?” and adds:

It seems to me like a callous way to exploit young people who don’t have much leverage and are just desperate to start their careers. Don’t they deserve a break?

Well – her point about leverage is right – and it’s the key to this issue (I’ve commented on this over there, but I’m going to reiterate it here).

Young people trying to get their first job don’t have much leverage when they aren’t that valuable – ie valuable to the people who will be paying the salary. And they aren’t valuable [a] in a recession, like now, and [b] when they pursue a career path that is oversubscribed.

Graduates can’t do much about [a], but they certainly can about [b]. Journalism never paid brilliantly, but now it’s getting hard to make it pay at all, as media publishers wither in the face of digital creation and distribution and the loss of advertising.

So don’t be surprised if a journalism degree doesn’t get you into paid work. In fact, don’t be surprised when months of unpaid internship doesn’t get you a job either – especially if you’re determined to break into one of the media’s sexier areas, like sports or entertainment.

Students really need to realise that if they want real job opportunities they need to develop skills and experience that are actually valuable to employers in a sector that actually has a future.

The trouble is that these are also often areas that don’t seem glamorous, and are also harder work – in science or technology for example.

It’s not down to employers to give graduates a break – if those graduates have skills that simply aren’t worth enough.

But if you are really determined to make a go of this underpaid and oversubscribed journalistic trade, here are a few suggestions:

  • Do more than your coursework. Employers don’t care about your laboriously crafted 12-week magazine spread project. They really want to see consistent output in a real published arena. Could be the student paper; could be a music web site; could be a special interest magazine. But consistent output is professional output.
  • You are your contacts. Your ability to find people to talk to and then talk to them is what will mark you out from 99% of your fellow journalism students (more of which in a subsequent post). The ability to track down good, relevant interview subjects puts you head and shoulders about the opposition.
  • Bring an audience. Becoming a journalist doesn’t magically deliver you a ready audience, hanging on your every careless, yet brilliant, word. You actually have to put a lot of spadework in to attract those readers, to develop and nurture them and to keep them reading week in and week out.

This last point is probably the most difficult to grasp. But just as the key question from a music promoter will be “how many people will the band bring in”, publishers are starting to ask the same thing of bloggers in job ads. Do you have a niche audience? Can you bring them to a publication? Then you’ll be more valuable.

And then you have the leverage to avoid paying for your internship. Because you’ll actually be worth paying.

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