It’s an age-old question that every journalist is likely to ask themselves at some point or another. It’s also one that sparks intense debate among the journalist community. Journalism is, without a doubt, an industry that requires and thrives on skill and experience. So should up-and-coming journalists work for free to get experience?
As many long-term journalists will tell you, getting real-world journalism experience isn’t easy. In fact, it can be quite tough to get a foot in the door if — you guessed it — you don’t already have experience. This vicious circle often leaves new writers feeling as though they have no choice but to take whatever ‘work experience’ is offered. Unfortunately, all too often, this goes unpaid.
An Ingrained Industry Problem
For new journalists who already live in a city, perhaps with family, and are willing to work long days for no money, unpaid work experience is sometimes manageable. For many, however, it means being unable to pay for rent, food, and living costs.
None of this comes cheaply — research from the Sutton Trust in 2018 found that an average unpaid internship in London would cost the person undertaking it more than £1,000 a month, a figure which has undoubtedly risen over the last five years.
Karen Edwards (L) and Issy Sampson (R)
Issy Sampson, a freelance music and TV journalist, has been working for a range of national publications for nearly 20 years. She started her career as an unpaid intern and acknowledges this helped her to launch her career.
“Working for free is a tough one,” she muses. “On one hand, I believe that when you do work experience you’re getting taught a lot of skills for free by the journalists who are mentoring you. But at the same time, [the system] filters out people from a low-income background [who are without background support and can’t afford to not be earning]. I was lucky that my parents would let me stay at their house, for free. Not everyone has that privilege.”
Personally, my career also began with accepting unpaid work experience and internship roles. Much like Sampson, I was in a position to do so, because I lived at home with my parents and was within commuting distance of London.
At the same time, I was applying for junior writer roles at other titles. However, my stumbling point in every application process was the question of experience. It seemed that without strong work experience at a recognised publication, negotiating even a junior role was impossible. So, with my dream job as a music journalist in mind, I continued to work for free to gain that experience. I felt I had no choice.
“If journalism is to become more diverse, we can’t expect everyone to work for free at the start of their career.”
Issy Sampson, music and TV journalist
Had I moved to London alone to kick-start my working life, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to pay rent, buy food, or look after myself while working full-time without being paid.
As a result of my work experience, I eventually landed my first paid journalism job, and more than 15 years on, I am still successfully working in the industry. This was a privilege I was afforded, thanks to my parents being able to support me, and where I grew up.
However, even for those who are able to work unpaid, it doesn’t always pay off. Research from the same Sutton Trust report found that undertaking unpaid internships gave no “significant benefit” to people’s later careers.
Working For Free Or Exploitation?
The fact that unpaid work experience is common policy across publications, particularly on the national circuit, is worrying. “Working for free at the start of a journalism career is almost ingrained in the industry,” remarks Sampson. “And if you don’t do it, someone else will.”
But is there a difference between different types of unpaid work experience? Many publications claim to be low on budget and unable to pay for work experience personnel, despite being able to afford to publish on a regular basis. In this instance, we should be questioning whether hiring someone, however junior, is morally acceptable without the ability to pay them.
In other cases, such as at charities or grassroots organisations, budgets really are tight. Jem Collins, the director of Journo Resources, recommends asking yourself who is benefitting from your work. “If you’re working for a grassroots collective where you’re all pushing towards a common goal, that’s very different to a large organisation using your free labour.”
Build Your Own Work Experience
• If you’re currently studying, writing for your student paper can be a great first step. The Student Publication Association has a directory of more than 150 members to find outlets near you.
• As a young journalist, there’s nothing to stop you from pitching your ideas as a freelancer. Adam England has written us a guide on how to do it.
• Organisations like Arts Emergency set up work experience placements every year with employers who agree to their code of conduct and best practice.
• There’s nothing to stop you from starting your own project either — whether that’s an email newsletter, TikTok account, or podcast.
“Ask yourself: ‘Is someone making money out of me here? Am I actually getting a valuable training experience? Can I work here on my own terms?’ The answers to these questions might change over time — and there are also plenty of ways to get work experience outside of traditional newsroom structures.”
To put it another way, if the message behind a start-up title is something you feel strongly about, then your support as a writer will likely be valued.
At larger organisations, the tell-tale red flags are probably in the frequency of your work. If you’re working for no money at all, below minimum wage, or for travel expenses — for weeks or months at a time — then it might be time to question the intentions of the publisher.
Similarly, if you’re called back for work experience at a publication, or asked to work longer than two or three weeks, it’s likely to be because they like you and feel you have the skills they are looking for. This is certainly the case if you’re doing the job of a junior writer — researching, writing, even interviewing.
Sampson explains: “While that’s great experience, it’s really benefiting the company above anyone else — and exploiting the workers. And if journalism is to become more diverse, we can’t expect everyone to work for free at the start of their career.”
"Ask yourself: 'Is someone making money out of me here? Am I actually getting a valuable training experience? Can I work here on my own terms?'."
Jem Collins, director of Journo Resources
There is also no denying that unpaid work experience only makes room for a selected demographic of new journalists — those who come from a setting where they can be supported while they work for free. Those who fall outside of that bracket or come from a low socio-economic background will have to find another, more difficult or impossible, route into the industry.
Just take a look at the NCTJ’s most recent Diversity in Journalism report. Some 72 percent of journalists have a parent in one of the three highest occupational groups, compared to 44 percent of all UK workers. Meanwhile, more than 40 percent of the country’s top journalists went to private schools.
For publications to do their job successfully — to provide a diverse range of viewpoints, stand fair and just in their reporting, and have the knowledge and understanding to report less prominent issues that affect marginalised members of a society — they need to represent the communities they write for.
This means hiring journalists from a range of backgrounds, regions, various socio-economic areas, and minority groups. Forcing new journalists to work for free to gain experience rules out swathes of the population, regardless of skill, who simply cannot afford to work for free. In turn, this dissolves the much-needed representation of communities within the UK media.
So, What’s The Solution?
Industry discussions on the subject see many experienced journalists agreeing that this is an unsustainable situation. Not only that, but unpaid work can extend to other issues, such as skilled and experienced journalists being dismissed for roles because unskilled or inexperienced workers are willing to work for free.
Understandably, some journalists will adamantly advise you to never work unpaid, while others might reluctantly share that they did benefit from it in the long run. While there’s no doubt work experience, paid or not, can be valuable, perhaps the answer is to meet somewhere in the middle.
“Working for free, at the very least, needs to have a limit,” suggests Sampson. “Two weeks of work experience is probably okay if it’s actually useful to everyone — and isn’t just sorting post, transcribing other people’s interviews, and doing endless tea and coffee runs.”
In the meantime, publications should allocate a budget to pay work experience and interns a living wage. Publishers have to accept there is a problem with the current system for this change to happen industry-wide. If a candidate is skilled enough to be called back after their initial two-week period, then they should be paid for their work via a daily rate. As the work intensifies, the wage should go up. If the work reaches the level of a junior writer, the pay should reflect the daily equivalent of that salary.
It’s on all of us working in publications to make this happen — and point out bad practices in our own organisations when we see them.
If you’ve been asked for free — ask to meet in the middle. For example, could they cover your travel costs and expenses? Ask yourself what the benefit is to you, and whether this unpaid work could realistically lead you to paid work in the near future.
It may be that a short initial stint of work can help you find out if the work is right for you. But if they would like you to stay on beyond a week or two, you should then be offered a paid position with a negotiable fee. Don’t be afraid to explain your situation clearly and with confidence — rates databases like ours can give you a guide of what to ask for.
In the same way we are — quite rightly — asked to pay for quality online journalism, those doing the hiring should be willing to pay for quality journalists at every level. The concept is simple and respectful, and the industry now needs to be willing to change.
Karen Edwards is the senior journalist at Journo Resources. She focuses on practical, advice-led pieces on various sectors across the industry — feel free to get in touch with her if you have suggestions on what we should cover!
Outside of Journo Resources, Karen writes for print titles such as High Life by British Airways, Grazia, and Metro, alongside digital platforms including IndyVoices and Telegraph Travel.