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Too old to become a journalist: Work experience – the good, the bad and the ugly

November 6th, 2008Posted by in Training

The Good:
I managed to get work experience on the features desk of a woman’s supplement within a national newspaper last week, during half-term.

Most of my other Lambeth College colleagues also managed to bag placements at various publications – mainly local newspapers – in and around London.

The Bad (well for me anyway)
During my stint at the national paper I didn’t write a word of copy, so no chance of getting an all-important cutting for my portfolio.

The people from my NCTJ course who were doing work experience on the news desk at local publications, on the other hand, were encouraged to find, research, interview and write up their own stories. They all came back with five or six pieces to put in their books.

It just goes to show that while getting on a national may cause ooh’s and ahh’s within your friends and family the reality of such a placement can be disappointing despite looking good on the CV.

The Ugly:
A post about work experience is always going to generate some mixed views so here’s the disclaimer:

a) I’ve been in charge of workies before and having to find someone, who isn’t familiar with your company, something to do when you’re really busy is always a nightmare.

b) I’ve been a workie and equally, having nothing to do, but not wanting to annoy anyone who looks really busy by asking, yet again, for a task, is also a nightmare.

I can see both sides, but why the hell should point a) always win? Workies are people too – there’s a badge in there somewhere.

On my placement they put you on various desks for one day at a time so by the end of the week you have experienced all aspects of how the magazine works. I spent a day on art and pictures and then headed to the features desk.

I’ve written for the magazine before so in theory one of the team, at least, knows my abilities, but if I hadn’t asked and then asked again and asked some more for something to do I don’t think they would have spoken to me for the entire duration of the placement.

The only person who made an effort to ask me anything and check I had something to do was a senior editor.

I could have done all the things they didn’t really want to do and written all the things they didn’t want to write; gone to interviews with them to see how it’s done; or come up with ideas for their regular slots and written them for free – key word there that I thought, in a financial climate such as ours, would have been highly attractive.

I found the fact that I wasn’t being used and abused to my maximum capacity really rather ridiculous.

Don’t get me wrong: I asked what I could do to help, emailed to offer my writing skills on things, thought of ideas and pitched to them. I could have been more outspoken and bullish, but if someone was like that in my office it would annoy me intensely.

Now I don’t know whether I’m getting old here, but I have to also mention that on my first day the girl in charge of the interns didn’t show me where the toilets were or where I could get water from.

To me showing new people where things are is a basic social skill and a sign of good manners.

Maybe hunting down toilets yourself is all part of a new Ray Mears esq work placement style. Sorts the men from the boys type of thing… I must have missed that memo, but I’m sticking with my first theory I’m afraid.

It wasn’t just me either: another member of my course had a rotten time on work experience. He said the entire news desk discussed lunch plans between themselves within his earshot, but never once asked him what he was doing or whether he wanted to come along.

Worse than that they took his better story ideas instead of letting him write them up and get them out.

To those who are saying ‘school of hard knocks never did anyone any harm’ and ‘get used to it’ or ‘diddums, not asking you to lunch’ and all the other phrases that have perpetuated shoddy work experience etiquette, I say, that’s rubbish.

Why should we have to put up with what would be considered bullying in the classroom just because we are a trainee?

A solution?

It’s a sad fact that unpaid work placements are normally the only way of getting a job in the media, but as we workies are here to stay I’d like to propose that you abuse us properly.

I’ll sort post till the cows come home if it gets me a job, but I, and everyone on my course, can write and write well. We know style and we know enough law not to get into trouble.

I know we may seem like a chore you have to endure every week, but don’t let us fester in the corner and say ‘um, not right now’, when we ask if there’s anything to do.

Use and abuse us: ask us to think of ideas for regular slots; ask us to pull together some ideas for the year ahead; ask us where the copy is by lunchtime and shout at us when we say we haven’t done it yet; send us out in the rain to get a story; advise us on where we’re going wrong; overload us with work so we have to stay late – we love it.

Forget toilet orienteering and all the mind game stuff – anyone who can survive this kind of proper ‘abuse’ is surely worth keeping in touch with.

To read previous posts in this series, visit the ‘Too old to become a journalist’ feed.

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  • http://kristinelowe.blogs.com Kristine Lowe

    Wow, I’m sorry to hear about your unfortunate experiences, seeing that trainees also are free labour it seems such a waste. I’ve heard similar and worse tales from people I studied with at City Uni, which I guess makes me feel even luckier that my stints doing work experience were so good – almost more useful that journalism school.

    I didn’t quite know which line of journalism I wanted to try for after journo school so I tried a bit of each. Perhaps silly, since this was just after 9/11 and everyone was axing rather than hiring, but still: did stints at Daily Telegraph online, Euronews (now defunct) on FiveLive, City section of The Express and Observer Business and Media.

    I got clips from all of the newspapers and was put to work instantly in all newsrooms, neither lacking things to do nor guidance. I’m extremly grateful for this and still keep in touch with most of the editors. I didn’t only do writing: was put to do research, re-coding from html to xml, reviewing sub-sites, proofing, subbing ++ and enjoyed it all. I was never put to make coffee though, perhaps because I’m tall and dark and some people find me intimidating, perhaps I was just lucky to meet great people who never thought of making trainees do that, though I’d been happy to:-)

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/susan-sawyers SuSaw

    Dear Old if you think you are Old,
    (I think I’m old, there are good things and bad)

    I read with interest your post. I, too, recently took on a non-paying gig working 20 hours a week for an oral history project. It was fascinating, I learned a lot about the medium and remain committed to the cause.

    One of the things I found most interesting, as you mentioned, was a lack of decorum. As in, people rarely said “good morning” or “good-bye” or “I’m going out, do you want anything?” What’s that about? Here’s where I felt old…I tried to set an example and was more than happy to pick up and deliver coffee for anyone who wanted one. Nothing was beneath me, I thought it was fun.

    The other detail about being older (and experienced, however, in a completely different area) was that I believe that an employee, paid or not, is only as good as they are taught. I wasn’t in a position to tell my younger colleagues (and we are talking a 20 year age difference) how to do their job and while there’s much to be said about learning by doing, new staffers (paid or not) need instruction, at least in the beginning and also need to be able to ask questions without being shooed away.

    In the end, I had to give up the commitment because my other responsibilities (grad school and a family) took priority. I was pleased to have had the chance to get my feet wet and learned a fair amount, mostly about how I might do things differently.

    On that note, I’m writing a feature about women who opt to switch careers or go back to school after 40. Please let me know if you or anyone you know would be willing to be interviewed. Deadline is November 1.

    With thanks for sharing your experience and good luck as you move forward – susaw@mac.com

  • Natalie

    I know how you feel!
    I worked on a very popular magazine last month as part of work experience and no one bothered to show me where the toilets or kitchen was….:(
    Work experience and writing for free sucks but its what we have to do to break into the industry.

    Great blog btw!

    Natalie xxx

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