Debate over unpaid internships reignited by recent adverts

The debate over unpaid work experience and internships in journalism – how long you do them for, if you do them and whether they should be paid – isn’t a new one.

Industry groups and watchdogs want to see a more regulated work experience system within the industry, and more standardised pay and arrangements for working hours and expenses.

We share editors and employers ads for placements via’s own forum and getting experience in the workplace can be a great opportunity and contact-building exercise for would-be journalists.

But the question of how much unpaid experience is too much and whether the industry is over-reliant on a stream of hungry graduates at a time of strapped resources has raised it’s head again this week with journalists and bloggers picking up on some ads for long-term, unpaid internships.

There’s a six-week placement with freelance journalist Tiffany Wright and a six-month internship with website Both promise, and I’m sure for the right candidate would bring, hands-on experience and responsibility and a way to break into their respective sectors.

Of course, there a many other similar adverts and not all are as clear about whether or not successful candidates will get paid. The idea of unpaid internships with freelancers has sparked some interesting comments from freelancers Patrick Smith:

[I]f I was hiring for a trainee I’d want someone with the know-how and guts to set up their own freelance career/site/business rather than someone was that content to help someone else’s.

I could understand spending a few weeks with a leading, high-profile figure – a genuine world leader in their field perhaps – to learn some of the ropes and get some top advice but, with all due respect to Wright and her successful career, that doesn’t appear to be the case here.

And Sally Whittle:

[D]o I think a freelancer offering the opportunity to help her out for six weeks is any more evil or exploitative than the publishing company that advertised on Gorkana last week for an unpaid intern for a MINIMUM commitment of six months?

As a journalism student, I worked at Literary Review magazine for four weeks for free. I got some experience and a few contacts, but I think working with a jobbing freelancer and arranging interviews and setting up calls might actually have taught me more than I learned sitting in an office doing typing for Auberon Waugh.

The debate isn’t going to go away any time soon – for those seeking more advice on paid vs unpaid placements, the Guardian’s careers section is running a Q&A from 1-4pm today on just that topic.

6 thoughts on “Debate over unpaid internships reignited by recent adverts

  1. Catherine Hanly

    I think it’s worth pointing out that while our advert was clear about the job being an unpaid internship, the work we’re looking for our intern to do can, in the main, be fitted in around other jobs. We’re happy to be flexible and completely understand that six months would be a long time to work without pay.

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  3. John Robinson

    Ultimately, I think unpaid internships are immoral. People are desperate for experience so they will work for you for free. But media organizations shouldn’t take advantage of that need. If the intern does decent work they should be paid. If they don’t do decent work, sack them.

    That said we employ some unpaid interns who work part-time for college course credit. As an editor, I despise it but the students persuade me that they are getting paid in terms of college credit. (I wouldn’t be able to hire them if I had to pay them. Can’t afford it.)

  4. Alex

    It’ll mainly depend on your financial situation. If you can afford to take an unpaid position for a while then that experience could obviously be invaluable. But the reality is that most of us have bills to pay. Ideally, go and live with a family member for a while or move in with a girlfriend/boyfriend (gulp). You could go on benefits, but then you’d have to work your hours around signing on, which could be a pain.
    I did a week for a local paper whilst on my NCTJ and when I finished the course all they could offer me was more unpaid work. I might have taken them up on it, but in her email the editor came across as if she was doing me this big favor, and even sounded a bit bossy, like I was a paid member of staff. I think this is the mentality a lot of editors have – an attitude them helps them justify taking on unpaid workers.
    I could have been humble but I decided that I’m worth more than that, especially as I invested so much time and money into my course.
    Your time and your labor are value commodities, so don’t let people exploit you. Do enough work experience to get a reference or two and build up your portfolio/website a bit, and then start thinking big.
    Obviously if you’ve been offered a placement and it’s the job/industry of your dreams then stick with it as long as you can, but don’t go running around like some dickless lackey your whole life.

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