Unpaid Labor

The newest bit of nonsense in journalism-world is this idea thatnonprofit organizations offering journalism students unpaid work is somehow unconscionable:

Robert Gammon, a longtime Bay Area reporter who works at Oakland’sEast Bay Express, wrote that the students’ work on the project
is “slave labor” that will make it possible for the effort to survive
and possibly thrive. “They’re giving themselves an unfair advantage by
relying on unpaid labor,” he elaborated in a phone interview. Instead
of following the model of many news organizations and hiring a few
unpaid interns during the academic year and more during the summer, the
project would “concentrate the unpaid work of students in one outlet
that would then compete against traditional outlets.”

While this
might help the nonprofit venture — and the student workers — in the
short term, it will undermine the students and their chosen profession
in the future. “[T]he new venture promises to be bad for the public
over the long term,” Gammon wrote. “It’s true that the Bay Area likely
will experience an increase in local news coverage right away, but if
the new venture forces traditional news organizations to further
contract, then the public will be forced to increasingly depend on
inexperienced, unpaid students to inform them about what’s happening in
the region.”

And you know, just fuck you, okay? So a few unpaid interns are okay, so long as they don’t become a threat of some kind? What the hell? A way of doing things is either okay or not okay, it’s not “okay for a few but in a group, dear God, Miss Scarlett, I never.” Either it’s fair to offer experience to students in an unpaid or low-pay environment, or it’s a disincentive for all news organizations to ever pay anything again. It can’t be okay for a newspaper but not for a nonprofit or startup. That’s not how Earth Logic works.

With regard to the salary and competitive arguments: Every large media organization gains ideas and stories from smaller ones where presumably the salaries are a lot less. Union papers steal stories outright from non-union papers and TV anchors do rip-and-read without credit or passing their million-dollar salaries down the pipe. This is how it has always worked. Funny we haven’t heard shit about it until now.

Am I thrilled about the idea of not paying people for their work? Absolutely not. But you know what? You could make this argument about every news organization that pays less than some other one, that they have an advantage and are driving the prices down. Yet somehow nobody did stand up for the small local papers the bigs used as farm teams, raped for their content and picked clean with little care or consideration, not until it actually might cost the bigger news orgs something. Then it’s all pearl!clutch and gasp!faint and it’s so transparent it makes me ill.


7 thoughts on “Unpaid Labor

  1. The real problem with unpaid student internships is that they’re class-stratified, because most kids can’t afford to work for free. The internships then act as a feeder system into the upper tier papers.
    Not what we need in journalism: Even more kids from the upper middle class.

  2. Susie,
    One of the journalism ideas I suggested to my alma mater’s fundraising arm was for an internship stipend, so that kids who couldn’t afford to work for little or nothing could still access the system, but it doesn’t fix that system.
    All this sudden concern about slave labor and unpaid bloggers is very convenient for the newspaper ownership.

  3. Susie,
    I’d even go further. In some fields, there is competition for internships. And internships vary in resume fodder form a fast ride to the top to a mild positive on your resume.
    Of course, who gets the highly visible internship with the corner office? The poor kid who works their way through school and has no connections or the silver spooned child of the CEO?

  4. When my kid was in high school, I made him apply for the state Governor’s School program. The only reason I even knew it existed was because I covered it as a reporter in one of the wealthy school districts. When he went for his interview, he was one of a handful of kids out of hundreds who weren’t rich. (We sat in a corner and made rude remarks about the preps.)
    Because he did enter, and did get accepted, he had a world of opportunities (scholarships, recruiting, etc.) open to him that most of the kids at his school would never know. When I asked for the application, his teacher said sheepishly, “I don’t even hand them out anymore because our kids can’t afford to take off work for six weeks in the summer.”
    I’m no longer surprised at how indifferent liberal institutions are to this routine choking-off of human potential.

  5. What Susie said. Obviously it’s an awfully convenient time for for-profit types to suddenly become concerned about this, but it would be really nice to see some organizations, especially nonprofits, working against the tide when they can.

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