Like water kelpies or the Loch Ness Monster, receiving funds in exchange for journalistic labour has taken on a folkloric air by 2015. Media is dying, we are told electronically, via news articles transmitted direct to our in-hand smartphones. Professional journalism is over, announce smug gurus to thousands of Twitter followers on a platform not yet blowing out its ninth birthday party candles. The lavish concept of “I work for you, you give me money”, rumoured among historians to have once been referred to as “employment” has been venomously eroded in journalism through a clumsy combination of greed and shortsightedness - but it’s not over yet.
Though the almighty British print press has been downgraded in recent times to a grotesque Hall of Mirrors dystopian dinner party where 43% of columnists hail from fee-paying schools (the national proportion of UK residents who meet this criteria is 7%), a residualist’s work is never done. Unsatisfied with mere disfigurement, bosses at the UK’s third largest newspaper group may well have uncovered a neat little trick to carry on the baton after unpaid internships complete their transition into the the new normal along with clickbait and chronic overuse of the phrase “faith in humanity restored”.
Newsquest, which publishes Scottish titles including the Herald, the Evening Times and the National, are now charging students £120 to write for them. No, that is not a misprint. Newspapers are now charging students £120 to work for them.
Competition for media jobs has always been more vicious and less orthodox than that of, say, your average engineering student’s prospective post-university options (or whatever it is that serious people come here to do - Cement Studies? Prosthetic Limb Growing?) Sheer application intensity and a fall in print revenue has produced a hideous landfill of unpaid internships whereby hard work, skill and perseverance are mischievously fobbed off by the physiological need to get food into one’s stomach as well as that priggish desire to not freeze on the streets. In other words: money, money, money, as four Swedish philosophers once sang. Without it, typically in large quantities from comfortably well-to-do parents who have it to spare and are willing to bestow it (many, expectedly, have neither) working for free, never mind paying to work, is just not feasible.
So is the desire to be paid for work a particularly leftwing assertion? You would imagine so, given the blusterous half-excuses droned out by the usual defenders of injustice in retaliation to anyone decrying this absurd state of affairs; that it gives experience, that it’s akin to a school work experience programme. Except that working for months or even years without pay, a spinning cog in your boss and their shareholders’ money-making machine, is not work experience. It is exploitation. Wishing to be paid for one’s work is hardly flying the red flag over Fleet Street. This latest mutation of a failing media model from Newsquest ought to shake any doubters of the anti-meritocratic practices we have come to silently accrue in our modern media employment culture.
General secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Michelle Stanistreet, was expressly critical of the papers: “While Newsquest is sacking professional staff on its titles, it is charging journalist students for writing articles for them. The unpaid intern has become the scourge of the media profession - now Newsquest is asking for journalist students to actually pay for a by-line. The company’s cynicism beggars belief, and preys on young people desperate to get a break in a competitive industry. Where is the commitment to quality journalism? They should be providing journalist students with a meaningful work experience and if their articles are good enough to be published, they are good enough to be paid for.”
Near-certain credence can be given to the supposition that were a tech company in Silicon Valley to charge undergraduates £120 to design an app for them, or a Parisian fashion house to charge young designers for producing a lucrative line of jeans, fury would be publicly ordained. But “the media” to many are a real or imagined enemy. Minds jump to Princess Diana and Leveson rather than the Watergate scandal, the public service necessity of high quality journalism forgotten.
Talk of “unfairness” is true but misses the point. It hands a linguistic power to those benefactors of meritocracy’s downfall, wishing to disregard low-pay-and-no-pay as a leftist bemoaning, as just another Guardian “issue” like windmills or regional theatre. Life is unfair, hard work will lead the way. Hard work and a physical transcendence from the constraints of eating, sleeping, travelling and dressing; all of which require, by design, money. Charging students or demanding they work for free has not just impededtalented working class would-be journalists; it has demeaned competition. Relying on the skills of a shrunken group of privileged people to perform well in journalism likewise shrinks the pool of talent for editors to choose from. Without the chance to compete, our best journalists – of all backgrounds - cannot rise to the top through merit and, yes, hard work. Without great journalists, how can we know of the next expenses scandal, or of huge lobbying corruption? Answer: we can’t.