Last week I got a text from a friend who is also trying to make it in the journalism game:
“Oh my god. Have you seen the work experience guy who’s written Charlie Brooker’s column in G2 today? The last thing we need!” Work experience is a funny thing. When you’re 16, it’s a week-off school. But when you’re trying to get a job in an industry a zillion others want to work in (and just as many are being made redundant from), a work placement becomes a shop window – a chance for you to show-off how employable you are. And boy can it be frustrating when someone does better than you or gets an opportunity you don‘t. Lucky Tom Meltzer… bugger.
But that’s just the way things go sometimes. Some placements will give you loads while others won’t. Some people are better at grabbing the bull by the horns and asking for more responsibility, while some just aren’t. But the one thing I’ve learned doing placements is that if you are of the bull-grabbing school of “workies”, you will get a lot more out of your time.
I’ve only ever done placements of a week or two at a time – at a national and two regional newspapers; a lifestyle and a specialist sport magazine; websites and print publications.
The national was awe-inspiring. Granted, I didn’t do much beyond research and phone calls, but I did attend media events which were fantastic. And this particular newsroom is famous for its set-up so I felt pretty honoured to be there and have an insight.
The first regional newspaper was hit and miss. It was a two-way street of me being young and not particularly confident, and them having no faith in me to do anything apart from photocopying and bits of research. Needless to say, I left pretty disheartened and reconsidering my desire to become a journalist.
However, another regional paper a few years later let me do interviews, write news, go to court, and read and edit the video headlines on their website. I even helped work on a story about the aftermath of an attempted bombing in the city. They did so much to help me expand my cuttings, CV and experience – important at a time when I was trying to get on my journalism course!
Magazine-wise, it’s hard to get copy in print (although not impossible) during a placement as production is generally done over a longer period. So I’ve found it’s mainly been websites that put work in the public arena. Both my magazine experiences were consumer – general lifestyle and specialist – and despite a fear that I would be walking into a terrifying Devil Wears Prada-esque world, I’ve got so much out of both. And that’s the point right now – to expand portfolios and work on different mediums, to make contacts and open up potential employment avenues, to develop confidence and ability, and to prove ourselves so we will be ready for that first job.
Of course there’s going to be tea-making and photocopying, and of course you will get people who can’t be bothered to sit and chat with you. Everyone’s heard the urban legend about a work experience girl at some high fashion title having coffee thrown at her. But for the most part, I’ve been treated professionally by friendly people who are happy to show you around their world.
Granted I’ve never done a placement longer than two weeks so I cannot give any firsthand comment on long unpaid internships. But I have heard about people working for months or even years without a sniff of any pay and without the hoped-for job offer. That is pretty disgraceful.
Internships show off your talent and desire in a particular industry, and at the same time give you an incredible opportunity to contribute. But a willingness to work for free doesn’t prove you want it more than someone who wants to be paid for their time – you need to live after all. I’ve been lucky enough that I can live at home, and expenses usually covered by companies have been enough to get me by during placements. But there are lots of people who don’t have that – something which is so much more resonant if you are working for an extended period of time. When it comes down to it you are doing a job, and if you’re doing a job you should get paid – simple as that.