The economics of journalism work experience

Students looking to secure work experience in journalism should read Freelance Unbound – How to avoid paying for internships. Referencing Emily Fraser Voigt, it makes some great observations about how young graduates must ‘leverage their position’ to succeed in journalism:

‘Young people trying to get their first job don’t have much leverage when they aren’t that valuable – ie valuable to the people who will be paying the salary. And they aren’t valuable [a] in a recession, like now, and [b] when they pursue a career path that is oversubscribed.’

It’s true that students will  struggle to get work in the ‘sexy end’ of journalism, which has been hit hard by the downturn. As Freelance Unbound observes, students need to build up an audience for their work (see: Blogging as a way to build a personal brand online), build a great contacts book (so students must engage with the community), and do student journalism. I also believe we must revisit that debate over whether journalism should be taught on its own. At undergraduate level, it seems far better to teach journalism as part of a joint honours programs (i.e. it must be combined with another subject – how about computing? Or business? etc).

I too would also urge students to have a back-up plan when they don’t get that dream job working for that celebrity / football mag. Perhaps take a serious look at the land of B2B, where many publishers are riding out the downturn (just take a look at the Informa share price) or consider positions in corporate communications and PR. Students leave with a wide range of transferable  skills which are appropriate to a large number of editorial career paths, although perhaps not always in journalism.

Work Experience at Zoo magazine

One of my students has just got work experience  at Zoo magazine (Baur). I was pleased to see that Baur will be paying his expenses. They don’t have to do this, but it’s great that they are doing this because it means that more students from a wider range of backgrounds can participate.

Zoo emailed over a reassuringly comprehensive ‘Guide For Workies’, which outlined the role of the work experience student.  He would be asked to do the mundane jobs of opening the post and making the tea, alongside the more important work e.g.  searching the tabloids for potential Zoo-like NIBS and gossip. But a guide like this means that both publisher and student knows what they will get out of the placement.

I urged the student  to be prepared to make the tea (a crucial role on deadline day, although a job that some students see as being beneath them) i.e. aim to do the crap jobs quite well (just not brilliantly!). But also go in armed with potential news/feature ideas that they could run past the features editor during a quiet moment. Getting even five minutes with a features editor of a national consumer magazine is very valuable and one not to be wasted.

I saw many workies come through the door when I worked at Emap, most of them were students from nearby City University. I always asked about what they thought of the magazine and how it could be improved. We certainly kept an eye on the ones with good ideas and a keen interest in our mag. Emap employed many former workies.

But when it comes to careers in journalism, it’s tough at the start and even tougher at the end. Felix Dennis, founder Dennis Publishing, bluntly explains the economics of magazine publishing in his book How to Get Rich:

“Youth is a further factor. By the time talent is in its mid-to-late forties or early fiffies, it will have become very, very expensive. Young talent can be found and underpaid for a short while, providing the work is challenging enough. Then it will be paid at the market rate. Finally, it will reach a stage where it is being paid based on past reputation alone. That is when you must part company with it.”

He adds: “Just remember the simple rules concerning talent: identify it, hire it, nurture it, reward it, protect it. And, when the time comes, fire it.”  This is the rule at Dennis Publishing and at Emap.

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