Edinburgh Freelancers concerned over papers’ work experience programmes

By Kane Mumford

Mark Fisher, Edinburgh Freelancers member comments on the NUJ work experience motion

A motion tabled by the Edinburgh freelance division of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) against the “abuse” of student labour in the media industry will draw attention to fears that the unpaid work done by students on work experience placements is“de-professionalizing” the industry.

Mark Fisher, a member of the Edinburgh freelancers group, has expressed concern over the current practice of taking on students who are hungry for experience at the expense of other professionals in the industry:

“One of our members has lost work because of what seems to be a deliberate cost-cutting policy of taking on students straight from university who are not necessarily being given professional support and are acting as free labour replacements for working journalists.”

Fisher’s comments were made against a background of criticism from the NUJ of papers’ and broadcasters’ work experience policies. In April 2008 a survey was completed by student members who reported a mixed picture of there time during internships at local and national papers. It found that 1 in 5 students who did post-qualification internships worked for as long as 6 months and of those number 78% received no payment for their efforts, despite regularly having their work published, as would a paid journalist.

Stephen Pearse, an NUJ campaigns spokesman, said that while there were problems with some areas of the report, the NUJ is in favour of work experience programmes as a way of students gaining skills in the workplace:

“The NUJ is supportive of properly organised work experience placements for people undertaking journalism courses, but we’re concerned that too often employers use unpaid internships to get work done free.”

National papers seem keen to respond to graduates’ training and financial needs, the Times offers a strict one week only work placement and the Guardian has set up a scheme that aims to offer “fair and fulfilling” internships . A spokesperson for Guardian News and Media said this about their Positive Action scheme:

” We have a commitment with our own chapel, i.e in the house agreement, that senior members of the editorial department will oversee the work experience scheme and ensure that it is rewarding for the students. The agreement also limits work experience to two weeks, which we hope provides for a meaningful experience without exploitation.”

“Our main focus in on work placements offered through our Scott Trust Bursary scheme and the Positive Action scheme, though we also offer a limited number of placements outside these programmes. An exception to the two-week rule is made for the overall winner of the Student Media Award.  That person is invited for an extended six-week work placement at the Guardian as part of their prize, for which they receive a subsistence allowance.”

The changes proposed in the motion, to be considered by the NUJ’s ADM conference next week could see more support for similar schemes in the future.