A New Group Takes Aim at Unpaid Internships in Journalism

Stephanie Costello is flicking through a fat pad of lined paper.

“The Ethical Treatment of Interns Ireland?” she says, looking up, eyes wide. “Does it sound too much like PETA?”

Perhaps, something along the lines of a cooperative or an alliance would fit better, she muses.

Later, she emails: “We’ve decided on Media Interns Alliance in the end! Co-operative was nice but I think alliance is strong!”

Costello’s been talking about something along the lines of a union for journalism interns for at least two years, she said, last Tuesday, over coffee at Network cafe on Aungier Street.

Now, she and four others – three fellow survivors of media internships and a barrister in employment law – have come together to get one rolling, she says.

It’ll be a place for people getting into media, newspapers, magazines and websites, either early-stage or students – somewhere to learn their rights, enforce their rights and, yes, even name publications that have unpaid interns in their engine rooms.

“Everyone’s giving out about the lack of diversity in the media,” says Costello. Some complain about how journalists are all very middle class, and cliquey.

“But nobody’s looking after the most vulnerable: the student journalists and the interns,” she says. “They’re the ones that need looking after.”

A Veteran Intern

Costello, who is currently a PhD student researching journalistic transparency at TU Dublin, over the road from Network cafe, says she did a slew of summer internships while she was a journalism undergraduate.

“You name it, I’ve interned there,” she says. For the most part, those were unpaid stints, but at one place she got roughly €120 a week cash in hand.

Friends had similar stories, of being disheartened and depressed about access to work in the media. “The barriers, and this idea of gate-keeping,” says Costello.

Michael Lanigan, another of the co-founders of the Media Interns Alliance, says: “I was the plucky young intern with the can-do attitude.”

While interning, unpaid, the year before last, he had to couch-surf, living from house to house, he says. “Including two nights homeless in a 24-hour Starbucks.”

He also bought into the idea that exposure, and writing eight or more stories a day, was worth it. But, hungry, overworked, and working bar shifts too, he snapped, he says. “I decided that this wasn’t for me.”

He got a low-paid, full-time internship, which felt better, but he later couldn’t work out what the difference was between the work he was doing, and the work the full-time employees were doing.

“Then you work out that you’re getting 40c more than your typical Dublin parking metre,” Lanigan says.

Lanigan says he was doing all that and he’s middle class with a safety net that gives him more peace of mind. “It discriminates against working-class people.”

What Counts?

The Workplace Relations Commission says that, save for close relatives or registered industrial apprentices, everybody working under a contract of employment has to be paid at least minimum wage.

That includes those on “work experience placements, work trials, internships”, it says.

What does Costello think about internships done through job centres, or through college?

She’s against the schemes that require you to have signed on for a time to apply, she says. “We’re just trying to get away from that idea that you need to be on the dole for six months, in order to gain access to the media.”

College internships are a bit more complicated. “They should be paid, but at least you’re in the realm of college structure,” she said.

There’s also a contractual relationship between the publication and the college – and they talk to each other about it, how it’s going, and there’s a learning side to it.

There is, of course, already a union for those in journalism: the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

But restrictions on membership mean, to Costello, that it seems disconnected from those starting out in the field and early in their careers, she says. “I don’t think the NUJ speaks to any of our generation of journalists because they’re not working for them.”

To be a full member, more than half your wages have to be generated from journalism, says Costello. “That’s just not feasible for the precarious nature of journalism for our generation right now.”

At one point, Costello says she was working seven days a week: Monday to Friday on the internship, and Friday to Sunday in a paid job. “It’s exhausting, it’s totally exhausting.”

A student membership with the NUJ is €34.50, too, which lasts as long as they’re on the course. “I think that’s quite steep for a student,” she says. “We don’t want to charge anything.”

The Union

Sarah Kavanagh, communications officer with the NUJ, said it does offer different types of memberships.

If somebody is starting out, they can apply to be a temporary member – for those who don’t get half their income from journalism and don’t have another full-time job – which costs between €69 and €117.30 a year.

You don’t get access to everything, says Kavanagh. “But it’s a foot into the door.”

You’d get access to networking opportunities, a press card, professional support and guidance through things such as the ethics hotline, and training events, she says.

Temporary members don’t get access to full legal services, says Kavanagh. “We are an organisation that is funded entirely by membership subscriptions.”

In the UK, the NUJ did take a court case for an intern who was essentially working, to get back pay, she says. “That shows we do have a commitment.”

They’ve drawn up guidelines on how to understand the difference between work and internships, and been working at an international level to push for better conditions for interns, she says.

The NUJ does depend on members and they shape the organisation, and they do want to engage more with entry-level journalists, said Kavanagh. “We are having ongoing discussions internally about changing the union, changing our approach, and how we can become, more … hear people who are not already members of the union already.”

Most of the time the NUJ is fire-fighting, trying to save people’s jobs, she said. “I’m sure there’s loads more that could be done, there always is.”

Pulling up the Ladder

As a first step, the Media Interns Alliance plan to set up information meet-ups, says Hazel Fannon, the barrister in employment law who is also part of the team. The first is scheduled for early March.

At those, they’ll be talking about what rights and entitlements interns have. If people are effectively working nine-to-five writing articles, that’s a full-time job, Fannon says. “I think there’s probably a lot of abuse in relation to that.”

Costello says they’ll also be reaching out to publications with something of a media intern charter – to see if they’ll sign up to the core demands.

What’ll they ask for? Bullet points such as every intern being paid minimum wage, a limit on working hours, mentorship, and some kind of contractual agreement.

At the moment, some places praise themselves for paying a token amount a month. “Saying, ‘Sure, aren’t we great?’” she says. “That’s not great.”

Paying €600 a month for a nine-to-five job, when you have to be ready to go the moment you walk in there, writing stories, isn’t great, she says.

In some places, the whole online operations are propped up by interns. “They don’t have anyone even on the online desk.”

Others within organisations have a responsibility to call this out too, she says.

If you think about it, when some are doing that daily grind of short-takes, that’s not only creating value for a company, it’s also creating space and time for others to spend longer on their stories.

“They’re complicit. They’re sitting there and watching these people being taken advantage of, while they write stories of people being taken advantage of in other industries,” she says. “There’s a ladder-pulling exercise that’s happening.”

Finally: there’ll be naming and shaming too – not to score personal points, but to show how systematic this is in the media, says Costello.

That means setting up an Instagram account and a Facebook page with testimonials. Did a boss promise a job at the end? Were you told you couldn’t take time off when for illness?

In her last internship, there was an atmosphere of “this isn’t right”. But “people are so afraid to speak out because they’re worried they’ll get tarnished”, she says.

“I was,” says Costello. “I’m not anymore.”

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Author:

Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

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