This issue has been on my mind for quite some time, but after reading this Buzzfeed article (note the relevant section: 'Journalism students are constantly outraged, but seldom moved to act upon it') and later on coming across this Guardian article, I decided it was time to act on it.
The constant debate of unpaid internships. A quick Google search will retrieve about 983,000 results based on this topic, with headlines such as 'Unpaid internships: are they worth it?', 'Unpaid internships: work for pay, never pay for work', 'Unpaid internships: are they damaging your career prospects?' etc. I am not sure how many of these results actually recount any positive unpaid internship experiences, but from personal experience, it is quite hard to come across such articles - not saying they do not exist, but you might have to dig deeper for them.
Before delving into the topic, I want to underline two things: 1. I do not encourage unpaid internships. I strongly believe that interns should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage or the London Living Wage if undergoing an internship in London, as it's considerably more expensive than other locations. Internships or work placements paying expenses are obviously still better than those offering nothing. However, for people not living in the capital, or without friends whose sofas they can crash on or those financially unable to pay for accommodation in London, the possibilities are indeed limited and the whole process of obtaining relevant experience to their degree or chosen career can become fruitless and frustrating. 2. I am not a wealthy individual. I'm a full-time student with a part-time job, I rent a room in a flat shared with four other people and I cook my meals at home, just like many others. However, out of the six placements/internships currently on my CV, only two have been paid, including the one I am currently doing. Out of these six, three have been at national fashion and lifestyle magazines in London and have been a starting point in my career, as well as providing useful skills and experience (which I would not be able to write about today were it not for my friends' sofas).
What disturbs me is that a considerably high amount of people are sharing their less than fortunate and exploitative experiences of unpaid internships on social media or blogs, but very few are keen to impart their positive experiences and presumably would rather keep them for themselves. According to this article from The New Yorker, this could be because a) their numbers are probably higher than those benefiting from positive experiences and b) as Aristotle discovered when looking into what makes content 'memorable and persuasive' to people, the three principles behind this are ethical, emotional or logical (appeal). In other words, if an article appeals to people's emotion - and a lot of individuals are angered by the prospect of unpaid internships and exploitative, demeaning work - it's more likely to stick.
Indeed, it is very useful to read other's experiences and potentially learn something from them, whether this is avoiding a certain company or publication or simply knowing how to work a jammed photocopier beforehand. We should be grateful for the time they've taken in sharing this with us. But if other people are anything like me, there is a big chance that by reading this, they will be put off or scared of applying for a placement at say, a fashion magazine. Every single one of my internships - and I'm sure I'm not the only one - on such publications has been an immensely positive experience, with no negative elements, which is why I thought sharing this with people would be helpful - for others to find out that not all interns have been sent trekking around London for the editor's dry cleaning or assigned the coffee run from the Starbucks HQ in Seattle (an intentional exaggeration) for the duration of their internship, while expected to be 'grateful' for spending time at a 'glossy'.
In November 2013 I e-mailed my CV and cover letter to Esquire magazine, knowing full well I didn't stand a chance to get in - I had two local placements on my CV and no experience on any national publication. I got lucky - someone had canceled and I was asked on a Friday to go in on the following Monday for two weeks. Contrary to my expectations - from reading the above-mentioned articles - the atmosphere in the office was professional, yet relaxed. People were friendly and joked around, no one snapped at colleagues or interns, everyone said 'please' and 'thank you'. I was given articles to write and each of them was published on the website, with my byline. The online editor would take time to go through each article with me, explaining what I did right and what I could improve on, as well as teaching me how to use the CMS, Google Analytics etc. At the end of my placement, I was given (positive) feedback on my performance, asked about my career plans for the future and also given perhaps the most useful piece of advice - a huge chunk of the journalism industry is, like it or not, about networking (not to be confused with nepotism). It's crucial to stay in touch with people you've worked with - the occasional e-mail, coffee or tweet - because that's how they'll remember you (of course, apart from you having been good at your job). It might be the era of technology and social media, but the power of 'word of mouth' is still going strong. Your name popping into an editor's head when the next job opening arises - that's your break right there.
Case in point, it was through being recommended by Esquire that I got my internship at Harper's Bazaar. I still had to send a CV and cover letter months in advance, but having someone attest to my writing skills made a considerable difference. I was meant to be with the magazine for four weeks, but I was asked to stay one more week because I was doing a good job. The same atmosphere from the Esquire corner of the Hearst building was mirrored in the Bazaar office - they do share a floor after all. I was treated as part of the team, respected and encouraged to write as much as possible - in five weeks I got over 40 bylines on the website, pitched news stories and perfected my writing for that specific audience. The feedback I was given at the end made me confident in my skills and attitude and proved once again how useful that experience had been and how lucky I was to have worked with those people.
My point is - yes, cases where interns are treated like dirt and assigned menial jobs that won't in any way count as relevant work experience do happen and they shouldn't. Yes, interns are lucky to have the chance to spend time in a certain environment, learning from the people they aspire to work with someday, but so are those people - after all, having an extra set of capable hands in the office is an advantage. The other day at work someone said to me: "You're the one doing us a favour by helping during this busy period". So, fellow interns, don't give up - there is still hope. And if you've interned (paid or unpaid) and had a good experience, please share it - we're all in the same boat.
*GIF credit: HuffingtonPost.com and blog.bcm.com.au