Monday, 16 August 2010

Internships from hell: My experience

I thought long and hard about this blog post, just as I tweeted not a word about my predicament and remained open-minded and optimistic to the point of dishonesty with most people who asked how my internship at the Independent on Sunday was going. And I do realise that throwing into the blogosphere my contempt for a national paper will not do much for my future job prospects.

I can envisage my more diplomatic lecturers reading this post and shaking their heads: “So much promise,” they might be thinking. But if I can warn future interns of what awaits them, or even give a little bit of insight to the people who caused my distress, then it's worth sacrificing the very slim chance that one day the IoS may have come knocking on my door, begging me to work for them.

I should mention to all those aspiring journalists who are gasping in envy at the fact that I got myself an internship at a national paper that the extent of the screening process was calling up the right person and saying: “Hi, I'm a journalism student, I was wondering if it would be possible to do work experience with you during the summer.” And without further ado I was offered a month's unpaid work placement, which I had to politely decline in favour of a more reasonable two weeks, although even this almost bankrupted me, my only salvation being that national papers don't expect anyone in before 10:30 am so I saved myself the peak-time train fares.

I must say that in my limited experience I have found an inverse correlation between how easy it is to get an internship and how much you enjoy it. My two weeks last summer at the Brighton Argus, which had a similar system of giving away free work to anyone who asked, was enough to put me off the local and regional news industry for life. At the more selective Press Gazette I felt I learnt more than in an entire year of university; the Guardian, which demands CVs, clippings, and application forms gained me two published articles and much-appreciated free coffee; and I have high hopes for the New Statesman, which brought me in for an interview for their coveted internship.

But back to the Sindy. Day after day, in my usual pushy way I would ask for research, transcriptions, stories, tea-making or any other task that the news desk might need fulfilling. I was met with disdain and complete disinterest.

Although at first I assumed that it was a personal, after the first few days it became apparent that of the vast number of interns the IoS takes on, the majority spend their time browsing the web for ideas to pitch and subsequently get rejected without so much as a reasonable explanation. I say the majority because there were exceptions. Namely the Cambridge student who was interning for three months and the Oxford student whose parents got her work experience at the IoS at every available university holiday. They seemed to get quite a few bylines.

Not that there wasn't a highlight to my ordeal: I was sent off to a Quaker house (at my own expense, of course) to do vox pops with very friendly phtographer. Also, the cafeteria soup is cheaper than the Guardian's and the bread is nicer. But I wouldn't want to be inaccurate and infer that we were never given any work; on a couple of occasions someone would come over at 6pm with some 'urgent' research, and when explained two hours later that the information was unobtainable, it turns out that they were pretty sure that was the case already.

This is just my story of two very unpleasant weeks, but every day hundreds of aspiring journalists are put through terrible hardship in order to acquire this kind of valuable “experience”. And for what? In the hope that in the future they will be able to break into the industry. Fingers crossed they don't end up entirely disenchanted before their big break. Fingers crossed they don't pick the Independent on Sunday.


  1. Would love to read more stories about your "tasks" there. I applied for work experience at the Sindy but never heard back (Even after several phone calls and e-mails). Perhaps it was just as well!

  2. It's good to hear someone speaking out on behalf of interns - they are often treated appallingly, or totally ignored.

    A few words from the other side of the fence - I took several work experience people when I was working at The Grocer. It's hard work. Of course, you could just ignore them for two weeks, and that would be easy. But to give them a good learning experience is hard work. I had to manage my own workload (which was never reduced), make time to talk them through everything they needed to know, and then check (and often edit) their work after them. And then, if they did make errors that I didn't spot, take the flack from the editor too. Exhausting!

    I ended up having to reduce the number of people I was able to do this for because I couldn't get my own work done. If my employer had made allowances for the extra time that mentoring someone took, however, I'd have done it gladly because it's a rewarding thing to do and I met some very promising folk through it (and some less so). Or if I'd still been expected to shoulder the same workload, but been paid for the extra hours I was having to put in.

    Which is all a roundabout way of saying it might not be a bad idea for the government to pay employers to offer internships - so long as the employers use that money to pay towards supporting the intern's mentoring by providing freelance help for the mentors, rather than just adding it to the company accounts!

  3. I think that there should be some distinctions made here, and I think interns can fall into 2 categories.

    1. The "work experience person"
    They are there to make tea, get a note on a cv, and generally experience working in a newsroom for a bit. They have an ambition to go into journalism, and would like some hands on experience as well as testing the waters to see if it's for them. I don't think this person should be paid.

    2. The "committed intern"
    This person knows they want to be involved in journalism on some level. They have done several placements, write a lot and may have even got some freelance commissions. When they intern, they write copy, research and sub. They are basically doing the job of an entry level reporter/production journalist, and in my view should have expenses paid at the very least, if not also a minimum wage.

    I think what's difficult here is the issue of giving an intern "something to do". Suffice it to say, internships are normally arranged by another department altogether, so the people you're working alongside probably have no real idea who you are, and are probably pretty focused on their own jobs. The best internships are always in the more niche publications with smaller teams. Nationals will always have wide-eyed kids coming through the door, eager to work, so they can afford to palm off menial or nonexistant work onto interns.

  4. In response to Joseph's comment that distinctions should be made, I agree that some interns are there because they know they will never get anywhere else without the vital lines on their CV, knowing that, regardless of what they actually did, they can beef it up to sound more impressive than it truly was.

    But it's difficult to make that distinction every time, because as Sirena has just pointed out, you may be one of the 'committed interns' who would do any menial task with more professionalism than many of their full-time staff, but unless you're given the chance to prove that, your talent will go undiscovered.

    Even if you are self-motivated, and create work for yourself without needing direction, there is absolutely no guarantee that you will get a by-line, which is currency for aspiring journalists. And since most of the time the only way you get a work placement is by having already had a work placement, it would be unfair to discriminate against those for whom it's the first time they've set foot in a newsroom.

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  6. Really good article. I have had some bad experiences as an intern as well but have been always been too nervous to speak out!

    Earlier this year I spent a week at The Times magazine where i was doing fashion returns. I wasn't too bothered about the unpaid part given that it was only 5 days, but i still feel bitter about the fact they couldn't reimburse my travel costs. So i spent £40 for the 'luxury' of being able to post things for The Times. Great. It was also painfully obvious that they needed the labour and weren't fussed with offering anything worthwhile in return.

    I have also recently just left a press department after a similar month long experience (although in this case i was in an open plan office, luckily). Despite initially agreeing to three months the idea of still being jobless in October completely demotivated me so i left.

    On the other hand i have had a few good experiences at publications as well. Namely where the employer recognises a graduate is probably capable of putting a paragraph together. Like most i would happily do a weeks worth of boring admin work if i was allowed to write two lines of copy at the end of it!

    Furthermore, i graduated from an MA in 2009 and still live at home with my parents. We're by no means rich but obviously rich enough for me to intern. I suppose they're lucky that they didn't send me to a private school as now they have to fund me through my mid twenties!

    I'm actually envious of my younger brother who is an IT genius and has skills which he can use. My 'skill' is my writing. Unfortunately, most people can write and it's subjective whether they write well. Unlike fixing a computer.

  7. I'm going there next week! :/

  8. Highly energetic post, I liked that a lot. Will there be a part 2?

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