In his speech to his alma mater, University of Colorado’s journalism school, Rick Reilly said this:
“When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!
And you know what? I agree with him. He isn’t talking about personal blogs or anything like that and is rather pointing specifically to unpaid internships. Don’t do it, he says.
Many blogs and big writers have argued that it’s stupid advice that he’s giving. What grads want is exposure. They want their work published in major media outlets; they want to have clips ready for future employers. & That’s exactly what an unpaid internship does. Sure, you don’t get money now, but you build a nice portfolio that will help you land a job and get paid later–and isn’t that the goal?
And though I agree with what these people are saying, I can’t help but feel extremely uncomfortable with the notion of unpaid internships. Why? Because it’s setting a bad precedent. It’s telling students that it’s okay to not get paid despite working 40+ hours a week. It’s telling students that only those who are well-off can work in this field, this field that, well, pays nothing to its interns. It’s taking away the value of your words, and it’s taking away the value of your work. And what does it say about the newsroom if they’re not offering paid internships? Either that they don’t value their interns enough or that they don’t have enough money to be hiring interns–so they probably shouldn’t be anyway (because how much work would the interns really be doing?). As a paid intern, you should be treated like a typical reporter on their staff (& that’s what I’ve been told by the new companies I’ve worked/am working with), but as an unpaid intern, there’s more leeway for interns to be treated as “lower-class citizens” and resorting to filing papers, sending out emails, arranging interviews, etc. instead of going out there and hunting for their own stories.
But with all this said, I should give a fair–and perhaps too-late–warning: I’m biased, extremely biased. I’ve been lucky enough to scour some really great paid internship opportunities, and though I haven’t come up that much in the green, I’ve been paid enough to cover room, food, and transportation costs. I’m also a firm believer in equal opportunity employment, especially in relation to internships. Students should not be barred from certain opportunities because their family does not have enough money to send their child to another state to live for three months. Interns should be selected for their talent, their charisma, their ability–not the size of their wallet. So while I’m not against people taking up unpaid internships, I am against companies offering unpaid internships, and making that differentiation between the haves and the have-nots just that much wider.
So in conclusion, I would never write for free. And why? Because I don’t believe in elitism, and I believe my words (professionally, at least) are worth more than $0. And if I say they’re worth $0 today, aren’t they still worth the same later? Print journalism is dying, yes, maybe, but the need for journalists and the impact and power of words? Not at all! Just look at how Osama Bin Laden’s death broke. He may not have been a professional writer, but there is no doubt in my mind he’s paid for what he does.