More Thoughts on Unpaid Internships and Writing for Exposure

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THE ONTARIO MINISTRY of Labour recently announced an enforcement “blitz” of provincial regulations governing unpaid internships, an action which led to the termination of internship programs at Toronto Life, Canadian Geographic, Rogers Publishing and The Walrus.

Here is how the Ontario Employment Standards Act defines an internship (all six must be met):

1. The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school.
2. The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.
3. The employer derives little, if any, benefit from the activity of the intern while he or she is being trained.
4. Your training doesn’t take someone else’s job.
5. Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.
6. You have been told that you will not be paid for your time.

I’ve written elsewhere about Nate Thayer’s spat with The Atlantic, focusing my analysis on the now common practice of providing unpaid labour for exposure. My thesis in that article was simple: once the model of unpaid labour for exposure has expanded to include The Atlantic, there’s nothing left for a writer to be exposed to – except of course other media outlets that will offer yet more exposure. A Ponzi scheme, in other words. Once we writers agreed to the principle, there was no reason for any media outlet not to adopt the practice – and this includes the big players, who we wrongly assumed would keep on paying because they have deep pockets.

The other point I make in my Nate Thayer piece is that the “unpaid work for exposure” model confuses advertising and marketing. Exposure is a good advertising strategy, but a lousy marketing one. If you don’t grasp this point, it only means that you’re like most writers – i.e. not very business minded. Here’s a quotation from that essay, titled “Death by Exposure”:

The Exposure Contract involves a confusion of advertising and marketing. Most writers, and indeed most people, couldn’t describe the difference. In my experience, the terms are commonly employed as if they were equivalent. And this misuse exposes the limitation of exposure contracts. Exposure is a form of advertising. It puts your name and your writing in front of eyes. However, there’s no economic utility to this exposure in the absence of marketing, which is the active identification and targeting of effective demand (i.e., a market) and the provision of a commercial product. Advertising merely informs people that you exist. Marketing gives them something of yours to buy. Most writers don’t need the concept of advertising explained to them, but marketing is another matter entirely. That’s why they are susceptible to the kind of deal folks like The Atlantic are now trying to make.

The exposure deal is an advertising strategy that for most journalist interns takes place in a marketing vacuum. Robyn Urback at the National Post has written a perceptive article that considers just how useless the unpaid internship is:

Relying on free labour remains a crappy business model. And it’s a crappy way to get experience. The ambitious few who make it will get experience in other ways; by asking to shadow editors, by pitching freelance assignments, by setting up meetings after hours and by making cold calls and visits. They don’t need to monotonously fact check magazine articles for free for 40 hours a week to get a job — especially since it probably won’t get them a job, anyway.

Along the way she notes the awkward bargaining position, in those rare cases where an internship leads to paid work, of an employee who must negotiate her salary up from an already agreed upon rate of $0/year.

I assume Ms. Urback has had unpaid internships. I also assume she has entered into what I call the Exposure Contract, in the hope that the work she does for the National Post will lead to paid work, whether there or elsewhere. For the rest of this article I’m going to argue why I think this contract, in the absence of complementary marketing strategies, is a poor choice for journalists and writers, and why it isn’t going to last much longer.

Let’s go back to the issue of marketing. A writer is a brand. A website is also a brand, as well as a platform, where your product is placed. So let’s say you write for “Newspaper X.” Newspaper X is trying to do exactly what you are trying to do as a writer: build an audience, or market. And let’s say you are exposed to 1 million readers at Newspaper X. That’s great – but readers of Newspaper X are developing a relationship with that brand, and even if they like your work they will likely become Newspaper X readers. Your brand will most likely drive engagement with their platform, not yours.

Of course this is not a zero sum proposition. You can use Newspaper X to drive traffic to your own website, where you can build your own market using things like newsletters and book offers and so forth. The point is that many writers don’t think in this manner. They compare the 1 million Newspaper X readers to the 1,000 readers (or even 100) that will come to their website. But what’s better: being a tenant of a platform that draws 1 million readers or an owner of a platform that draws 100? I believe that, as a long-term strategy, establishing your brand and building your market is the better way to go.

This is easier for creative and editorial writers than it is for journalists. Striking out on your own in journalism is a complicated proposition, because platforms matter a great deal. An established media brand confers prestige and legitimacy, and even an unpaid intern will have access to resources, which is a benefit of a sort. No one at present knows how to sell journalism, except to a media outlet. But I think in the years ahead, technology and economic pressures are going to change this, and many journalists are going to take the leap into establishing themselves as brands. Here’s why:

1. The journalism/writing jobs are not coming back, so you may have no choice but to create a job for yourself.

2. Commercial media are going to become less attractive and prestigious. Remember when newspapers hired people to fact check? Remember when every daily had its own foreign correspondence team, and when there was a bureau for every field – the native beat reporter, the labour reporter, and so on? Not any more. With all of the budget cuts of past years and decades (and many more rounds of cuts to come), the quality of media has gone down. This drives away readers, which leads to further cuts. It’s a death spiral, and in the long run it will mean that the field will level out. Hitching yourself to a mainstream publication is going to become less prestigious and advantageous.

3. A website is a website is a website. Think about it: the future is digital. Anyone can build a website. That’s both good and bad news, but the good news is worth emphasizing – you don’t have to put up millions of dollars to establish a brand and start building a market. Again, if you’re going to work for free for exposure, why not just take this process to its logical conclusion. Create a brand and sell yourself. Whatever you were doing to pay the bills while interning for free, keep doing it – while you build a brand.

4. Working long-term as an unpaid intern is demoralizing and de-motivating. This in my view is the biggest deal breaker. Right now many of us are okay with working for free to get exposure. But the people with talent and training and acumen are not going to keep giving it away. I think eventually only people who write as a hobby, and who are driven by vanity, will stay in long-term. It will become harder to get quality journalism and editorial writing for free. Those who are passionate, skilled and ambitious will get fed up. They’ll create an alternative path that doesn’t involve getting a steady gig at a magazine or newspaper.

5. New opportunities. Unpaid work brings the opportunity cost of opting out down to zero. If you’re not going to get paid, you may as well strike out on your own. It makes sense to create your own brand. After putting in the years you will have an audience that is yours. You’ll be in control, which opens all kinds of doors. Change is certain, and I’ve no doubt the current models of journalism and writing are going to get pulverized. Once we get a glimpse of the new way of doing things, there’s going to be a mass exodus from traditional publishing and journalism. But for once the writers and journalists will be causing the change.

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