Of Interns and Employees: When should workers be compensated in creative industries?

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There’s been a lot of talk about unpaid internships in the past few weeks since the government has been cracking down on publications that use interns simply as unpaid labour. But look at a site like Craigslist and you’ll find daily postings for unpaid interns and volunteers in Toronto.

It’s a tricky subject because it’s obviously unfair that someone who’s put in years of schooling to work into a trade can’t even get paid minimum wage at a legitimate publication – or even an untested media startup. At the same time, the publishing industry is in tremendous turmoil as it copes with plummeting advertising revenues and new technologies that make planning for the future difficult.

I don’t really take a hard line on this.

I did an internship at the National Post, and it was a truly eye-opening experience that really helped prepare me for the work world. Also, I’m a supporter in getting together and doing things without a profit motive. But this usually falls under the banner of friends helping friends – and having fun doing it. Doing creative side-projects with friends is great, even if they don’t end up making money or helping our careers. I’ve done tons of this.

Now, it’s certainly possible to exploit your friends, but we usually stop before it gets that bad. When it comes to blogs and magazines, especially new ones, it’s important to know when seeking some help (which is fine) becomes exploitation. This is my perspective on the subject.

When it isn’t right to seek out unpaid interns/volunteers:

You want to write for a prominent blog or magazine and you think being the editor of your own one will raise your profile. So instead of plugging away at your own work, you start something new where you’re in the highest position of power. Not only may this be unearned, but it also keeps you from doing actual good work that you could present to an employer. They’re not going to be impressed with your half-assed blog that you ran like a tyrant for a few months coming apart at the seams.

You want to promote your business or – ugh – “personal brand.” Do this using your own time and effort, or else pay someone for their help.

You don’t have time to write posts and articles. Becoming an “editor” shouldn’t be an easy way to get free content so that you can focus on something else. Being the person behind a site should mean being involved with writers, developing stories, coming up with business strategies, and – yes – even writing.

But that isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to get some help…

When seeking out unpaid interns/volunteers can be justified:

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p>Your publication services the public, not a business or an industry. I see a lot of blogs that are not just arts or music focused, but their mandate is to promote artists and musicians. If you’re not paying writers, they shouldn’t be beholden to provide positive press to any given party. This is bad and unethical journalism. Readers should be the priority.

You cover a topic that is in the public interest but that doesn’t necessarily have potential to make revenue. Some examples might include an independent blog that provides unbiased coverage of the oil industry or a magazine that features interviews with refugees. If your business model is creating a site like Buzzfeed, and you just need some content to drive traffic, there’s absolutely no reason not to pay someone other than greed.

You have something valuable to offer volunteers. Whether it’s your time discussing and editing stories, or helping them cover a topic that you’ve learned at school or in the workplace, you need to have something that people couldn’t get on their own. But also don’t forget about what you can offer socially – having an annual party is minimum. Make sure people are being rewarded and feel like they’re part of something exciting, not just a remote employee who doesn’t even get paid.

You don’t really know the right people, and you’re looking for actual partners. One of the things about sites like Craigslist and the Internet in general is that you might be able to find people who have the same interests as you. We can’t always count on finding these people in real life. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to have an idea you think is great, and to seek out some partners. And think of them as potential friends – because they’re doing a huge favour by working for you for free.

And, finally, you’re committed to helping your volunteers succeed. This might mean keeping an eye out for jobs they might be able to do or suggesting stories they should pitch to publications.

You want your publication to be great, but don’t let this ambition blind you to the amazing things that are going on.

These volunteers aren’t just unpaid employees, they’re part of the journey of your publication. They are contributing their time and energy to your vision. They want to be part of something great you’re building. Treat them with the respect they deserve and they will get something out of the experience – even if it isn’t money.

(Top image by Phil Gradwell)

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