The Born Freelancer on Interning for Free

 This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 


Whenever I read stories about corporate media insisting they have no money to pay their hard working interns (such as Derek Finkle’s recent excellent post) I think back to my first job at a local small town newspaper.

It was a sweltering, stinking summer. I was just a teenager in high school but I wanted to be a professional writer. That meant getting in print and being paid for the privilege. I had tried all the major outlets. Nobody was hiring. Then a very wise teacher suggested I find the smallest media outlet I could and approach them.

And so I did.

It was pretty much a one-man operation, a free independent local weekly erratically distributed to area shops and selected street corners. It rarely had more than a dozen pages (and often less). Even at that tender age, however, I could tell that it had that indefinable asset known as “heart”. It took on local causes. It reveled in naming and shaming.

And – most importantly – it might even tolerate a complete newbie.

My resume back then consisted of letters of recommendation from my English teachers and several back issues of an all-volunteer rate payers’ newsletter to which I had freely contributed my (limited) wit and (even more limited) wisdom for over a year. The overworked editor/publisher/owner kindly looked them over and shook his weary head.

What he was really needed was a sales person. There were no editorial staff positions as such. But something about me must have reminded him of himself at a younger age or else he was having a “be kind to the newbie” day. He said he would take me on as a “stringer”. It was the first time I had ever heard the word. I would, in effect, become a “freelance” scribe and be paid by the word if I produced copy worthy of immortalization in print. It would be entirely up to me to find the stories and make them good enough to use. This was the best offer I had received all summer. Of course, it was also the only offer! We shook hands on it.

That handshake would change the shape and direction of my entire working life.


Getting into print

My newfound freelance status meant I still had to find regular work to keep me alive that summer. I took on lots of part-time jobs, an employment lifestyle I would become well accustomed to over the many years that followed. I cut grass, I delivered (other) papers, I walked dogs, I cleared out eavestroughs and generally did all the odd jobs I could find. But I was always keeping my eyes and ears open for news and gossip, anything that might become my ticket to getting into print.

In between poop scoops and lawn care I had somehow caught wind of a controversial local land sale. (I think I had simply read it on a small posted notice somewhere. It was “controversial” only because nobody knew much about it). When I pitched it my editor thought it might possibly make a story. At last, my first scoop (of the non-dog poop variety!) It seemed so easy. Little did I know that the real work was about to begin.

It took the rest of the summer (on and off) researching that story. I spent days at the local town hall poring over unintelligible zoning bylaws. I dutifully copied it all out. Pages and pages of it. Was it suitable for print? No, he argued. I had a bunch of unrelated facts but – where was the story? What was really going on? What was at stake and why should anyone care?

My spirits flagged somewhat until the day my editor told me he sensed there was some kind of “cover up” due to a number of inconsistencies I had collated. But still I had nothing solid, nothing more than disconnected facts that didn’t add up. So I interviewed people. Local property owners. Workers at the local town hall. If there was a conspiracy I was going to find it! No doubt my interviewees were bemused. And after each interview, I would race back to the office to report on what I had uncovered. Or rather, hadn’t uncovered. Bit by bit (under his informal tutelage) I was learning what I should’ve actually asked or what I could’ve got out of the subject if only I had posed the question differently. I was slowly, painfully learning my craft.

But I still had nothing worth printing.

The summer was rapidly ending and I would soon be back to school. My dreams of a Pulitzer Prize were fading and I was beginning to feel my time had been wasted. I was also worried that my editor would believe that I had wasted his time as well. My so-called career would be over before it had started. There just wasn’t enough to justify any story of a conspiracy or a cover up (although in later years I came to believe his gut instincts had been right). At best, I sadly concluded, it was merely another example of local bureaucratic bungling leaving the public bewildered and confused.

Needless to say, in my abject ignorance I had at long last stumbled upon a salvageable angle for the story. And so by the end of that summer, a small item buried deep inside the paper appeared about a proposed local land sale fraught with inexplicable delays. The earth didn’t shake when it came out but I sure did. I was at last in print professionally with my very own by-line.

Perhaps as importantly, I was paid for that published article as we had agreed. Although it wasn’t much for all my sweat and effort that first cheque was like a badge of honour to me. Of course in the years that followed I eventually realized that I should’ve been the one who paid for the amazing crash course in journalism 101 that I had received. Not to mention the confidence boost and career launch that the experience had given me.

I was for evermore a committed freelancer.


The takeaway

The lessons I learned that summer – many and various – have stayed with me a lifetime.

One of them is that I simply don’t believe corporate media when they say they cannot afford to pay their interns. The truth is, if they don’t have to pay, they figure why should they pay? As long as the culture encourages young newbies to work for nothing there will always be a talent pool of free labour ready to be exploited. You will never voluntarily break bean counter-driven companies of this disrespectful and myopic addiction; it must be legislated out of existence. Until then newbies must learn for themselves that interning for free is just coded employers’ language for getting something for nothing. If all newbies agree to accept it as the norm there will never be paid work for them because there will always be someone else willing to work in their place for free.

My bottom line: you should always be paid by any for-profit media if you somehow manage to produce something they deem worthy of use in print or on air which consequently helps enhance their brand. (After all – it’s what we freelancers do!)

If once upon a time a local one-man operation could choose to play fair and pay a complete rookie for the successful publication of their very first professional assignment, I can think of no justifiable excuses for anyone else to think or act otherwise.


Posted on April 17, 2014 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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