Journalists: forced to work for free?

It is typical of the Spanish process to become a journalist to do internships during the university studies. Academics highly recommend it to students in order to gain experience which, they say, will be determinant to find a job. And, students almost beg to work for free; nothing matter since they actually believe that this accumulation of (non-paid) work experiences will be useful in a very competitive labour market. Meanwhile, the media savour this ‘candy-bar’ which provides endless energy and enthusiasm – there is no major motivation than hunger – to cope with the heavy workload without any cost.

Journalism students still do not realise that unpaid job experiences far from providing them a job are going to be in its detrimental. Free workers are indeed, the panacea of all lucrative enterprises in a capitalistic world. Why paying journalists (even if graduated or with experience) if they can be for free?

This has a negative effect on quality reporting: firstly, because there are more (and increasing) under-qualified journalists in the press rooms since it is not quality what matters to the media but profits; and secondly, at the end of the day salary is not a symbol but a compensation, and therefore, nonexistent or low salaries burn motivation out even if at the beginning it could seem to be everlasting. Summarising, bad paid workers end up doing the minimum effort.

The crisis has worsened this scenario even further, but in an attempt to recover the profession’s dignity and their own, Spanish journalists have started to say: gratis no trabajo or ‘I do not work for free’.

Everything started early this year when a Spanish journalist received a job offer requesting 800 characters articles for 0’75 Euros. The employer was a company who sells complements for weddings, baptisms and communions. Proving the publishing of 400 articles per month would report 300 Euros. The offended journalist immediately denounced the (abusive) job offer.

Just after, the Press Association of Madrid (Asociación de la Prensa de Madrid – APM), aware of this degrading situation, decided to launch in twitter the debate #gratisnotrabajo where journalists are called to denounce job offers which, in most cases, are unacceptably precarious, and whose job descriptions do not correspond to journalism but to advertising.

One of the job offers denounced so far requests: an experienced blogger with good photography skills and creative. Articles must contain about 200 words and 3-7 images. Salary: 35 Euros for pack of 25 articles to be paid once the last of the 25 articles has been sent. Another offer looks for a volunteer journalist to write in a forthcoming entertaining website. Salary: the opportunity to gain experience. In none of these job offers the name of the potential employer is indicated.

The debate has also moved to Facebook where the journalists’ community, besides denouncing the situation, is also talking about alternatives, and sharing information, for instance, on how to initiate a career as a freelance.

This could seem an easy task, in particular, since the internet provides all the necessary tools to write and publish. However, a different issue is to make a living of it.

The National Writers Union UAW Local 1981 (NWU) represents freelance writers. In 2011 launched the Pay the writer! campaign just after The Huffington Post was sold to American Online (AOL) for $ 315m and the thousands of unpaid freelancers and writers who actually contributed to build up the website did not receive even a dollar. The campaign, still active on twitter, demands to respect workers’ rights, and therefore, to pay freelancers and authors writing for The Huffington Post and any other online publication.

The Huffington Post was born due to about 500 bloggers’ stories. Now it counts 9000 bloggers who continue writing without economic compensation. About 200 journalists work for its editions in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and France. On 7 June 2012, a new edition was launched in Spain. Its Editor-in-chief, Montserrat Dominguez, a prestigious Spanish journalist, paradoxically affirmed in the first editorial that “journalism is more necessary than ever” and called readers to actively participate writing on its pages.

Is this the only option for vocational journalists? Will they have to resign themselves to just have their own blogs or participate in journals such as The Huffington Post generating profits with their non-remunerated talent? Is journalism becoming a non-paid activity? Is vocation enough to report for free?

Until uncertainties evaporate, either you contribute to a company’s profits grow working for free, or you work for yourself, also for free, but with maximum of intellectual independence and creativity hoping that one day your opportunity to become a lucky paid journalist arrives. It might depend, of course, on how many renounce or not a salary.



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