Opportunity or exploitation? Let’s recognise the boundaries of work experience for student journalists

Work experience has an obvious value to people intent on spending the bulk of their lives making money through legitimate channels.

In journalism though, because of the ultra-competitiveness that still characterises the field of aspiring professionals, it has always been regarded as not so much advantageous as absolutely essential.

Having been both the work experience boy and the journalist-fixer who meets and greets in the foyer (though by the time I left journalism foyers were being phased out), I like to think I have a fairly accurate grasp of how these arrangements play out. There’s always been good, bad and plenty in between – on both sides.

Let’s start with the good.

Young hopeful turns up on time, appropriately dressed, is polite, well-spoken and makes a point of showing a willingness to get stuck into anything that comes his/her way. Without going overboard and volunteering to be duty editor, that is.

The journalist baby-sitter and his colleagues make every effort to keep this temporary acquisition occupied with plenty of tasks and the opportunity to get out and about to events when possible. Feedback is provided, even if only brief and verbal, on everything the impressionable cub produces.

A work experience situation at the BBC

The bad? A somewhat dishevelled teenager rocks up with a grunt, spends most of the time reading newspapers and checking social media, keeps his/her head down, disappears for a two-hour lunch break and is largely left to rot by a disinterested and over-worked staff.

The in between probably runs on a sliding scale depending on which newsroom you happen to be in, the point being that a successful work experience posting is gold, an unsuccessful one a regrettable waste of everybody’s time.

A large body of research, such as that undertaken by Little and Harvey (2006), Lucas and Tang (2007) and Blackwell et al (2001), provides us with evidence that work experience has a positive impact on skills acquisition and the nurturing of personal characteristics valuable in the field.

More recently a Liverpool University study by Hazel Barrett (2015) found that irrespective of whether participants had positive or negative work placement experiences, all believed time on placement had been personally significant. Short work placements could provide intense, complex and multidimensional learning experiences for individuals distinct from their university courses. 

Having moved into higher education as leader of the BA Sports Journalism course at University of South Wales, I’ve been wearing the hat of the educator extolling the virtues of time spent in the workplace as a game-changer.

University of South Wales’ BA Sports Journalism course is based at the atrium in Cardiff

Two modules on our degree, in years two and three, specifically centre around work experience and the building of a portfolio of published journalism to go alongside the confidence-building and behavioural enlightenment only the big bad world can provide. Undergraduates must complete a set number of hours across the academic year and present an agreed number of stories across a range of platforms in a final portfolio.

Our practical modules also offer students the chance to see work published on the course’s own sports news website exposport.co.uk, with conduct and professionalism a critical ingredient in Wednesday afternoon live reporting sessions spent covering the universities’ teams at the Treforest Sport park.

However, it is our external partners and contacts, developed and maintained expertly by course creator Julie Kissick, that make the real difference to students in this sphere.

Time spent with media organisations, professional clubs’ media departments and press operations at established sports organisations, over and above what the university requires, is what will set students apart in the quest for graduate jobs fought over with all the ferocity they ever were.

And so, we reach the crux of this reflection (we got there eventually) ; just what constitutes a great work experience opportunity for a student whose priority has to remain completing a degree to the best of their ability?

Any invitation to environments like those mentioned above is valuable, but there have to be certain caveats. Potential employers are courted by individuals and higher education institutions, but we should never lose sight of the bedrock principle of work experience – that it’s mutually beneficial. The guest gains experience, new skills, contacts, confidence etc etc, the provider hopefully gains not just an extra pair of hands but also enhances its reputation as a great place to work, somewhere the best up-and-coming talent would see as an exemplar of the job they are striving to do.

An example of this was an opening flagged up to me by the Football Association of Wales this summer. They wanted someone to assume media and social media responsibility for parts of their women’s and age-group competitions. It was made clear the post would be voluntary, but expenses were offered and the commitment was estimated at no more than six hours a week. Reading between the lines it was clear they regarded the role as ideally suited to a university student.

The Football Association of Wales logos

My feeling was that it represented more or less the perfect opening for everyone studying with us. It was an amazing opportunity to make a mark and become manifestly more employable in the near-future, but it was also realistic and fair in the demands it was placing on the successful candidate. Here was something that could be dipped in and out of, something that could be done very well without placing unreasonable demands on students’ time and commitment. Nobody was going to get rich overnight, but nobody was going to be out of pocket.

It was gratifying when one of our students landed the role and I’ve not the slightest doubt the benefits of it will quickly accrue.

But it contrasts sharply with some of the other ‘great opportunities’ I’ve seen aimed at sports journalism students.

Last month Birmingham City FC advertised a ‘voluntary’ vacancy in their media department. The EFL Championship club said the chosen person would “gain valuable experience working in content and media creation within a professional football environment” and “have the chance to apply their academic knowledge within an applied setting”. 

There was a catch. Numerous catches to be precise.

The role would be full-time for a calendar year – September 2021-2022 – and offer expenses only. Worse, the list of responsibilities was mind-boggling for a voluntary position.

It encompassed professional match-day media coverage, club communication, press conferences, video planning, filming, editing and publishing, web and match-day programme article composition, social media content creation, audio capture, player interviews, coverage of women’s, Under-18s and Under-23s games, PR and engagement activities, media marketing campaigns, club events and product launches, assisting other departments with projects where required, and any other specific duties as defined and agreed during setting development objectives.

The club were rightly condemned by voices in the media industry and higher education, and by their own supporters for what amounted, in crude terms, to a complete piss-take.

It begs the question: when does a ‘great opportunity’ become exploitative and deserving of a two-fingered salute?

There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s a balancing act.

Last week Scottish League One outfit Falkirk FC received some social media criticism for advertising a role similar to that offered at Birmingham, but there were mitigating factors.

They were asking for between five and 10 hours a week of a student’s time, the job specification was far less extensive. Furthermore, there’s the difference in financial reserves to factor in, if you’re so inclined.

There are those who would argue – not unreasonably – that professional profit-making organisations should not expect free labour under any circumstances. I’d contend student journalists need to adopt a more flexible outlook.

I’ve had enquiries from several clubs in the Cymru Premier and Cymru North and South leagues (the top two tiers of Welsh football) about the prospect of our students helping them with media/social media activities on the understanding that no money will be exchanging hands.

If I was to adopt a brutal outlook, I would tell them that if they can afford to pay players hundreds of pounds a game (and plenty of them do even at these levels) then they can afford to shell out, let’s say £100 a month – money that would make a real difference to a student – to have their publicity taken care of.

But to do take that stance would be unnecessary, self-defeating and short-sighted. Truth is, many of these opportunities ARE worth taking up, salary or not.

There’s barely a journalist out there who got where they are by not being prepared to work for nothing in their formative years. And there is no worse a trait among media students than false entitlement.

Newcomers to our USW course are made aware from day one they’re expected to have a go at everything, that journalists can express preferences only when they have earned their stripes in the eyes of their peers and superiors, and never before.

There’s an innate sense of fairness in all of us, and I suppose it’s that which we must turn to in these situations. Employers, or providers, must be prepared to limit demands on unpaid aspirational recruits, who must themselves understand that career progression in journalism is about playing the long game. Humility is key, so is a preparedness to go the extra mile for rewards that may seem a very long way off.

That’s as long as work experience arrangements remain within the boundaries of fairness – and the best people, the best organisations, know where those lie.