J-schools should stop promoting unpaid story placement

Like so many other journalism students during the pandemic, my paid summer internship, at The Boston Globe, was canceled. As a journalism student at Northeastern University in Boston, I had dreamed of working at The Globe since my freshman year. I moved on, got another internship and began freelancing.

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Over the summer, my journalism school said there would be opportunities for us to work with The Globe this fall and it piqued my interest. I asked if the opportunities would be paid. My j-school director’s answer didn’t surprise me: it would be unpaid, extracurricular work. “A great opportunity to get clips!”

If the journalism industry can widely denounce unpaid internships, then why do so many journalism schools around the country have exploitative arrangements with major news outlets that require students to do unpaid work? These opportunities are marketed as hands-on learning experiences and ways to get clips, but in reality, these arrangements are exploitative and harmful. 

This isn’t the first time my j-school has dangled shiny opportunities to work at local news outlets in front of our faces, only for them to be unpaid or, even worse, part of a class you have to pay to take.

In one of my classes sophomore year, we were required to pitch our final reported piece to one of two local news outlets, the Bay State Banner or the Fenway News. It was called “service learning.” I knew that if I wanted to, I could pitch my final project on my own and get paid for it, but I wasn’t allowed to. 

For the past year, my j-school has offered a class called “Boston Globe City Room.” The course description calls the class “an extension of the Boston Globe newsroom.” When the j-school first advertised it to us, they called it “an excellent opportunity to build your portfolio of clips and work with Globe editors to improve the coverage of some of Boston’s undercovered but most interesting neighborhoods.” The Globe also has a similar arrangement at nearby Boston University, where students taking a required journalism class report on the suburb of Newton. 

At Northeastern, one four-credit class costs $6,796. Recently, the cost of our tuition came under scrutiny when the university suspended 11 students for gathering, with no refund of their $36,000 tuition. This means that taking a class like Boston Globe City Room means you’re paying $6,796 to do unpaid work for a major newspaper that, all things considered, is doing pretty well

These kinds of j-school arrangements aren’t unique to Boston. Across the country, students who can afford to do this unpaid work are getting opportunities that students at the same school who have to hold part-time jobs can’t have. Additionally, students who can afford to attend the kind of expensive schools that large legacy news outlets gravitate towards are getting opportunities that students at “less elite” schools aren’t, just by the virtue of the classes they pay to take. 

Students at elite universities are given more opportunities than students at schools considered to be less prestigious. American University’s j-school has partnerships with The Washington Post and Gannett. At the University of Southern California, journalism students have exclusive opportunities to intern at both the Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed News. A 2019 study from the Asian American Journalists Association’s Voices Program, written by student journalists, shows that media outlets have created a “caste system” of journalism schools through their intern selections.

News outlets can talk about investing in diversity and wanting to be more representative of the communities they cover, but they can’t truly make this investment when they’re creating opportunities that only privileged students can take part in.

I love my journalism school and I love our professors. I understand that often the decision to pay students for this work isn’t in their hands. These arrangements probably seem like a great idea to the people in charge of j-schools, who believe students won’t mind not being paid for their work if it means getting a byline in a major newspaper.

However, news outlets that use students for work do not have students’ best interests at heart. They are exploiting student journalists who are desperate for clips and any chance to get a leg up on internship and job hunts. And without substantial scholarships, these students are required to be able to work for free, on top of already paying exorbitant j-school tuitions. I understand news outlets are strapped for cash. But it’s not hard to pay student reporters — who are just as competent as any freelancers — a couple hundred dollars for a feature story. 

The industry cannot become more diverse when the inequities are perpetuated by universities. Journalism schools need to consider the implications when creating these arrangements with news outlets. When a news outlet says they can’t pay students, push back. If they refuse to pay, look for other ways to provide compensation to students. Your students are worth it and they deserve better.  

The truth is, I may very well take one of these unpaid opportunities. Why? Because I’m privileged enough to be able to do so. But tell me — how is it fair for me or any other privileged student to get a leg up simply because we can spend our time doing unpaid work?

In order to truly diversify news in the United States and end classism in the industry, these unpaid arrangements must end. 

Deanna Schwartz is a journalism student at Northeastern University and the managing editor of The Huntington News. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Image sourced from Osman Rana.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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