Is it about the money? Of course not. It’s about making it count. But if you don’t feel encouraged, inspired or in lots of cases, welcome – making it count is pretty hard to do. Passion may have got some unpaid interns entry-level jobs a few years ago, but it doesn’t anymore. Maybe because working unpaid sucks passion out of us.
When I decided to become a journalist six years ago, an unpaid internship was something you could only embark on if your parents were willing to fund your adult life post university, after funneling God knows how much money into your account during your degree. Passion? I had lashings of it. But passion alone does not necessarily open doors. Agreeing to do an unpaid internship in the first place should show passion enough, which after a year and a half working in PR, I finally did.
I quit my job and entered on a two month unpaid placement – expenses only. I had got my NCTJ at night school because my parents, while supporting my decision to become a journalist, couldn’t green light the move with their credit cards. So, I’d taken out a student development loan to pay for it, which I’m still paying off 5 years later.
Here’s the crazy bit – my parents lived in London. I didn’t even have to pay rent if I didn’t want to – I could have moved back home. The fact is – I was 23, and mum and dad were done funding my life decisions. They simply weren’t going to allow me to sponge off them for free like that. So I really – passionately – wanted to make those two months at a hugely successful magazine count because I needed to keep making money.
The truth is; while I got to see what went on at a magazine and accepted the status of subordinate dogs-body and all that went with it, it was the system that felt wrong. The visceral insidiousness of what I was doing day to day, for free, felt corrupt. Not to mention the other feelings that came with it. I wasn’t in the slightest bit too proud to be working unpaid. What I resented was being made to tremble in a corner waiting for someone other than the postman or receptionist to speak to me, in the hope that whoever eventually did, wouldn’t be too scary or in too much of a hurry, or in too horrific a mood, for me to ask some questions about being a journalist. That is not the kind of person I am.
To me, there was something just a bit dark, grueling, divisive and ‘oy you over there!’ about going into an office full of lively, well dressed, intelligent individuals, and being made to feel like I didn’t really have a right to be there. But I did. It had been agreed.
I did my best to avoid being the stereotype. The feeble duckling who tiptoes around, whispering to members of staff, oozing fear. But the truth is, most of the time that’s exactly what I looked like. Most of the time I was on the floor, in the corner, or upstairs in a totally different office – trying my best to remain passionate. To make it count. Yet, I didn’t feel the least bit welcome. How are you meant to show anything good about yourself in that situation?
You can’t afford to be precious and waste it. If someone approached me about anything, I smiled, chatted, did as I was told and beyond, to show willing, to impress, to show nouse. I didn’t cry – god no. But I could have if you prodded me hard enough. Luckily, I was working for the junior writer, a lovely girl, who’d just stopped being an intern herself.
Nobody senior knew anything about me other than that I was the intern and probably knew where to get fans from (Argos. It was a hot summer). The Junior writer was really nice – I even emailed her telling her so – and she replied ‘I just don’t want you to be treated how I was when I was an intern.’ Nice as she was, I needed more contact with the seniors.
So I took it upon myself to email the deputy editor to pitch a few ideas. She emailed back – “good ideas” – but she didn’t tap me on the shoulder or come back to me at a later date to chat about them. So I emailed again a week later, and that time wasn’t so lucky. Five minutes would have been enough, when I was giving 50 days for free.
My days rocked with uncertainty, and I couldn’t even afford milk. At the end of my placement, after being given loads of anti-ageing cream as a thank you, I was kindly given an extra week at the same mag – paid. I was overjoyed. It was really nice of them. Genuinely.
When I emailed the publishing director a few months later, jokingly, saying ‘remember me?’ and asking if there was any freelance work going, I got this response – “I shall remind everyone of your existence.” Because I was that forgettable. Passionate sure. But forgettable all the same.
So the day I went freelance, I stayed freelance. I wasn’t taken on as a ‘Staff-y’ anywhere. I did a paid week at The Times which was good fun, and I learnt a lot. After that I declared myself – A Freelance Journalist. An awesome, more experienced freelancer at the time said to me – “if you throw enough shit at the wall, some is bound to stick”. And she was right about that. For the next couple of years, I pitched over a thousand feature ideas to editors and soon enough, was gliding along, a much perkier swan.
And that is what I think all future journalists wanting a career in magazine writing ought to do. Have a pop at it. Now more than ever, media isn’t in good shape, the business model has changed. They don’t want you in the office anymore. They can’t afford to pay staff, never mind interns. And it’s not all that great going into an overly air conditioned office every day with the constant threat of redundancy hanging over everyone, anyway. Wake up at 8am, be alert, pitch good ideas and get your experience through paid placements or not at all. But don’t work unpaid. Passion or not. That’s rubbish.