Every so often, someone in the media will bring up an internship or some position that’s unpaid, and that will re-energize an entire discourse about the ethics of working or writing for free. This conversation never really goes away; it sits latently until someone decides they have nothing better to do than offer unsolicited advice to young writers. The latest resurgence of this phenomenon happened today, when NFL Network reporter Jane Slater put out a call for broadcast journalism students to do some free work.
Exciting opportunities, when they aren’t scams, tend to come with a tangible reward at the end of them. Unpaid internships suck, and most of the time they can only be accomplished by people who have the means to keep themselves afloat. Experience doesn’t pay rent or substitute for food. And then there’s the obvious corollary: Requiring young reporters to come from means in order to gain experience goes a long way toward keeping those who don’t come from means out of the profession. These truths should be widely accepted at this point, but if that were the case, Slater and other national football writers wouldn’t have spent their day vociferously defending the practice as just an early step of The Hustle.
Contrary to what Albert Breer thinks, an internship is not an entry-level job. An entry-level job is an entry-level job, and it pays a salary. And if a media member’s work history predates 9/11, chances are they’re not in touch with how difficult it has become to break into a winnowed-out industry without sacrificing all dignity from the start. These Defenders of the Hustle are operating under the belief that it is impressive or noble that they were underpaid early in their careers. Perhaps it was the norm of the time, but it’s not a badge of honor.
I’ve definitely done unpaid and underpaid work, and it didn’t make me learn the value of hard work. I figured out the value of hard work through an enthusiasm for what I was doing; being paid wouldn’t have diminished that enthusiasm but it could have increased it. (As an aside, this might be a reason why so many people love to weigh in on internships: It gives you an opportunity to talk about yourself.) Looking back, I mostly felt like a sucker for not asking for money. Perhaps that’s the realization Slater and others are trying to avoid: If they can credit all those free internships for earning them the jobs they enjoy now, then they won’t have to accept that someone was exploiting them at one time or another.
Slater has not reached enlightenment yet. Someone pointed out that in an old ESPN PR interview, she had noted that her grandfather was the president of Wolf Brand Chili (yum!) and financially supported her so she could attend the University of Texas. Even though I thought @FoxForceFlacco brought it up rather politely, Slater believed she was being shamed for having a rich Chili Papaw.
There is no NFL Combine this year, but the league needs to generate a distraction so that these reporters can stop spending time and effort on defending unpaid internships. Make the Seahawks trade Russell Wilson or something.