Red flags when looking for a writing job or internship.

I saw a surprising spike in followers following my entry about unpaid internships, which I appreciated very much. However, because I wrote the entry at work (naughty me!) I wasn’t able to go as in-depth as I would have liked. I also remembered a few things on the drive home that I should have mentioned, thus I figured I would post a follow-up.

Here are some red flags to look for when applying for an internship or your first writing job:

  1. The ad states, “We can’t afford to pay you right now.” If you’re searching for an internship, this is not the definition of an internship. A publication which takes on a writer or editor whom they do not intend to pay because they cannot afford it is not looking to provide scholarship and value experience; they are looking for free labour. Spend your dirt-broke intern days in a position where you can learn something.
  2. The job ad is looking to pay bloggers to do remote blogging about “any subject you want!” I have worked this kind of job before. These kinds of employers are almost always looking for general-knowledge bloggers to contribute to pages with entries containing certain keywords so that they can make an easy buck on advertising. The work you end up doing will be far too time-consuming for your compensation — which for me was somewhere around 1.25 cents a word. You usually also won’t be able to get to attach your name to the work and you will rarely be writing anything that you can put in a portfolio.
  3. A posting advertising an internship states that having your own equipment (i.e. camera, recorder) is an asset. Again, this is an indication of a company who cannot afford to provide you with the tools you need. While it’s fine to ask for experience with these things, internships are about learning. This is a sign that the company is trying to benefit from you, while an ideal internship benefits the intern more than it benefits the company.
  4. A paid writing job which charges per word/article charges less than $0.06 per word. $0.10 is standard for professionals.
  5. The job posting is for a brand new publications (raise a second red flag if they won’t even say the name of the publication). They’ll say things like “join our growing family!” With this kind of job you will find the same problems indicated in 1) and 3). Unfortunately in major cities full of general and specialty publications, these publications are not likely to last. Don’t take a chance on these things while you’re still young and starting out — you don’t want to risk going through the process of finding a new job only a few more months down the road. Save these risks for when you’re further established in your career. Get your first job with a more established publication if you can, where you can learn the ropes from people who learned years ago, not people who are learning as they go along.

Three pieces of advice for aspiring interns in the publications industry.

As many people know, before I became a full-time news editor I started out as an unpaid intern for a small communications company. People don’t even need to know me personally to know that; most people assume that any journalist who has broken into the field in the past ten years started out as an intern. Unpaid internships are increasingly common, especially in the suffering publications field. There are many mixed opinions on unpaid internships. Personally I do NOT think they are morally okay, but I also understand that they are an inevitability and CAN, if managed correctly, serve a good purpose. However, after experiencing a not-so-great internship and then working for a company that offers some of the best internships I have ever witnessed, I have some advice for recent or soon-to-be grads, or anyone looking for an internship in the publications industry (unfortunately my advice is best-applied to Ontarians).

1. Don’t look for an internship where you will only be a writer, copy editor or contributor.

Why [not]? This seems weird — you want to write/edit, correct? So you should be doing just that. However, a little-known fact about the Ontario Employment Standards Act [ESA]’s rules on unpaid internships is that you have to be actually learning something in your internship.

From the ESA: “The training is similar to that which is given in a vocational school; The training is for the benefit of the intern. You receive some benefit from the training, such as new knowledge or skills.” If you are not gaining actual marketable skills that you may add to your resume, your internship is using you only for free work and you will not come out with a better-looking resume.

Look for: an internship where you will be acting as an assistant to writers and editors — not assisting them in the sense that you get their coffee, but assisting them in their other duties such as fact-checking. You should be an integral part of the team, which means remote internships in which you contribute pieces from your bedroom (which I did) are not real internships.

2. Do not trust an employer who tells you that you may/will get a full-time job at the end of your internship.

Why [not]? This is the kind of internship where interns feel like they are on a sort of “trial” period to see if you are actually fit for the job. You know where this should actually be determined? In an application and interview. Your portfolio and interview should speak for themselves. No, you can’t tell everything from a resume, portfolio or interview, but can anyone in any industry? No one sees engineers hired on a basis of working for free for the first 6-12 months and then if it “works out” they will have a salary. And giving even a hint of a job on the other end of the internship is not only cruel, it’s illegal.

From the ESA: “Your employer isn’t promising you a job at the end of your training.” Not only should you not believe the employer if they do this, you should probably steer clear from them. This means that they’re willing to disregard part of the Ontario Employment Standards Act — someone who thinks they are above the rules, and not someone you want to work for.

Look for: An employer who provides very specific stipulations on the length of your term, and an employer who can answer in the interview what his or her previous three interns have gone on to do. If they keep it general (“They’ve all gotten jobs,”) ask them to be a little more specific — where did they get jobs? In the publications industry? Did you provide a reference?

3. Your employer shouldn’t hold you to the same standards that they would hold a paid employee.

Why [not]? Okay, this is tricky. Yes, your employers should hold you to a high standard (think of them like a professor or teacher). They should also expect a regular commitment out of you and for you to not abuse time off, to come and go as you please, etc. However, an employer who does not pay you should not give you grief about calling in sick or needing a day off to go to an appointment. It should hardly even be a question if you’re allowed to take that afternoon off to go to a dentist. If you get a paid job in the middle of your term, your employer should not attempt to negotiate with you and/or force you to stay. Most importantly, your employer should not expect mandatory overtime outside of the hours they have set for you. Looking for a paying job in itself is a full-time job when you’re trying to break into publications, so anything that demands more than 40 hours a week from you is not an employer that cares about the future and education of its interns.

This actually isn’t in the ESA. This is just common decency.

Look for: An employer who clearly outlines the hours during the week that you will work. Ask in the interview if you will have to adhere to the same process as paid employees for requesting days off. As if you will ever have to work overtime. If the answer is yes, be wary.

I don’t want to make anyone shoot themselves in the foot while they’re fresh out of school and desperate to get into the field. The fact is, we are all young and desperate at one point, so we will often throw our standards away for the sake of something that seems like work. The problem is that many of us end up with six months under our belt of having learned nothing new and being very exploited by employers who won’t offer any valuable reference in the long run.

Respect yourself. If you’re not going to be paid, assure that your employer will be held to a lawful standard.

Citizen Journalism: Underscoring our need for (talented) journalists

If I could tell you two words that I would rather never hear again due to the sheer number of times I’ve heard them over the past seven years, it would be “dying industry.”

From the day I accepted my position as my high school paper’s editor-in-chief, I was told not to hold out too much hope that journalism would lead to a fruitful career, because journalism, specifically print, is a “dying industry.”

They credit that death to the rise of blogs, the greater access to free information and the speed at which we transmit information. They’re the next two words I least want to hear when discussing my field of work: social media.

Social media is a tool which can enhance journalism in beautiful, rich ways, but instead is more often used to undermine it. This undermining is usually committed by social media users in an effort to “prove” that journalism is irrelevant, and is perpetuated by social media consumers.

The most recent way in which we have seen that cycle of events is the “citizen journalism” which arose from the Boston Marathon bombings. I must start by saying that there are print publications which got it wrong too, which is definitely irresponsible journalism. However, when you look at the publications who did “get it wrong” or publish unconfirmed information, those were already publications which weren’t held in high regard before this.

Then in comes Reddit, who attempted to crowd-source an investigation. Their efforts to be the heroes and name the bombers, which thousands of trained law enforcement officers and investigative journalists apparently were not skilled enough to do in Reddit’s eyes. This effort resulted in the identification and divulging of personal information of the wrong person, a man who had nothing to do with the attacks.

Because we all fancy ourselves responsible for keeping the world informed, many people took to Twitter to name the man and spread his sullied name like wildfire throughout the social media world.

So when I am told that journalism is a “dying industry” because of our fast access to information, I say that journalism is an essential and gravely important industry because of our fast access to incorrect and inaccurate information.

The worlds of social media and journalism should be more closely linked than they are now. Unfortunately, their relationship is still more antagonistic than anything else. So what can we do to combat this?

Read the news. Read your dailies. Subscribe. Support the news you want to consume. Want left wing news? Subscribe to the Globe and Mail to get around the paywall. Want right wing news? Do the same with the Toronto Sun. But support the news. Create and sustain these jobs. Give our young, talented, emerging journalists a chance to point you in the right direction. Because some 21-year-old Twitter user isn’t going to.

The sensitive reporter

It’s a cartoonish yet strikingly common stereotype of reporters: the stoic, insensitive young member of the press stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of the story, pushing through grieving crowds at the scene of an accident, staring heartbroken mothers in the eye and pressing on with invasive questions, their stoney faces juxtaposed against the red, tear-filled eyes at a funeral.

I would like to thank TV shows such as Law and Order for helping to convince people that my profession is full of such jaded young journo-bots.

It is true that journalism has given me a tough skin — even in my days of student journalism. I remember after only working as a senior reporter with my student paper for two months hearing that there had been a car accident at the major intersection of our campus. I immediately grabbed a recorder and bolted for the scene, a photographer in tow. I remember not even hesitating to extend my arm and fan spectators out of the way as I approached a girl my age who had been hit by the car and proceeded to interview her. I was shocked at the authority in my normally flippant and feminine voice as I told people to get out of my way — I was press. Press.

This is the same woman who still cries out of frustration when she can’t finish a climbing route fast enough. Just the other night, I began to think about the possibility of my mother developing Alzheimer’s and burst into tears out of nowhere.

My very first interview was in fact a woman who was still grieving the loss of her father some months later. I knew this; I was interviewing her about a charity bike race she had completed in his honour. And the very first question I asked resulted in tears in her eyes — which of course caused tears to well in my own eyes.

Last night was not unlike any other; I was driving home from work listening to As it Happens on CBC Radio. Carol Off was interviewing Leah Parsons, the mother of sexual assault and bullying victim Reteah Parsons. Reteah attempted suicide late last week and her family chose to pull her off of life support on Sunday, April 7. Her long battle with depression from the trauma of not only her sexual assault but her humiliation and betrayal from her friends, peers and school was not something Mrs. Parsons was unfamiliar with. She had done her best to bring her daughter piece of mind and bring her attackers to justice, though the battle was in vain.

At least once a week I hear a radio broadcaster interviewing someone in mourning. They bookend their interviews with seemingly genuine wishes of sympathy. I don’t mean to question their intentions; I know that we are all human and we all know death, especially young death, is always tragic. And I hate to assume that someone in my own field is simply extending their condolences in an attempt to “look good.” However, a career reporter such as Carol Off has surely seen and reported on such a high number of tragedies and interviewed a staggering amount of grieving mothers in her time that this is nothing shocking, correct?

As the interview ends, Mrs. Parsons’ composed facade begins to crumble, her voice begins to waiver, and we hear the painful helplessness of a mother who has lost her child. It’s impossible for me to hold back tears in my eyes as I imagine her clutching the phone, her eyes fixed on nothing, haplessly wishing for her daughter to return home.

Carol Off extends her sympathies once again, this time more insistently, with a softer voice. She then asks Leah Parsons if she’s going to be okay. Parsons answers in the affirmative. She asks her final question — is someone with her? Parsons says yes, a house full of people. Jeff Douglas concludes the story.

Are reporters a special breed? Do we have skins of steel? Do our eyes not well with tears? Must we force ourselves to stop empathizing and sympathizing as a defence mechanism in order to better perform our jobs?

The answer is no — at least, not entirely.

It is precisely that sensitivity and empathy which makes a story compelling, human and worth reading.