Mix the ladies with the tramps

Work
experience can be a good way to recruit young journalists, but we
should select employees based on their experience and talent, not their
ability to work without pay, says Carol Sarler

LONG AGO, so long that
Edward Heath was prime minister and on-call spin doctors hadn’t been
invented, the Today programme had a problem. An unexpected twist of
news meant they’d kill for an early morning comment from the PM – but
it was already midnight, so how could they hope to make contact?

In the corner, the hitherto unnoticed work experience graduate
cleared a timid throat. Perhaps she could help, she said, picking up
the phone: “Hello Uncle Teddy! Sorry it’s so late, but…” Before her
finger left the dial, her future at the BBC was secured; in fact, she’s
still there.

Not quite so long ago, in the mid-1990s, another
work experience girl also turned a small chance into a big break. After
graduating, she went to The Sunday Times Magazine for a couple of
weeks. Then another couple. Then, just as she had nearly run out of
excuses to stay, she spotted something (they had an issue devoted to
the best of British theatre, almost finished, when she noticed that
there wasn’t a single mention of anything outside London). The editor,
embarrassed by the oversight, kept her on to fix it – during which time
a job came vacant and, naturally, she got it. Ten years later, she’s
going great journalistic guns.

The first was my friend, the
second my daughter and I know it’s mealy-mouthed of me to bite the hand
that fed them. Nevertheless, Esther Walker’s guide to the potential
benefits of work experience (Press Gazette, 29 July) served to feed a
niggling unease. Can this rapidly growing method of internship possibly
benefit our trade, in the long run, anything like as much as it
benefits the fortunate few in the short?

If you are an employer,
advised Walker, “follow The Independent’s example and look only at
postgraduate candidates”. She points out that four journalists
currently working there began with work experience, while at The Times
“the majority of entry-level staff have been recruited from current and
previous interns”.

They are not alone; for most national media
this is now an acceptable method of recruitment as, indeed, it has also
become in the advertising industry.

But cut to it and what are we
talking? What we call “work experience”, put more bluntly, means
working for nothing. Bus fares if you’re lucky.

This is fabulous
if you happen to be a managing editor with a tricksy budget. Up and
down the length of our figurative Fleet Street trip happy, bright and
sometimes even literate Oxbridge graduates. They are absolutely
delighted to serve without any mention of stuff as vulgar as salary,
sometimes for six months or even longer, each dreaming of the magic
moment enjoyed by my friend and my daughter.

The inescapable fact is, however, that such kids have to eat and need roofs over their pretty heads.

Therefore
the only people who can possibly afford to do work experience are those
who have the means – or whose parents have the means – to allow them
not to earn. If this is to be the main supply line for new blood, it
can only mean that the demographic make-up of the journalistic body
must become disturbingly slewed; it will shortly be no more or less
than the product of more than averagely well-off parents, who coughed
up as if for finishing school.

This cannot be a change for the
better. While Oxbridge has always handed us a few of its determined
sons and daughters, we did not always so brazenly discriminate in their
favour. It is said that Richard Littlejohn is our highest-paid
newspaper writer – but Richard served his apprenticeship wearing out
shoe leather on a regional beat, as did Press Gazette proprietor Piers
Morgan and most national editors who spring to mind. Tradition decreed
that if you could hack it, you could make it.

If you didn’t come
in that way, the other route – mine, for what it’s worth – involved
wiggling in and up through magazines; low-paid but at least paid, we
started in our teens, and by 21 had a pretty robust understanding of
the ropes. My vain boast, for instance, is that I have never needed a
“civilian” to talk to me and failed to persuade them to do so. If that
can be attributed to anything, it has to be that I know them; I have
walked the estates and learnt from homes unlike my own.

The last
work experience girl I talked to would not even know what to wear for
some of the stories we older hands routinely did, and if she did know,
she wouldn’t own such clothes anyway. How she imagines that she can
come close to an understanding of what most people (you know – readers)
think, I can’t guess. Tell you what, though, her psychology degree
won’t help.

This is not to be needlessly chippy; I accept that
she’s not a bad writer. It’s just a matter of proportion: a couple of
her ilk can ably boost a team, but if the entire team is made up of
them – as, if we follow The Times’s or The Independent’s example, seems
imminently likely – what room is left for the grittier souls whose
temperament and skills have always been the backbone of our better
newspapers… but who now cost money to hire, while free labour falls
over itself to join up?

Back in the days of unions – when, if a
job existed, it came with a pay packet – editors would not recruit as
they do today. They’d mix the ladies with the tramps, as best they
could, on merit and on different kinds of experience.

If they
wish to maintain the quality that resulted, it is for them now to
reverse the trend. They must ask themselves whether they really want
this constant flow of interns, later to be fast-tracked to real jobs,
in favour of the proven and often greater skills of the regional lad,
ripe and ready for a move to the nationals, but impertinent enough to
need-

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