I have been given the impression that back in the old days of journalism, to get into the field, you started at the bottom at a newspaper and worked yourself up. That seems to have changed in the recent decades.
Not only are you now expected to have a degree in journalism, but before someone even considers hiring you as a journalist, you are expected to already have a portfolio to show them. This means that most of the time, instead of working at one specific newspaper, you end up having to work a bit here and there — which has its pros and cons.
In the beginning the most common payment is experience and maybe even a byline. Seeing your own name in print is the best confidence-booster for a young journalist.
The downside of this is that it is often exploited. When you have finished your internship you are lucky to end up with a paid gig at that very same paper — so I have been told. Even worse are those who base their business model on only hiring journalists for free — being very open that you will never receive a pay cheque from them — ever.
It of course looks good to have a portfolio where you have had a constant flow of published work with a byline, and that it has been varied — now that journalists are expected to have a broad skill set.
That is however not why I decided to write this piece. Because it is not until you resign— if you can call it that —from one of your unpaid gigs you find out if your work was really appreciated.
I have resigned twice in my career as a journalist. Both provided me with two very different responses.
The first time I did it I received a very nice email back, where I was thanked for my contribution and that I am more than welcome to return.
The second experience was less than impressive. It started to go downhill even before I decided to say goodbye to them.
For over a month I had not received any responses to my two recent write-ups for them. Usually I would receive feedback and a notification within a week that the write-up was published. This time, all I heard was crickets chirping. Additionally I had grown tired of writing the same stuff over and over again, so I eventually decided to send them a very friendly and polite resignation email.
That was the thanks I received for writing for free for that publication. Sure, I got published, received amazing feedback and had a byline, but in the end I did not receive a thank you — all I received was silence.
As a young journalist you are often told— not exclusive to journalism mind you —to be professional, polite and generally swallow your pride so you can— if you read between the subtle lines —be a brown-nose. Never question, always do what you are told. In other words, forget your ideals and become a silhouette.
This is something I have an issue with. I do not mind acting professional and humble, to show I am very capable of doing the job and acquiring a lot of experience — before I start making demands. But I am not interested in keeping this cheeky and ungrateful culture alive. If I am going to contribute for free— where my only payment is experience and a byline —I expect that my bonus payment, when I decide to leave, is at least a bloody thank you.
Or if they want to keep me, send me a check I can cash in.
With that said, I still do a few free gigs here and there. Not because I have to, but because I want to and am addicted to journalism.