The struggle to become a paid journalist

| Dec. 6, 2011 |

Published by The Mancunion

Joe Sheffer

Former Mancunion News Editor Girish Gupta is making a stand against The Independent newspaper for failing to pay him during his work experience placement last year. Gupta researched and wrote several articles for the publication, which were then published. Gupta has now invoiced The Independent and requested payment for the published articles. Last month The Mancunion were named runner-up Best Publication at the Guardian Student Media Awards, and Gupta was awarded runner-upfor Reporter of the Year and shortlisted for Digital Journalist of the Year. Gupta is seen by some as central to the student newspaper’s rejuvenation – it is the first time in six years the paper has received even a nomination for the Guardian award. Yet Deputy Editor of The Independent, Adam Leigh, has described Gupta as “particularly idiotic” in email correspondence between the two. After two weeks of unpaid work experience last year, Gupta made the decision to invoice the newspaper for articles he’d had published during his work experience. Gupta believes that regardless of whether or not he had entered into a verbal contract to work for free, his work at the newspaper went beyond the expectations of normal work experience placements and his labour should therefore be subject to the National Minimum Wage. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) are now taking up Gupta’s request and HMRC (HM Revenue and Customs) are investigating the case. The case may set a precedent, which Leigh says will have “unforeseen circumstances.” Leigh claims if the action is successful: “The practice of offering work experience will end immediately […] a practice that every news organisation I know of offers to young people.” The reporter, who is now freelancing in Mexico, denies that his fight has anything to do with money and claims that he is trying to prove a moral point: “I am pursuing this because I believe it is wrong that when at The Independent, I was doing the work of a journalist and producing content that was of commercial value to the newspaper. “Whatever the law says about the situation, I find it morally unjustifiable that The Independent are not prepared to pay for work that it published and made money from. Legally, I believe I’m entitled to National Minimum Wage,” said Gupta. The dispute began three months ago as an exchange of emails between Leigh and Gupta, on Gupta’s website under the title “Work Experience Scam”, and has now caused waves in the media world after being commented on by three influential journalism blogs. The debate could cause embarrassment for The Independent who have published articles about exploitation. Recent snippets from the newspaper include headlines: “Time to end the work experience scam” and another which questions whether “The thousands who begin work experience this summer [are] just modern-day slaves?” Deputy Editor Leigh, a University of Manchester graduate, dismisses any suggestion that Gupta’s work went beyond the scope of a normal internee: “If you have a bright young keen person in for work experience, what they really want is a byline […] it’s the Holy Grail. We feel guilty if we don’t give [internees] their name in print […] its advantageous for them to show an employer their name in print. “These are work experience placements. Theses aren’t vacancies for jobs and we aren’t filling our desks with endless streams of work experience students. Every now and then we find someone who is exceptional and very occasionally we are able to offer people jobs,” said Leigh. In the introductory speech at the Guardian Student Media Awards, the Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian described how young journalists were in a fantastic position because of their low monetary value. Alan Rusbridger argued that because students were “so cheap” and so used to making little or no money from their work. The newspaper has recently replaced cash prizes with work experience placements for the winners of the awards. Vicky Lane from the University of Portsmouth who was awarded runner-up in the Writer of the Year category for a series of articles researched and produced in Uganda commented: “As a group who had just been acknowledged as some of the top student journalists in the country, it was a rather painful kick in the teeth to then be told that our best attribute actually was the fact that we are ‘cheap’.” When talking to Mancunion journalists at the awards, Rusbridger made it clear that his speech had not meant to cause any offence, reiterating that the industry was changing beyond anyone’s recognition and no-one had quite figured out how a new generation of writers and photographers were going to get paid. There is no doubt how hard and how competitive gaining a start on the media career ladder is. Everyone is also acutely aware of the huge losses being incurred by newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent and the extent of the tightening of their belts during the recession. The Guardian newspaper group reported a loss of over £171 million last year. The problem for young journalists like Gupta, is that newspapers are yet to work out how to effectively fund their new media-rich content, despite the fact it is expensive to produce. Whether or not you support Gupta in his fight with The Independent, if HMRC rule in his favour, it will turn the industry on its head.