Monday, March 1, 2010

Model staffing: pay or free?

I'm having a hard time getting beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the expansion of newspaper-college collaborations lumped under the "internship" heading.

The online newsletter Inside Higher Ed had a good roundup on the topic today, following The New York Times' announcement of a second pact with a journalism school to feed The Local, its neighborhood news site.

Under the headline "J-Schools to the Rescue?", Inside Higher Ed made this observation: "So why not make more explicit arrangements to have journalism students, who will work for course credit, fill the gaps left by the pros whom the news outlets could no longer afford to pay?"

Well, sure, why not take away my livelihood, and that of many, many other furloughed journalists, and put unpaid college interns in charge of reporting, writing and editing the news?

The Times has moved in that direction with The Local, an online hyperlocal news experiment launched a year ago in Brooklyn and northern New Jersey.

While expected to rely heavily on community residents for reporting and direction, the effort was led initially by Times staffers. But buyouts and reassignments at the paper soon altered that plan, and early this year, the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York was picked to handle day-to-day operations in Brooklyn. And last week, the Times said New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute would do the same for a new Local expected to debut by fall in Manhattan's East Village. (No j-school collaboration has been announced for the northern New Jersey Local, which seems to have built a robust roster of community participants.)

I have nothing against internships -- I had one in college that soon turned into a part-time paid staff position. And later as a newsroom manager, I coached my share of college interns and always gave extra attention to new graduates who listed an internship on their résumés when they applied for a reporting job.

But the pay-vs.-free staffing model is what bothers me here. Like other newspapers last year, the Times cut deeply into jobs (eliminating 100 newsroom positions by year's end), which usually necessitates a rejiggering of beats and/or outright elimination of some coverage. Yet through the j-school partnerships, news for some Big Apple neighborhoods will expand because there is no overhead for staffing.

One interview on the new East Village Local pooh-poohs that concern: "While critics cry foul over the Times' 'exploitation' of free student labor, they miss the point here: that this marks a progressive step for journalism training, and something students might actually want to do. Having your work appear on is worth a little 'free' labor now for bigger benefits later."

Let's hope those later benefits include a living wage.

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