"We're scrapping unpaid internships"

"We're scrapping unpaid internships"

Opinion: Dezeen editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs explains why we're responding to our critics and introducing paid editorial internships: "Interns will get a contract and be paid above the minimum wage".

Let’s talk about interns. We’ve run an unpaid internship programme since I launched Dezeen as a one-man bedroom start-up in 2006. People started offering to help me out in order to get some experience of online publishing and to have something to put on their CVs. Win-win.

Over the years we’ve honed the programme into what we felt was a responsible, benign package for people who want to break into journalism. Naturally, it helps us too.

It went largely unremarked until this month, when Twitter users pounced on an unpaid editorial internship advert we placed on our own recruitment site, Dezeen Jobs. Comments included “Exploitation!” “Show some leadership!” and “#unfuckinglievable” [sic].  “It's not an internship,” wrote another, “it's a 'wealth creation programme'.”

I don’t agree with a lot of this rhetoric, which, incidentally, seems to mostly come from UK architecture students, professionals and journalists who were already angry about the number of unpaid architecture internships advertised on Dezeen Jobs. But the point of this column is primarily to address criticisms of our own internship programme.

In the past I’ve defended ours as being one of the better editorial programmes out there: over four (recently increased to six) weeks, we devote a lot of time to training and explaining how online journalism works. It’s a pretty standard route into the media, as a quick trawl around websites of other publications in our sector reveals. I ran a similar scheme at icon magazine, where I was editor from 2003 to 2006.

Everyone now employed on the Dezeen editorial team has done at least one unpaid internship, some of them with us but others elsewhere. When I was trying to get into journalism in the nineties I did “work experience”, which was much the same thing.

So working for nothing to learn the ropes is nothing new and a glance at Dezeen Jobs and other similar sites suggests that if anything, such positions are increasing in many creative sectors.

However I always felt slightly uneasy about the unpaid aspect of our internships and we have discussed this regularly in the office. Whatever the moral arguments, you can’t argue with the logic that, for the intern, getting paid is better than not getting paid.

But the flood of applicants, the overwhelming positive feedback we got from past interns and the fact that other publishing companies were doing the same made it seem okay. We never saw it as “exploitation” or free labour but rather a mutually beneficial hybrid of work and training.

Most importantly, it was legal: our internships have been conducted in accordance with the Department of Work and Pensions’ guidance on volunteers. (The term “intern” has no legal status in the UK and seems to have drifted over from the USA over the last 15 years, replacing the dowdy “work experience” tag, which now only legally applies to people under the age of 16).

But as a company and an employer we don’t want ours to be "one of the better programmes". We want it to be really good; as good as we can make it; the best, if possible. We want to constantly improve everything we do. We're no longer a shoestring operation struggling to make ends meet. We recognise that because of our profile and audience, people look to us to set an example.

Since the tweets began to appear last week we’ve discussed this endlessly in the office and researched the alternatives. We’ve asked all our interns from the past year for feedback on how we could improve the experience. Interestingly, getting paid was only their third most-cited suggestion. The thing they wanted most of all was to get more bylines on stories (not having to answer the phone was the second most requested change).

There is also a general consensus among our past interns that a month is about the limit for an unpaid stint. But in order to train people to the point where they can write stories, we need them to stay longer.

So we're scrapping unpaid internships and we’re introducing a new, paid, three-month editorial internship programme. Interns will get a contract and be paid above the minimum wage. By the end of the period they should have a bunch of published stories to show future employers as well as a rounded knowledge of all aspects of online journalism.

It’s important to note that while this change has been triggered by criticisms on Twitter, we are making them for business reasons rather than ethical ones. We believe that the new programme will lead to better-motivated people doing higher-quality work. That’s good for everyone.

One thing we are not going to do however is act as police officer for the global architecture and design professions. Circumstances vary according to discipline and country and we don’t think we should be telling companies how to run their businesses. There are plenty of other individuals and organisations better placed to do that.

This is a tough time to be running any company and with a chronic over-supply of architecture and design graduates willing to take unpaid internships, I can understand the appeal to both parties. There are clearly some companies that take advantage of interns but I don’t think we are the right people to point the finger. We would prefer to lead by example.

So we have no plans to ban internship adverts from Dezeen Jobs, as some people are demanding, so long as the posts advertised are legal and meet the requirements of any relevant professional bodies. We have added a new paragraph to our terms and conditions to ensure advertisers are aware of this. We will take action to remove a job ad if there’s a clear breach but this will be based on legal, rather than moral, arguments.

If people suspect firms of breaking the law or a professional code they should report them to the relevant authorities. And if anyone wants to do a paid internship with us, get in touch.

Update 01/06/2013: Since this article was published we have amended our policy and no longer allow companies to advertise unpaid internships on www.dezeenjobs.com. Read more stories about internships here.