When columnist Emma Gannon posted her latest Sunday Times piece to Twitter yesterday, it immediately caught the eye of a former Times journalist.
Gannon’s column was titled, “Only rich kids can afford to take unpaid internships. How elitist is that?” and not only called out the practice of companies using unpaid workers and interns, but said the practice should be made illegal.
The former Times staffer immediately copy-pasted the Sunday Times link to WhatsApp and shared it around to journalist friends.
“We were just laughing at the hypocrisy,” the journalist told BuzzFeed News. Asked whether the Sunday Times used unpaid workers, one journalist on the newspaper replied over text: “The Sunday Times certainly uses unpaid interns. Lots of them.”
Former staffers have said that many of the conditions, drawbacks and consequences of unpaid work laid out in Gannon’s Sunday Times column are currently widespread in the Sunday Times newsroom.
"There are certain desks that are very privileged. You have to be privately and Oxbridge educated to secure work experience,” a Sunday Times source said. “Others aren't that bad per se, and are more just first come first served.
“But there is little active outreach or attempt to be meritocratic.”
In fact, the practice is remarkably formalised. The Sunday Times is hardly the only news outlet to get young journalists to do unpaid work experience in exchange for the notorious “exposure” or “a foot in the door” that they offer. But a source said the placements – management describes it as “shadowing” – are tracked in a spreadsheet circulated in order to track the names of the young, unpaid journalists who’ll be in the newsroom that week.
When the opportunities aren’t going to those with family-friend connections, management turn to tweeting call-outs with the offers. The tweets will also often include the #journorequest hash-tag in an effort to get the attention of young journalists on Twitter.
A Sunday Times journalist said those who show up in the newsroom for the work will often, unsurprisingly, have “establishment connections”.
Or, as Gannon wrote in her piece: “Unpaid internships put a harsh spotlight on a huge social mobility issue: the cost cuts out a huge number of people who simply cannot afford to work for nothing and are unable to enter certain industries. It is elitist.”
The journalist added: “I don't think it'd be possible for there to be a less meritocratic system in terms of internships – people use establishment connections to get their goddaughters two weeks on the features desk.”
In her column, Gannon continued: “There is an argument that interning isn’t ‘real’ work but, looking back, it most certainly was, and still is. These lower-down-the-food-chain jobs are important in keeping things ticking along.”
One journalist who did more than one unpaid Times placement spoke to BuzzFeed News about their experience. According to them, at the start of the week there’d be a group of them waiting in the lobby for the “tour and health and safety talk” for the building.
“I mainly did research tasks and they published a lot of my work,” they said. “Nothing was paid; no expenses, no canteen, no salary, and I worked 10am to 6pm.”
“I wasn’t given any money for any of my work that was published. They published both short and long pieces from those of us who did the placements.”
Gannon’s column also argued that if they’re not directly related to staff, those who end up in unpaid placements in London are the so-called “rich kids” who can do a week of full-time work without getting paid.
“My parents live near London, travel only cost about £10 a day and the value it’s added to my CV is so much more than that,” a young journalist who did more than one of the unpaid placements told BuzzFeed News.
“I’m by no means rich, but I am very aware that I am very lucky to have been in a position to have been able to do it and stay with my parents.”
The Times declined to answer questions on the record for this article, including saying how many unpaid journalists were working, or “shadowing”, at the Times or Sunday Times at any one time, and whether they would take the advice of the column and end the practice.
“You have the same type of middle-class white girls coming through all the time; it can make you despair about the whole industry,” one source said. “And yet, on the other hand, it’s good experience.”