Pedestrian co-founder Chris Wirasinha: Don’t do unpaid internships

Aspiring journalists would be better off not doing unpaid internships and should instead focus on finding interesting ways to gain writing experience, Pedestrian co-founder Chris Wirasinha has argued.

Wirasinha, who sat on a panel at Mumbrella Publish last week, told the room he did not recommend people did internships, particularly if they weren’t getting paid.

Wirasinha (far left) isn’t a believer in unpaid internships

“I don’t think you should be working for free for a company. There’s much better ways to get interesting writing experience on your CV,” he said.

Wirasinha suggested writing a blog or an ebook as alternatives to build out a resume, adding companies that relied heavily on interns were not necessarily places where prospective journalists could get “great experiences”.

“Sure, you still need to be able to have that amount of spare time, which can be hard if you’re juggling paid work as well as a university degree but if it’s something that you own, and you’re creating and you are not just being asked to go get coffee or interview this person for someone who potentially can’t afford to pay a full suite of writers that they need to run their business…these days there’s a multitude of things you can do” he said.

But his business, Pedestrian, which was recently bought by Nine, has been previously criticised for promoting unpaid internships on its website. Wirasinha said that criticism led to Pedestrian refusing to run unpaid internships themselves.

“If the government stepped in and said ‘unpaid work is not okay in any way, shape or form, and there’s penalties around that’, it would make things a lot clearer,” he added.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in the market – even with us – we have unpaid opportunities [listed] on the website but what constitutes an internship opportunity can be really difficult to work out sometimes.

“That grey area and this fuzziness is the real issue that exists at the moment.”

Wirasinha was joined on the panel with Rachel Smith, freelance journalist and founder of Rachel’s List, Tilly South, founding member of Interns Australia, and James Chessell, group executive editor of Australian Metro Publishing at Fairfax Media.

It followed Mumbrella’s week-long investigation into journalism and unpaid internships.

Chessell, who is running Fairfax Media’s traineeship program, said the investment in paid internships by the major publisher is for the benefit of the newsroom. It brings new ideas, people and a “jolt of energy”, he claimed.

According to Chessell, who began at Fairfax Media as a cadet in 2000, having a journalism degree is “irrelevant” to the publisher, which is currently awaiting shareholder and ACCC approval for a merger with Nine.

“We do not care whether they have done a journalism degree or not. It’s completely irrelevant to us. Sometimes it could signify that people are interested in journalism, they have a clear idea of what they want to do,” he said.

His comments followed a 2017 Graduates Outcome Survey, which suggested of the 512 journalism graduates surveyed, just 26% were employed in the industry.

Chessell said the company, which is the final stages of confirming the new trainees, looks for a “spark” and their ability to connect with people, not just the ability to write. And while the company will teach shorthand, other skills – understanding media law, digital skills and the ability to work with data – are far more important.

“If you do the right thing with trainees, you tend to get rewarded. I’ve worked at The Australian and News Corp for a while – they have a very different view on trainees. Australian was a newspaper – it’s a good newspaper by the way – but it’s a newspaper that says we are going to get people who are fully formed,” he added.

“It’s never really been the Fairfax ethos, so we are returning to our roots.”


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