Dubious business practice unlikely to find home in Canadian publishing

Earlier this month, the Guardian published an article about Newsquest beginning to charge students £120 to have their journalistic work published in its papers.

That’s about $230 Canadian.

Newsquest Media Group — owned by the U.S. company Gannett Co. Inc. — is the U.K.’s largest publisher of local and regional newspapers, owning and operating more than 200 newspapers, magazines, and trade publications, according to its website.

For years, the industry has taken advantage of free labor from student journalists, and now it looks like British students will have to pay for their blood, sweat, and tears to be published.

Essentially, it is like an instructor asking a student for money in order for their test to be graded — on top of paying thousands of dollars in tuition.

With students already facing the struggle of unpaid internships and having to offer their work to publications for free, this added burden certainly is a puzzling tactic to start placing on young journalists.

Janice Tibbetts, a journalism instructor at Carleton University and a columnist for J-Source.ca, a website that discusses and provides resources about journalism, agrees.

“I think its wrong,” sighs Tibbetts in a phone interview, “If it’s a good story then publications should take it regardless. I don’t think that they should target student journalists and say that student journalists should have to pay where other people might be paid to do work.”

Tibbetts adds that asking students to actually pay to have their work published takes an already uncompensated community a step further in having to deal with unpaid internships and unpaid published work.

Young communicators are already turning away from the industry, but how much more difficult can we make journalism before causing the profession to potentially lose even more fresh, talented reporters? What would this mean for the public? For giving voices to the voiceless? For Democracy? For journalistic integrity as a whole?
Experts are optimistic about this program not finding it way into Canadian publishers.

Photo by Josie Lukey

In the original Guardian article titled, “Newsquest/Gannett plans to charge students to write for its titles,” the schools coordinator for Newsquest, Diana Jarvis, explains that the publisher is portraying the scheme as a way for young journalists to build a portfolio and gain valuable references for future employment.

A humorous notion, says Hugo Rodrigues, president and national director of The Canadian Association of Journalists.

“I’m not a big fan of any publisher or broadcaster that asks you to submit work for free and then doesn’t compensate you fairly for the work that you’ve done,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean you have to be paid cold hard cash every single time, but someone who is going to use your work, your blood, sweat, and tears and not compensate you for that, is not an arrangement that gives any value to the work that you do as a student or to the work that anyone does as a journalist.”

Rodrigues adds, “Speaking on behalf of the CAJ, this is not an arrangement that we recommend students consider.”

Another red flag the scheme brings to the journalism industry is the question of integrity.

If a young student poured their heart and soul into a brilliant story, but could not afford to pay to publish it, what would this say about our industry?

Rodrigues, who emphasizes student work has value that deserves to be compensated, is uneasy about the scheme catching steam in Canada.

“It certainly wouldn’t be the first unfortunate practice in journalism that gains ground and starts being copied. We would hope that it’s not something that become contagious,” he adds.

This gimmick apparently comes from the idea that publications are losing revenue due to the business model where most newsreaders no longer want to pay for subscriptions, and advertisers are scarce.

The exploitative charge on students represents a very small earning for publications. Yet media companies seem to be breaching ethical standards by trying to make money from their own potential workforce.

J-Source’s Tibbetts agrees, adding that the bizarreness of the scheme is too “out there” for Canadian media organizations and could potentially have negative results.

“I was taken aback by it, so it seemed to me something that’s certainly unusual and I think there would be quite a bit of backlash against it for it to become a commonplace thing.”

John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star and president of Star Media group, doesn’t see the sense for newspapers to charge contributors and adds that it is not something Canadian publishers are likely to consider.

Which is comforting for potential journalists.

Like me.

“It can’t do anything but promote bad journalism,” says Cruickshank. “And obviously to demand money from a freelance community — or worse than that, a student community where people are trying to build portfolios — is shameless.”

There’s no doubt that these members of Canada’s journalism elite recognize a wild situation when they see one. After all, they too, were once placed in the exact situation many young potential journalists are sitting in right now. Trying to find a venue for those first few publications, or to get a foot in the door to the news-publishing world.

Hopefully, they are right, and this will be one global media trend Canadian Media corporations don’t follow in the future.

Calgary Journal reporter Josie Lukey is a second-year student in the Bachelor of Communications-Journalism at Mount Royal University.