Wanted: Experienced interns. And I’m not joking

Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on s

Jobhunting isn't fun. There are many un-fun things about it, from the circulatory rejection email to the bottomless pit into which all applications seem to fall, never to be mentioned again. But perhaps the worst feeling of all is the one I've had a couple of times this week: finding a really decent job advertised that looks perfect for me, then discovering that the salary is £0.00 per annum.

Nowadays, in the media and other industries, you don't have to incentivise potential workers with old-fashioned money; any advert will bring a hundred eager candidates stretching right around the building. Bosses can pick and choose -- and they can pay nothing. Some so-called "internships" demand that candidates have extensive experience and skills and will be required to complete a challenging series of tasks to help make money for the company -- just not for themselves.

It sums up the state of the industry. On the one hand, a few experienced workers cling to permanent positions as if their lives depend on it; which quite often, they do, if they've got bills to pay and families to support. On the other, there's a huge churn of casual employees who have no working rights and who are therefore ripe for exploitation. Step out of line, and your boss could advertise for your position and get flooded with applications overnight, some of which would come from people who'd work for nothing. What choice have you got? It's this culture of fear that brings about compliance from workers who would stretch their ethical boundaries to keep their positions. It's a lose-lose situation for everyone.

It's easy to blame the thousands of graduates from media and journalism courses up and down the country and say it's somehow their fault for wanting to do what they want to do; but I can't, because I was, and am, one of them. I don't know if there really was a golden age when there were vast fortunes to be made and people had jobs for life; there probably wasn't, and those of us struggling to find work now probably knew that pretty well when we signed up. That said, there just aren't the jobs anymore as there once were, and, if there are jobs, you'll have to sweat to get them. True, some people do bafflingly walk into newspapers or magazines without any discernible talent and go on to make a fortune out of it, but I don't begrudge them their bit of luck either: they've played the fruit machine and won. Deep down we'd all fancy a bit of that luck, and I'm no different.

I've got nothing against work experience or genuine internships either; it's how a lot of us (me included) managed to get a breakthrough in the workplace, and it's vital for gaining an insight into a career path. But we're not talking about work experience; we're talking about working up to the standard of a paid worker, having the same tasks as a paid worker, but not being paid; doing a hobby in a workplace. Journalism is now like working for the St John Ambulance, but without the chance to put a sling on someone. The industry is essentially saying: "Look, you know you're desperate, we know you're desperate, so what's it going to be?"

Well, we all know what it's going to be. Already, the type of people who can make it in the industry has changed, and it will change even more. People from poorer backgrounds just aren't going to be able to chuck six months or a year of their lives away for nothing; those from wealthier backgrounds are. I don't think journalism was ever an especially diverse profession, but at least there were chances. Now, what chance do people have, when rents are rising, prices are flying and wages are non-existent?

There are many dispiriting things about being unemployable in this coalition world of dwindling opportunities and guttering hope. It's probably worse for the young people who feel there's no future, the masses of men and women with great qualifications, great skills and absolutely zero chance of getting anywhere because of when they happen to have arrived in the jobs market. I don't blame some of them for working for nothing in the hope it will get them somewhere. But I am not so sure it will get any of us anywhere.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”