Unpaid internship? ‘It stinks’ say SJA experts

Senior media experts, all with years of experience on Fleet Street sports desks and working in training young journalists, have condemned a “job advertisement” by a football website that is offering “unpaid internships”, which they see as simply seeking to exploit newcomers to the profession.

They also warn that any such internship, with, effectively puts young journalists in a position in which they may be forced to consider plagiarism.

“I think this is an attempt to get staff for nothing,” said Keith Elliott, the SJA’s training officer, who runs PMA Training. “If they are doing a job, to an acceptable standard, they should be paid.”

Ian Cole, until recently the sports news editor of the Daily Mail and regular lecturer in sports journalism at City University, took an equally strong standpoint: “I would not encourage any young journalist (however desperate) to agree to that kind of commitment without even the smallest remuneration.

“The idea stinks.”

The ad, which appeared today, is just the latest to be placed this year by apparently offering a work opportunity. “ UK is looking for enthusiastic interns to become news writers for their rapidly growing site,” the advertising copy reads.

“Working from home, you will be expected to file prompt, accurate and lively copy on stories relating to the English Premier League, Champions League and beyond.”

The advertiser makes no bones about the lack of payment for the work: “This is an intern role and is unpaid.”

It then goes on to outline three regular weekly “shifts”, two over weekends, and two requiring the “interns” to work a five-hour stint through until midnight.

At a time when jobs are thin on the ground – last year, one national newspaper’s football site received more than 400 applications for four posts, each job offering a salary of around £20,000 –’s approach appears to seek to exploit young journalists’ desperation to break into the business.

The latest ad reads: “This opportunity may be of particular interest to aspiring journalists and students, as there may be the chance to join UK’s staff if candidates impress. Full training on UK’s content management system will be given to successful applicants.”

Elliott warned young journalists against considering such demanding and open-ended arrangements as offered by “Internships should be an absolute maximum of one month, and should include a proper training programme with a mentor to help them,” he told

“But what they are saying is, ‘Help us fill our site for nothing! No money, no prospects!’ It sounds a mug’s game to me.

“They take advantage of eager young things who believe, wrongly, that this will give them a route into sports journalism. It won’t. Don’t fall for it.”

Another prominent SJA member, Rob Steen, who is a senioir lecturer on the sports journalism degree course at Brighton University, knows too well the problems confronting soon-to-graduate students in the present job market.

“It’s a fiendishly tricky dilemma,” Steen said. “On the one hand, here at the University of Brighton, we encourage undergraduates on our sports journalism course to reap all the experience, and cuttings, they can get. At the same time, we advise them to seek travel expenses (at the very least) if covering matches, and always once they leave college.

“We also make it plain to them that there are many unscrupulous publications and editors out there, primarily on the web, who are seeking to produce their product on the cheap. A number of editors have approached us as lecturers, seeking student journalists: so long as we feel that the product is a decent one and that the students will learn something from the experience (ie. is their work properly subbed?), we are happy to advertise the opportunity. There have been several occasions, however, when we have rejected such overtures.

“Given that the nationals are more than happy to reel in an endless succession of unpaid ‘interns’ in order to make up for staff cuts, can we blame the less well-heeled for following suit? On the other hand, I sincerely believe that something must be done, industry-wide, to halt this shameless abuse of the labour laws,” Steen said.

And Cole took a darker view of the latest intern advert by “Far from gaining valuable experience in writing prompt, accurate and lively football copy, our budding sportswriter might find that this represents as far as his/her CV is concerned. The idea stinks.

“I would ask exactly where our young journalist is expected to discover his prompt, accurate and lively football copy? At home, with nothing but the internet to guide him? I’ll tell you where… by lifting and rewriting every line of copy he can find on football websites, newspapers and magazines. By watching matches on TV and listening to radio programmes such as 606 and TalkSport.

“Lifting copy – even if you write the same words in a different order – is still plagiarism. On all counts, the idea stinks.” has been on the SJA radar since early in the new year, when we received a complaint from one journalist who answered an advertisement for paid freelance work and received a response offering him a six-month unpaid internship.

Senior staff at explained this away as some kind of misunderstanding. “Let me assure you that the advert is genuine and we are very much looking to build up a small network of good freelance journalists and are paying competitive rates,” Amar Singh, UK’s associate editor, told at the time.

Since then, the SJA has not observed further ads offering paid work, although versions of the internship “offer” have appeared from time to time on reputable trade websites.

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