Working for nothing can be a bad experience

The SJA tries to offer advice based on our members’ experience and common sense, and not receiving pay for work is rarely a good idea. By STEVEN DOWNES 

It must nearly be the football season – some less-than-scrupulous publications, usually publishing online, are “recruiting” new writers.

No one in this press box is working for nothing
No one in this World Cup press box is working for nothing

That is, they’re looking to hook some sports writing hopefuls to work for them for nothing, without these writers ever seeing a sports desk, or being given any real on-the-job training, and all in return for a few bylines and the “experience”.

It’s a trait that we at the SJA have noticed over the last two or three years, and the first signs of the new football season are usually spotted on Twitter, when someone – normally involved in the running of a football website – seeks to reach our 23,000 followers by offering a “great opportunity” for a “start” in sports journalism by tweeting a vague offer @SportSJA.

Within 140 characters, the detail of what is on “offer” is necessarily vague. But money in return for someone’s time and efforts is almost never mentioned. Nor are the working methods – with eager youngsters often expected to work from their bedrooms, trawling the internet for other publications’ news stories to re-work or re-write. The reality is rarely anything that truly resembles “original journalism”.

There may be some conflation in terms of what is being offered, whether it is a “job” or an “internship”, but after a couple of questions to clarify, it quickly becomes clear that whatever the position on offer, it can be presaged by the word “unpaid”.

Here at the SJA, we find ourselves often having to reiterate for the benefit of the many students and soon-to-be graduates and others who want to “break in” to sports journalism, that working for nothing is rarely a good idea. We take some care to ensure that when we do publicise an internship, it conforms to certain requirements, such as a limited term, offering some expenses, and is with an established and reputable organisation.

“If someone is doing a job, to an acceptable standard, they should be paid,” is the view of our training officer, Keith Elliott,  who runs PMA Training. This remains the SJA’s policy.

And it is not just the advice of our experts, with decades of experience of working for national newspapers and broadcasters, of running legitimate training organisations or lecturing in university courses. Our position is now backed firmly by the law.

In 1999, the law was changed to make it illegal for anyone to do a job without being paid the national minimum wage. In early 2014, parliament saw a bill passed which seeks to make it illegal for unpaid work experience placements to last any longer than four weeks.

There remains some grey areas, but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which deals with issues such as taxable earnings and National Insurance contributions, issues guidance which states that “if the post demands set hours and/or has a specific job description you may be deemed to be a ‘worker’ and be covered by National Minimum Wage legislation“.

The lobbying organisation Intern Aware maintains that not only are long-term unpaid internships exploitative, they are also socially damaging.

“Working for free doesn’t come cheap,” Intern Aware says.

“Unpaid internships are overwhelmingly based in London, where the cost of living is amongst the highest in the UK… Internships vary in length, but almost all last three months or longer. Three months working for free could cost an intern over £3,000. That’s money that most simply don’t have.”

And yet… On each occasion that someone opportunistically attempts to piggy-back the SJA Twitter account to recruit people to work for nothing, a handful of people come forward to claim that they could not have ever got a job without having done some work for nothing, and that it was all “essential” experience. They usually cite a cliche, the Catch 22 situation: real jobs almost always require experience that can only be gained by… getting a job. It was ever thus.

Saddeningly, and somewhat shockingly, some come forward to state they they have been working for nothing for six months, or in more than one instance where the SJA has been approached, even a year or more.

Bluntly, if you don’t put a proper value on your own work and abilities, then why expect anyone else to do so?

The websites these people work for often carry some, if limited, advertising. This, presumably, generates the website-owners some income. The people willing to work for nothing never seem to consider whether they should get travel expenses, or to get accreditations organised so that they might attend a match occasionally. Nor do they ask whether the copy that they file is ever edited, re-worked, or even spiked.

We first outlined our advice and position after one website sought to abuse our followers and web readers by posting a cynical ad for exploitative unpaid work. What was being demanded was arguably illegal, the unpaid “internship” demanding three regular weekly “shifts”, two over weekends, and requiring the “interns” to work a five-hour stint through until midnight.

We understand that after we challenged that website about its non-payment policy, it now generally pays people who carry out work.

Our guidance remains broadly as was outlined here.

If you need experience and cuttings, then you should be accumulating this in your university publications or broadcasts. In your vacations, getting some work with the local newspaper or radio station, on hospital or community radio, is likely to be far more rewarding. And why write for someone else’s website for nothing, when you might very easily show some initiative by establishing your own website or blog?

There are also some realities about our trade which need to be confronted by anyone considering a career as a sports journalist: there are many more people who graduate each year, just from journalism degree courses, than there are paid jobs available. Local and national newspapers have been steadily cutting journalists’ jobs for more than a decade. Journalism is hugely competitive, possibly more so than at any time before, so you need to consider whether your working for nothing for any significant period of time will ever repay your investment.

And a typical first job for someone who goes to the trouble to get an NCTJ certificate to add to their degree, for working long hours as a junior reporter on a local paper, may pay less than £15,000 a year.

In the meantime, the SJA will continue to question those organisations which seek to piggy-back our social media accounts by trying to get people to work for them for nothing.

  • Steven Downes is the website editor of and is the Secretary of the SJA
  • The SJA is the largest member organisation of sports media professionals in the world. We now accept applications from student journalists as “Associate Members”. Join us: Click here for more details


Mon Sep 15: SJA Autumn Golf Day, Muswell Hill GC – Book your place now. Non-members very welcome

Thu Dec 11: SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, at the Grand Connaught Rooms


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