Let’s Talk About What Darren Rovell Said About Working For Free

Let’s talk about what Darren Rovell said Friday on Twitter. Known to have sparked conversations in the past, the ESPN commentator started off innocently enough with a simple proposal to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Seems innocent enough. After all, while AP wire stories are well-written, they lack the flavor an aspiring journalist could provide; for better or worse. I’m pretty sure if the Chicago Sun Times called a journalism professor at Northwestern, they’d be able to provide a qualified student journalist for the job. Then Rovell tweets once more which begins the conversation we’re about to have.

This is where Rovell creates the Twitter rift. He goes on…

As you might predict, this sage advice received some blowback. The field of journalism…is kind of a swamp. In no other major profession would those at the top insist that those just getting their foot in the door do so with free labor. The whole notion of unpaid internships is a debate often swept under the rug with one side insisting that “its part of the current job ecosystem and you can’t simply replace them with paid internships otherwise hundreds of businesses simply wouldn’t offer internships.”

Journalists did this to themselves. They really did. I don’t know of another profession that utilizes and relies on unpaid work as significantly in 2017 then journalism and journalists have no one to blame but themselves.

This is where it gets personal.

I’m part of the problem. Since I started working in the field of journalism in January 2013, I have been paid twice for my work. I received $25 for a freelance article I wrote on a freelancing website a few months ago and, roughly at the same time, I received a $100 check for Spor Repor’s Google AdSense revenue. I’m celebrating my fourth year in the medium (give or take a month or two) and I have $125 to show for it. I got paid $0 while working for someone else for over a year and a half, including a freelance assignment I did two years ago that promised $50 for a game recap but never paid me even though the article made the paper.

You might be asking “Well Mark, you own your own website, of course you shouldn’t expect a decent wage right off the bat?” You’re right, I didn’t. To this day, I understand what it takes to make Spor Repor profitable. I understand the uphill battle I’m facing. But at least I’m not working for free for someone else.

As Rovell eluded to in his tweets, part of this profession is building up a portfolio prior to landing your first paid job. After all, you don’t need a portfolio of extensive sandwich making in order to get hired at Subway. But guess what, if I have to do that in order to get my foot in the door, I’m doing so on my own accord. If an employer pays me for my work, I’m obviously going to whatever assignment they tell me to cover. However, if an employer hires me as an unpaid internship, then I’m sorry but I’m going to know my rights under the law and bring them up when justified in order to stave off becoming slave labor.

What Darren Rovell sadly overlooks, and what many of his sympathizer failed to acknowledge in this discussion, are how many unpaid internships across the board are balancing that fine line between being classified as illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act and legal.

This is the tough truth but aspiring journalists across the country are willingly taking unpaid internships that break the FLSA because if they don’t, they won’t be able to find an internship that fully complies with FLSA guidelines and thus stunt their growth in the industry.

The FLSA lays out a six-part test to determine if an internship qualifies as an unpaid internship or not. As you read through them, it becomes quite obvious how certain “unpaid internships” should be called “volunteer positions” in order to remain safe under the law.

“The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.” I mean how could you displace a regular employee after the publication eliminated their paid position a few weeks ago in favor of your unpaid internship. 

“The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” Remember kids, online media outlets are, in no way shape or form, benefitting from that write-up of that game you just covered for them. In fact, just ignore those advertisements displayed on the webpage for the article. Those ads don’t make the site any money at all. Every time someone sees one of those ads, it makes the site lose money.

Working for free in the field of journalism is a serious problem that will only lead to a further devaluing of work. As current and future journalists let employers take advantage of them via unpaid internships, the amount of paid positions will only decrease in favor of unpaid ones at publications. Supply and demand after all. It’s a basic business principle. Why pay someone for work when a dozen college kids are willing to do the same work for free? I hear Northwestern has a bunch of them.

Enough older journalists, the ones that now have paid positions, decided that they were fine with getting their foot in the door back in the day by working for free to cause a ripple effect. Because of this, current and future journalists are obligated to work for free at positions with ever-increasing responsibilities at the start of their careers. Those older journalists, after all, are in the hiring positions now. They worked for free when they first started out so why should applicants expect a single penny for their work.

Unpaid interns get “experience.” Unpaid interns get “contacts.” Unpaid interns get food on the table and a credit card bill that doesn’t plunge further into debt with each passing month in order to pay for basic everyday living expenses such as rent and electricity. Oh wait…..scratch that last one. Having to go into debt in order to pursue a career is now commonplace in 2017. I learned that in college.