Journalism incentive: Instead of pay, we'll let you keep flexible hours and work from home

By David Poulson
Writing is hard and requires skill and practice to do well.
Any journalist, especially those working in science-related fields, knows that. Which is why offers like this one drive me a bit nuts:

Dear Mr. Poulson,
I am contacting you as the Media & Communications Manager of LIFE MAG ( – a high-quality online magazine providing up to date news and analysis in the field of healthy life extension. We are currently offering science/medicine/journalism students the opportunity to undertake remote internships with us, and thought that your students may be interested.
We would be very grateful if you could forward this email onto the student body, or print out the PDF provided for a student noticeboard etc. All the information about the magazine and how to get in touch is provided below.

Here’s the pitch this publication wants me to send my students:

LIFE MAG is a high-quality online magazine providing up to date news and analysis in the field of life extension. Our focus is on emerging technologies, treatments and lifestyle choices designed to prolong healthy lifespan.
We are currently offering remote internships to students looking to gain experience in science/medical journalism. Essentially the opportunity to work for a rapidly developing magazine with a wide international audience, without having to physically relocate to our Berlin office
Having been students ourselves, we know that university can be demanding. That’s why we don’t ask for a 9-5 commitment. Instead, our only expectation is that interns submit 2 high-quality 1000-1500 word articles per week. This can be achieved in any way that suits you – allowing you to work flexibly, and in line with any other academic or work commitments you may have.
Towards this we don’t employ the same submit-accept/reject editorial policy of most other magazines. Instead our team of editors work with you every step of the way to ensure that your work gets published.
But we won’t hassle you. Everyone likes to work differently, so if you prefer to just get on with writing and communicate by email that’s fine. If you want more guidance and face-to-face interaction via FaceTime or Skype that’s also fine. We are always available whenever and in any way you may need us.
What’s most important to us that we get great content online, whilst also providing you with the exact experience you need. All of our interns so far have had numerous articles published and promoted worldwide via a range of media channels. This ensures that your work gets noticed by literally thousands of readers. In being featured on our website, your profile and contact details are also made available to any other potential employers who may wish to enlist your talents for other freelance work or full-time employment.
LIFE MAG is a high-quality online magazine providing up to date news and analysis in the field of life extension. Our focus is on emerging technologies, treatments and lifestyle choices designed to prolong healthy lifespan.

Whenever I get an offer to exploit my students like this, I hit reply and write,
“Sounds good. What is your pay rate?”
Inevitably the answer is something like what I got this time:

Dear Mr. Poulson,
The magazine is in relatively early pages of development and, unfortunately, we are not currently in a position to offer paid internships. However, for aspiring journalists, publication in LIFEMAG allows work to be seen by the wide international audience. Also, it’s a great opportunity for those who want to get experience in going through editorial process.
Thank you for spreading the word.

Beyond the whole “no pay” thing, what drives me nuts about this offer is the supposed incentive: The hours are flexible and you can work from home. You don’t even have to travel to Berlin – as if living abroad is somehow an ugly proposition for an American student. Also, you get an international audience.
I don’t think this publisher understands that almost everyone has access to the Internet.
My reply:

That’s helpful to know.
Unfortunately there is no incentive in a remote work station and a flexible schedule to weekly produce two high quality articles of 1,000 to 1,500 words. They have that now. In fact, they can produce dozens of articles a week from anywhere in the world and not be paid for them now.
We agree that learning about the editorial process is important. We teach our students that an important part of it is to be fairly compensated for producing work of value.

That answer let me blow off some frustrated steam. But is it the right one?  I fully recognize I’m tilting at windmills here. And did I just deprive my students of an opportunity to perhaps gain some top quality mentoring and exposure?
Maybe what irks me with this one is the sense of launching a new publication partly on the backs of students who certainly won’t have an equity stake in its success.
Like other journalism schools, we have talented students capable of producing professional work. And we have many more capable of doing so under careful guidance. There is no question that many internships provide valuable experience to students. Our school thinks so. We require them.
Are they so valuable that they should not be compensated? Well, that’s the reality. And I get that whole “building the brand” thing. And you can’t beat professional guidance when it is true mentorship. There is certainly value there.
Yet I struggle with that line between opportunity and exploitation.
Nowadays that’s hardly confined to students nor to struggling new publishing ventures. Check out this recent piece on Wil Wheaton’s gripe with the Huffington Post.
David Poulson is the senior associate director of the Knight Center for Envrionmental Journalism