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This is not what exploitation looks like.

My friend, mentor and the woman who gave me my interning break in the media, Lisa Wilkinson.

By MIA FREEDMAN

UPDATED: July 9th 2013

Earlier this year,  the Fair Work Ombudsman, Nicholas Wilson, announced that he will be seeking a harsher crackdown on internships and unpaid work experience in Australia.

I have no problem with this.

The idea of exploiting vulnerable people –  for example, telling someone they need to do an indefinite unpaid ‘trial’ lasting months before they can be considered for a job or coercing someone to work for free by promising them future employment – is troubling and unethical.

Equally troubling, however, is the idea that all internships or work experience placements are exploitative.

That’s plainly absurd.

Of course I’m going to say that. It’s well known that I started my career doing work experience at Cleo in 1992. Lisa Wilkinson was my first boss and I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

I initially assisted the features editor for two weeks and at the end of that fixed period, I begged Lisa to allow me to continue to come in one day per week so I could continue to gain experience on one of Australia’s top magazines. Today, this would be called an internship.

As a journalism student in my first year of university, this opportunity was extraordinary and I relished every moment of every day. I did a variety of interesting and menial tasks, from filing and fetching coffee, running errands for the fashion department, answering the phones when the receptionist was at lunch and doing research for the writers. I got to see up close how a magazine worked. From the inside. Invaluable.

Mamamia and ivillage interns came in to meet the then-Prime Minister when she was in the office twice last year.

I interned at Cleo for a few months and early on, I began to come in extra days without asking, hoping I wouldn’t be sent home. No promises were ever made to me during this time. No carrots were dangled. Obviously, I wanted nothing more than to work full-time at Cleo and so I tried to make myself as valuable as possible by helping out as much as I could. More significant though, was what they gave me, a kid who knew nothing. Much kindness, patience and guidance was shown to me by Lisa, the then deputy editor Deborah Thomas and everyone in the features department.

People took the time to include me in meetings. They took to time to explain things to me – what they were doing and why they were doing it, how magazines worked and some aspects of journalism that I could never have learned from a textbook or a lecturer.

I gave them my time, sure, but they gave me theirs in return. And let’s be honest here, the time of media professionals was worth far far more than that of a green uni student.

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There was mutual benefit but the benefit was mostly mine.

Interns Elissa, Mary and Kahla with Walkley award winning journalist and host of ABCTV’s 7:30, Leigh Sales, when she came in to Mamamia to talk with them about her career.

And I believe that is the key to work experience and internships: mutual benefit. Not necessarily equal but mutual.

Two decades on, I’m enormously proud of the internship program we have developed across Mamamia and iVillage Australia.

We have always been absolutely upfront and transparent about our internship program and believe it complies with the Fair Work requirements.

It works like this:

Every three months we advertise for university students – generally media, communications or journalism majors – who would like to gain experience in the industry ahead of their graduation.

We always receive dozens and dozens of applications and we whittle that down to a shortlist of several dozen who we invite into the office for an interview.

This takes an enormous amount of time, as you may imagine, but it gives us a great opportunity to meet and talk to some very dynamic women – and the occasional man.

Having selected the successful applicants, we then conduct a half-day training session – usually out of hours to accommodate their uni time-tables and part-time jobs. We do a few of these sessions (on our own time) to make sure everyone can attend one.

What goes on in these sessions?

Well, first up obviously is a detailed Powerpoint presentation outlining how I like my tea to be made – giant cup, milk, teabag left in. Next? They are shown the best techniques for massaging the shoulders of the Mamamia and ivillage editorial teams. We issue everyone with an excel spreadsheet that details the varying pressure preferences of every team member. And we give them a map of the local area so they know where to fetch our dry cleaning, do our fruit and vegetable shopping and pick up our Pill prescriptions.

This is what some would have you believe.

These are usually the same kinds of people who use absurd terms like ‘sweatshop’ or ‘exploitation’ whenever the subject of interns and work experience are raised.

I have no idea how other workplaces use interns so I’m not going to claim unethical practices never occur.

All I can vouch for is the integrity of what we do which is this:

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After the students have learned how to operate the technical backend of both our sites (many of them come to us with little digital experience, one of the reasons they’re keen to intern). They then join us for one day per week or fortnight at a time that suits their other obligations.

On the day they’re in the Mamamia office (we usually have one per day, some days none, occasionally two at once as we try to be flexible), our interns do many things. Some are menial, some are exciting – the same as it is for everyone who has a real job in our (or any) industry. Some tasks require no skills, some require skills they don’t yet have and we need to teach them.

Because I know you may be secretly wondering, I’ve never asked an MM intern to make me a cup of tea. And I get my own lunch – we all do. Occasionally, they might do the odd coffee run – and so do the rest of the staff – it’s all part of being a team. But we don’t believe interns are here to run personal errands for us.

We aim to give our interns a 360 degree understanding of what it’s like to work on a major women’s website that’s also a start-up, independent business.

At its core, our intern program is based on that overwhelming benefit. Yes, it helps us because an extra pair of hands is often useful. But let’s be clear: there is more benefit for our interns.

They get to see how Mamamia and iVillage work up close. They get the opportunity to sit in on editorial meetings. They are trained in digital skills that will help them secure future jobs. And they have the opportunity not only to be published but to have their work read by and get constructive feedback from people who have decades of experience in journalism.

Our interns receive a written reference at the completion of their internship and in most cases, it constitutes a formal part of their university education and they receive credit towards their degree.

We also give our interns the opportunity to meet some incredible people such as then Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the several occasions she has been in to the Mamamia and iVillage office when she took time to speak with them and answer their questions.

We also host regular opportunities for our interns and editorial teams to meet with high profile journalists when they visit us in the office for morning tea.

Last year we hosted Walkely award winning TV journalist Leigh Sales and last week we had Walkley award winning print journalist Caroline Overington who each came in to talk about their careers.

Let me be clear: could the Mamamia and iVillage sites run without interns? Of course we could! And we did for years.

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While some of our interns may have the opportunity to have a post published (after working on it with one of our team), they’re not yet up to running a website. Or even publishing a post unsupervised let alone writing one.

The work that goes into running a site like Mamamia – including sourcing, writing, compiling and publishing content – is absolutely immense and requires the knowledge and skills of experienced journalists.

Our full-time paid editorial staff (around 10 of us across two sites) are the ones who write, source and publish the content you read here. Our interns assist in aspects of this process.

‘But by not paying interns, you discriminate against those who can’t afford to work for free’, some say.

Another occasion when the Prime Minister came to Mamamia and met with our interns.

I disagree. When I was interning at Cleo, I worked three part-time jobs as well as going to uni. I also had a pretty good social life. And I was 19. It’s not like I had kids and a mortgage to support. And very few uni degrees (certainly not journalism) demand students study or attend lectures 9am-6pm.

Our interns are from diverse socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds. Yes, we are Sydney based so there are limitations. But one of our interns came from Canberra. Another from Newcastle and two from the Blue Mountains.

Importantly, at no time do we ever suggest an internship will lead to paid employment with our company.

In fact, journalism students are the first to understand how bleak their employment prospects are in a rapidly contracting industry where there have been significant job cuts at all the major media organisations in Australia.

However, four of our former interns just graduated from their university degrees and we have been delighted to hire them as editorial assistants. You can read their work here and here. And also here and here.

Another four Mamamia/iVillage employees started at the company by either interning or doing some form of work experience.

So there you go. While the idea of clamping down on the unethical exploitation of unpaid workers is an altruistic one that should be commended, it would be a shame if organisations were prevented from running genuine intern programs and taking on work experience students.

Because the biggest losers would be the students themselves.

 

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