Based on some experiences I’ve had of late as well as many anecdotes I’ve learned from professional colleagues in recent months, I’ve determined that most of professional media these days is ethically and morally bankrupt. Labor exploitation is rife, freelancers and even so-called staff are treated like indentured servants in a Dickensian novel (or outright slaves who work for free). Hiring managers lie and play bait-and-switch to rope in talent, and then fail to pay for it. And worse.
Journalism is the only profession where pay has plummeted to near-zero levels in the past twenty years, while online media gurus who operate sites like Huffington Post rake in millions (or billions) in ad dollars while paying their content creators zilch. People with master’s degrees and solid-gold clips are being asked to work for less than I pay my 18-year-old babysitter. What used to be mid-level editorial management jobs are turning into “internships” where there is little to no pay, and people often have to have six interviews, take eleventy-billion editing tests, personality tests, and even have a degree from an Ivy just for the privilege of working for nothing.
It’s gotten so bad that even TV star and internet Super-Star Nerd Wil Wheaton is getting asked to work for nothing. (Seriously. It’s bad.)
I was recently interviewed for an article about Freelance Writer Horror Stories, here. Sadly, the experiences discussed in this article are common. Even media companies that still pay their contributors decently will engage in ethically bankrupt (and often illegal) behaviors ranging from copyright and trademark infringement to labor violations to privacy violations. (Is that really what it takes for media companies to stay in business now? Maybe.)
I also participate in a freelance writers’ listserv, where this week I counseled a mid-career writer who was getting treated horribly by a prospective employer. (She was so desperate for a staff job—-ANY staff job, that she was seriously considering taking an “internship” that would have involved her running an entire department in a NYC magazine for—wait for it—twelve bucks an hour, no benefits, and part-time hours. She said, ‘I’m not sure whether to take a job I’ve been offered at a prestigious magazine. It’s a great place and a great opportunity, but they’re offering me less in pay than I made per hour as a babysitter 20 years ago in the 90s. And they are calling this [clearly mid-level editorial management job] an ‘internship’ that is temporary. They won’t negotiate. What should I do?”
Here’s what I told her. “These people are slave-driving sleazebags who are insulting you. It’s not a good opportunity if you can’t live on the pay. It’s not an internship if you’re in charge of a whole department. They’re probably calling it such to get out of paying taxes or something. (illegal). Tell them to take a long walk off a short cliff and RUN.”
She had a hard time accepting this, and kept making excuses, like her friend worked there, they were nice, it was a great job, she really wanted to work at a magazine, ad nauseum. But I don’t see how or why anybody who has been working professionally in media for any length of time should have to put up with such bullshit. (I wouldn’t even take that from a part-time job hauling slop at a dairy, which would probably pay better than media these days, anyway.)
Seriously folks, this should be a no-brainer. Just because it’s a prestigious magazine in NYC doesn’t mean they can turn their hiring process into a 17th-century slave auction. Unless you let them, of course.
I’ve supported myself in media for 20 years at good pay levels, mostly because I demanded them. Anybody who mistreated me or engaged in ethically/legally questionable behavior did not get to have me on their staff. (or if they did, not for long.). I believe in decent pay, professional conduct, and ethical business practices. People often ask me how I’ve done so well for so long (with occasional bumps and hiccups, mind you—-but I’ve made some bad decisions at times, like anyone does). I tell them, “Because I only work for people who are above board. I believe in following the rules and doing things the right way. And that includes paying people what they deserve, and being honest. I also do not suffer fools. If you cross any professional or ethical lines with me, I do not put up with it. Ever.”
I have a very good job now. It’s in a media niche that is highly specialized and still quite lucrative. It’s also a highly regulated area (medical education) that demands impeccable ethics, and companies that don’t adhere to these standards generally don’t stay in business for very long. My colleagues are all people who share my values and commitment to ethical standards and fair compensation. There aren’t many of us left, but those of us who are still around have earned the trust of many other people who enjoy working with us as our clients and funders.
Unfortunately, the past year or so has proven to me that most people of any power in the media industry these days possess none of these traits, will exploit anyone they can anytime they can, and will pay people as little as possible (including zilch) no matter what labor laws they are breaking by doing so. And the few media people left who are decent, professional, and courteous have either left the industry or work for the tiny fraction of shops in hyperspecialized areas (like my employer) that haven’t been forced by venture-capital types (or advertisers, or Wall Street) to do otherwise.
Long story short, I wish I could see a future for ethical people in media. Outside of the niche area where I work (regulated medical/drug communications), I just don’t.