Internship woes show media worries ahead

Mak Yin-ting - Chief Editor, The Journalist

For journalism students, securing an internship in media organizations allow them to put into practice what they have learnt at school before becoming reporters. Many students use this chance to gain experience and networking to lay the foundations for a journalistic career.

For media organizations, interns can lighten the workload of its working journalists. It is also a good chance for the organization to pick potentially capable journalists for future enrolment.

So, regardless of supply and demand, interns are a new force as well as a mainstay of journalism. However, placement scarcity and lower allowances with interns sometimes asked to work without pay on the grounds that one has to pay for one's own expenses in training, are a prelude to a dire deterioration in the media industry. No wonder some interns hesitate to join the industry and veteran journalists dare not encourage interns to get into the tough life of journalism; the latter afraid that the advise may put the novice on the wrong track in terms of making money.

From the information of placements gathered at departments or schools of communications in different universities or post secondary colleges, The Journalist found varying difficulties in securing placements for internships. For example, Shue Yan University secured placements for all its 179 students, which was 30 more than that of last year, while Chu Hai College reportedly got only 24 placements or a mere 40 percent of students in the college, similar to last year's result. Facing the scarcity of placements, Baptist University has begun to look for internships from overseas media organizations. Shum Yee-lan, coordinator of the placement project, revealed that the Baptist University even tried, with success, to secure placement from media organizations that previously never offered placements. Next Magazine made an unprecedented offer of placements last summer to BU's students.

A difficult life for the interns

Even allowances for interns have been affected by the economic downturn. Data supplied by universities and colleges show that three media organizations cancelled allowances, with two later reimbursing transport expenses to the interns. Among those who continued to pay allowances, there were decreases of between 75% and 10%.

Donna Chu, Assistant Professor of the Journalism and Communication School of the Chinese University, said that television or film production houses and magazines even paid lower allowances. She believed production houses were really badly hit by the economic situation and could not afford to give any allowance. However, students who loved production did not mind foregoing the allowances. Every year there were students willing to take up internships at their own expense, she said. Contrary to expectations there are more students taking up internships in public relations companies and production houses than news organizations.

Ms Chu recalled a shocking experience last summer when 11 or 12 students declined placements in news organizations. This represented 15% of the students in the department, not including those who had declined internships in previous days. This pointed to the disparity in rewards against the job workload, lower social esteem, family reservations about journalistic work, or unhealthy environment of the industry as reason for declining the offer.

Ms Chu believes that the quality of journalism students is high and in line with the higher enrolment requirements. Students take up journalism because of its lively nature and because they are interested in journalistic work. However, when it came to choosing a career, they had to face pressures from family and have to think about the future of the job, she explained.

The Journalist could not get any response from media organizations which had scrapped allowances for interns. As a member of the industry, The Journalist knows very well the survival difficulties faced by individual news outlets. However, merely cutting costs without expanding revenue sources creates a vicious circle in which quality of news eventually suffers.

As pointed out by Professor Ying Chan, Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the Hong Kong University, while freshman should work hard, the lower allowances for internship may weaken the chances of the industry recruiting more capable talent. This is a question for the whole industry. She could not say for sure if the news quality would suffer. What would be certain was an accelerated dropout rate and the impossibility of cultivating good quality journalists as those in the 1990's.

Can news quality by unaffected by less good journalists? I doubt it.