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January 14, 2013updated 16 Jan 2013 4:00pm

Free bloggers – work experience or exploitation?

By Carolina Are

Press Gazette invited journalism student Carolina Are (currently on an unpaid two-week work experience placement) to explore the contentious issue of commercial publishers making use of free bloggers:

New websites, market research and product review websites increasingly feature student and graduate content – for free. But are these platforms the new frontier of work experience or just another form of exploitation?

The Huffington Post UK now claims to have over  5,000 registered bloggers. John Nolan, a Huffington Post spokesman, said: “We’ve always been clear about our hybrid offering – one part journalistic enterprise and one part platform for anyone who wishes to use it. While we allocate substantial resources to maintaining our group blog – on technology, blog editors, comment moderators etc, our bloggers aren’t paid.”

Nolan added they have a team of “in-house” journalists who focus on creating original reports and investigations on the site.

The ‘Blogging Students’ section of guardian.co.uk is a website to and for the student community, on which students from all academic backgrounds can have their say on a wide range of student issues and have their writing exposed to a bigger audience.

According to a Guardian News & Media spokesperson: “The blog is unpaid but several who have written for Blogging Students have gone on to write commissioned articles for which they have been paid."

YouthSight gives space to more than 120,000 panellists amongst university students, applicants and graduates in its OpinionPanel Community. It is an independent research business that represents young people’s views to market researchers, policy makers and recruiters, publishing student and graduate comment on its blog.

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Goji is a technology brand that encourages young people, the so-called Goji Collective, to review its products as well as films, books and music online for free.

Chris Wheal, chair of the National Union of Journalists' Professional Training Committee, thinks students should be paid at least the "living wage" if their work is good enough to publish. He says: “Not paying students for their work is exploitation. These companies pay their staff salaries, their office rent and their webhosting bills. They pay for their telephones and their computers. They should be paying for content too.”

Wheal adds: “Students are misled into thinking having bylines all over the place is a good idea, so they are conned into writing for free. Potential future employers can see the difference between paid-for work and freebie sites and have little time or respect for those who place so little value on their own work that they give it away for free.”

London College of Fashion student Libby Page blogs for the Guardian and the Huffington Post and campaigns for Intern Aware, the UK campaign for fairer internships. Her Guardian post railing against unpaid internship was one of the most read on the paper’s website but, as Axegrinder noted last week, Page did not receive any financial reward for it.

She tells Press Gazette: “In exchange for a couple of hours of writing I get my name out there on a well-read site…I view the Huffpost blog etc. much in the same way that I view my personal blog: I own the copyright of my work and it is my way of building up my portfolio, only in the case of Huffpost etc. I am getting access to a much wider audience.”

Page describes the arrangement as a “mutually beneficial scheme” but adds: “Ideally I would like to receive payment for this – perhaps based on the number of hits the article generates.”

She says: “I think perhaps I will draw the line when I graduate: as a graduate I shouldn't have to give my skills for free. Whilst studying I am still learning and building my portfolio. When I graduate I hope to focus my time and energy on paid writing.”

Journalism and Economics student Maya Adir, 24, says:  “There is an increasing demand for everyone from a juice company to a coffee chain to have social media platforms but they don’t want to spend money on it. The abundance of students willing to do it for free just as a way of getting experience is far too high and they know this puts them in a powerful and cost-cutting position.”

However, journalism student Catalina Albeanu, 20, says: “Platforms like these don't add much to your CV directly, but they do give you a way to build some kind of portfolio when people ask you for writing samples, and they do help with Google search results. OpinionPanel actually chose one of my posts as article of the month and awarded me £50.”

She adds: “I don't think the word ‘exploit’ is a good choice. You can choose to stop when you feel the negatives outweigh the benefits. No one is forcing you to contribute regularly, or at all. If you feel something is off about a certain site you can easily say no.”

However, Chris Wheal warns: “The NUJ would advise students not to write for no pay, except on their own blogs or on media produced as part of their course. Once you start writing for free it becomes ever harder to start getting paid for it. Writing for nothing does not make you a journalist. Getting paid for writing is what makes you a journalist."

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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