Student Work Should be Compensated, Somehow

Q. I’m an adjunct faculty member in the journalism school at Kent State University. I got laid off from my editing job at The Plain Dealer at the end of 2009 and have been teaching for a year. I also have two semi-regular freelance writing gigs, for which I get decent pay.

My students love hearing stories about my freelance writing and would love to make extra money for themselves.

When they shop their work to “real” newspapers, they get published, but they get paid nothing. This practice really bothers me for lots of reasons. I know how important it is for them to get clips for future jobs, and they are getting clips. But the free part makes me kind of sick every time I hear about it.

Got any advice?

Susan Ruiz Patton

A. I have been teaching reporting, writing, magazine writing and some other things at Michigan State University since leaving the Detroit Free Press in 2008. I, too, encourage my students to get published. Frankly, it can be easy and gives them the clips they need to apply for internships and jobs.

In several cases, a little free work has been a necessary stepping stone to something paid. The best case is when the work they are required to do for class can be submitted for clips. I feel good about that, as it’s work they have already done.

I pushed my magazine students to pitch stories for money, and some of them got paid for their class assignments. One developed that into a continuing freelance gig at about $200 a pop.

The fact is, all of us — me, too — do some work for free if it’s fun, we feel it’s important and we can’t get paid for it. But free doesn’t pay the rent. So, I like that you’re upfront with the students about the need to publish AND the need to get paid.

In my experience, when we are dealing with students, we can’t always have both. Some, frankly, are lucky to get published at all. They’re still learning, after all. Unfortunately, few of these publishers offer anything like coaching. They just publish. If you, as the instructor, are already giving the students a grade or extra credit for hustling and getting published, they are not uncompensated.

However, when I get e-mails from Web sites and other places asking me to send them students who will work “for the experience,” I spike the e-mails. Our career services operation does much better than that for the students, and it is inappropriate for me to recommend unknown outlets that don’t pay our students. If I do, I become part of the problem.

An idea I haven’t tried yet: If an editor wants to use your students’ work without pay, arrange a swap so that the editor lets a student shadow or comes into the classroom to talk to the students — for free.

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