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Jan. 31, 2020, 2:04 p.m.

An attempt to increase class diversity in U.K. journalism hits a PR bump as it expands and professionalizes

PressPad has offered a few dozen media interns a free place to stay while they work in London. It’s now getting bigger — but also charging some of those interns £150 a week to help it become sustainable.

Some of the most popular stories on Nieman Lab are the ones that highlight a seemingly uncomplicated, inarguable good thing. We published one of those in the summer of 2018 telling the story of PressPad:

Addressing journalism’s class diversity problem is tricky. Applicants of lower socioeconomic status have resumes that are usually less clean than those of wealthier peers coming out of j-school; maybe instead of an internship in a faraway city, they chose to work at a local dive for the summer and freelance on the side. Many colleges have realized the need to provide more support for first-generation students, but there’s no Poor and Working Class Journalists Association to provide structured support. And with the media industry increasingly concentrated in just a few coastal cities, kickstarting your career often means navigating unpaid internships in expensive places…

In the U.K., the problem is made worse by the fact internships are typically short — four weeks — and almost always unpaid. And the vast majority of them are in London.

Enter PressPad. Got a journalism internship in London? PressPad connects you with an industry mentor/host who agree to put you up — on a couch, in a spare bedroom — for the duration of your stay.

“People bend over backward to try to make something work, in order that they can be here, and of course that adds all kinds of extra stress,” said PressPad founder Olivia Crellin. PressPad aims to replace some of that stress with stability.

Media people helping media people, all in an effort to bring people with fewer resources and less-than-elite backgrounds into journalism. How great is that? In its first two years of operation, PressPad provided accommodations for 47 interns — all but two of their internships unpaid — for a total of 109 weeks in London. And a crowdfunding campaign raised more than £35,000.

Well, eventually the Milkshake Duck comes for us all. Some confused messaging by the PressPad team this week led to a lot of blowback from journalists — most of it undeserved, in this reporter’s opinion, but you can judge for yourself.

As Freddy Mayhew reports at the Press Gazette:

A scheme partnering unpaid media interns with hosts who can provide them with accommodation and mentoring has come under fire for its decision to charge up to £600 a month for its services…

The scheme has been free since it launched in 2018, but will move to a new funding model in April when its pilot phase ends. Those who sign up thereafter face a bill of up to £150 [about $200 U.S.] a week, of which half goes to hosts.

The costs, revealed on PressPad’s new online platform on Tuesday, have surprised some of the scheme’s early supporters, with one journalist claiming it amounted to “paying for access”.

Here’s what seems to have happened. On Tuesday night, PressPad held a launch party where it announced its new approach — “Think Airbnb for interns.”

Organizers noted that their previous no-money-changes-hands model was changing. One of the changes mentioned was charging interns £150 a week for their accommodations — which is a number substantially higher than the previous £0-per-week rate. That led to criticism on Twitter from other U.K. journalists, a number of whom had donated money to PressPad’s crowdfunder.

Many tweets were exchanged; many unclear communications were regretted. PressPad’s organizers were getting a lot of blowback.

But it turned out that “£150 a week” wasn’t the whole story. PressPad will indeed begin to charge some interns in some circumstances. But there are a number of safeguards in place to try to ensure that what’s asked of interns isn’t too great. (There are still elements open to legitimate criticism, but c’mon — this isn’t some get-rich-quick-on-the-backs-of-unpaid-interns scheme.)

You can read PressPad organizers’ extended response to the criticism in this Twitter thread or this blog post. (“We are a very small team of either freelancers or volunteers working on this as our passion project on top of our day jobs.”) The highlights:

  • Intern accommodations will continue to be free for the first two weeks of a stay. If your short-term placement in London is only two weeks, no money changes hands.
  • The £150-a-week rate only kicks in at Week 3. Half of that money goes to the host — thus incentivizing more of them to join the system — half to PressPad.
  • If £150 a week is too much, there’s a financial-aid fund that you can apply for. It’ll be means-tested, though details TBD.
  • The media companies taking in the interns can subsidize their stay by funding PressPad.

Or if I may reframe this all in more direct terms: PressPad 1.0 was a great thing resourced almost entirely through volunteer labor. That generosity is wonderful, but it’s also not endless, and if it wants to serve more interns in more places for more stays, it needs to grow beyond its quasi-utopian roots. They’re fueling that growth in a number of ways: crowdsourced donations, grants from media companies and other institutions, and yes, some cash from the interns who use their accommodations for more than two weeks and have the comparative means to contribute.

That strikes me as a fine set of compromises — one that got confused by some un-updated website copy and less-than-stellar description of a complicated arrangement.

Our hope is that those who can pay into the system do, either because they’re being paid or because they have the means, and that allows us to help more people who cannot afford it by covering our overheads and contributing to our bursary fund.

Our intention has never been to price anybody out, quite the opposite. We will always commit to matching those most in need first — that means those on bursaries or discount credit will get priority over those paying the unsubsidised cost of hosting. This is a non-negotiable part of our model. We will also keep applying for grants for our bursary and all money donated specifically to the bursary fund will not be used to run the platform.

Photo: Members of the Bullingdon Club, a private all-male dining club for Oxford University students, in 1987. Among them: future prime minister David Cameron (standing, second from left), future prime minister and Spectator editor Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (seated, right), and Financial Times city editor Jonathan Ford (seated, center).

POSTED     Jan. 31, 2020, 2:04 p.m.
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