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Washington Post Now Hiring: Unpaid ‘Non-Employees’ To Produce Content

by on Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 3:56 pm EDT in Politics, Writing

In April of this year, the New York Times reported a new rising trend where for-profit companies have been taking advantage of the downtrodden labor market by using unpaid internships as a source of free labor.  The paper reported that it had both federal and state regulators worried that labor laws were being violated:

The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

The Times found, for example, that “employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.”  This led the U.S. Department of Labor to create a new set of six guidelines for companies to use in “determining whether interns must be paid the minimum wage with overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the services that they provide to ‘for-profit’ private sector employers.”  They include:

1.  The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2.  The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3.  The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4.  The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5.  The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6.  The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Which brings me to the Washington Post, and their new “Fan Blog” program.  Here is a new opportunity they are offering for Washington, DC sports fans to apply for writer positions to cover each of the Washington, DC teams:  Two writers for The Wizards, two for the Redskins, two for the Capitals, two for the Nationals, two for the United, and two for the Terps.  Only, they have no intentions of paying them even a minimum wage for their work.

On the Post’s “Fan Blog” FAQ page, they announce their guidelines for these writer positions they are trying to fill.  Here were two which happened to catch my eye:

2. Some commenters have asked if the new fan blog will replace content on our current staff-written blogs, or other Post-produced content. The answer is an unqualified “no.” We are doing this to supplement our current coverage, because it’s obvious that we have a lot of smart fans who use the web site and might like a bigger platform than the current format allows.

3. Other commenters have asked if we will pay fan bloggers. Sadly, the answer is no. We hope that for some people, the large audience a site like could provide is enough motivation to post here, but we understand that may not work for everyone.

Now I know some out there are going to protest my concerns and state that newspapers today are losing money — that they are barely scraping by and need to do whatever they can to provide content in a way that reduces their costs.  Well, on the contrary, the Washington Post Co. recently announced their second quarter earnings have gone gangbusters:

Second-quarter earnings at The Washington Post Co. rose nearly eightfold, compared with the same period of 2009, as profits soared at the company’s education division and advertising rebounded at The Post Co.’s six television stations.

The company earned $91.9 million ($10 a share) on $1.2 billion in second-quarter revenue this year, compared with $12.2 million ($1.30) in profit on $1.1 billion in revenue in the second quarter of 2009. […]

The company reported that “although print ad revenue at The Post was down 6 percent, online newspaper ad revenue was up 14 percent.”  This led to a total 2% increase in revenues for the Newspaper division for this second quarter.

As a Washington Wizards fan who checks in daily at the Post for team news, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest gripes from some of the regulars who flood the comment section is that the paper never delivers enough Wizards content, and doesn’t ever seem to ‘break news’ on the team.  They’re always late, and seemingly out of touch with team insiders.  Other Wizards-devoted blogs such as BulletsForever seem to do a far better job at reporting on the team, and keeping fans abreast of things like player injury status, player progression, etc. than the Washington Post does.

I’ll go as far as to say that I learn more about the happenings within the Wizards organization from the Washington Post comment section — there are some exceptionally well-informed commenters there — than from the Post’s Michael Lee, who actually covers the Wizards for the paper.  So what better way for the editorial staff to address those Wizards’ fans concerns than to expand the paper’s coverage by hiring some of these well-informed, seemingly well-connected commenters to expand the Post’s Wizards coverage — without pay!

Well, consider this, the US Department of Labor, in addition to providing the list of six guidelines outlined above, goes even further into detail to clarify when someone qualifies as a paid employee:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek. If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA.

And once again, looking back at the Washington Post’s description for these ‘positions for hire’ they state: “We are doing this to supplement our current coverage”.  And the formal definition of “supplement”:

sup·ple·ment (spl-mnt):  Something added to complete a thing, make up for a deficiency, or extend or strengthen the whole.

Clearly the Washington Post is augmenting its existing workforce with free labor to produce content on pages to sell advertising — did I mention their online advertising revenues were up 14% this quarter?

The USDL further states:

Under these circumstances the intern does not perform the routine work of the business on a regular and recurring basis, and the business is not dependent upon the work of the intern. On the other hand, if the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.

And yet, Jon Denunzio, Sports Editor for the Washington Post, in answering one of the commenters questions (in the comment section) on that same “Fan Blog” FAQ page stated  (Posted by: Jon DeNunzio | August 22, 2010 11:02 AM):

Q: “Is this going to be individual fanblogs for the major sports teams, or a ‘mash-up’ of all sports into a single fanblog?” (from BinM)

A: The latter. Because we plan some moderation of the posts (not too heavy-handed, we promise), we had to limit the scope of this blog. We’ll try to make it easy for you to find all the posts about a single team by categorizing each post, and we’re discussing having some set scheduling (a Caps post every Tuesday afternoon, etc). And as we said in a previous post, nothing is set in stone — we’ll see how it goes.

Did you get that?  The Post’s Sports Editor states they are discussing scheduling writing assignments from these hired ‘non-employees’ — which would clearly be in violation of US Labor Laws.  And seriously, just because they have strategically given this unpaid position the name “fan blogger” it in no way deflects from what the position actually is — an unpaid employee, whom they hope to generate revenue from.

To see a huge, corporate behemoth like the Washington Post Co. — just after announcing huge profits — actually trying to circumvent the labor laws by hiring ‘non-employees’ to create their content, upon which they will sell advertising, is simply disgraceful!

If this kind of practice — ‘for-profit’ private companies hiring ‘non employee writers’ — were to catch on amongst other media giants, well … there’s going to be even less opportunities for aspiring writers out there who are struggling to make a living.