By Erasmo Matinez
A rare thing happened in June. Eight journalism students started an internship that required a significant amount of writing – but they were not expected to work for free. Instead, they had a chance to earn wages and bargain for their pay with an employer. In just three hours on a late spring evening, they hammered out a deal that covered working conditions, attendance requirements, and most importantly, how much they would be paid for producing articles and photos.
The employer was the Pacific Media Workers Guild, the program was the union’s fourth annual Bay News Rising internship, and the students were veterans of the journalism programs at City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State University.
Why bargain collectively? “The idea is that this is valuable work and they should be compensated somehow,” said Carl Hall, the project advisor and executive officer of the guild. “It’s important to us that we reach out to students,” he said of the union’s role for students. “It’s good for unions and working people. This is one of the only programs of its kind.”
The program focused on issues facing the labor movement and the working people of the Bay Area. “We’re bringing back labor journalism,” said Hall.
Each student received an initial stipend that included membership in Guild Freelancers. They worked closely with other union members to run a website featuring labor and social justice issues.
By the end of the 10-week program, the students had covered issues ranging from organizing workers in the “gig economy,” to homophobic attacks on murals in the Mission. They wrote about the culture of graffiti artists, how small farmers are coping with the drought, profit-sharing in small businesses, and the gentrification of the Bay View. And when postal workers protested an outsourcing program that is threatening their jobs, a Bay News Rising intern was there to cover it.
The program stands out as a unique hybrid of guest speakers, writing workshops and union organizing.
Journalists from different news outlets spoke during Tuesday and Thursday night sessions. They lectured about covering beats, provided advice on story ideas, and writing as a contemporary journalist.
“I was so amazed that I was even getting to hear directly from these people,” said intern Michaela Payne from City College.
Tim Redmond, a Bay Area journalist and editor of 48Hills.org, left an impression on Payne. His passion for reporting captivated her as he explained his strategies for investigative stories.
Another favorite of hers was immigration reporter and photographer David Bacon. He shared stories about photographing immigrants and documenting various labor movements.
There was a strong emphasis on improving each intern’s writing skills. Class exercises created an open dialogue about writing methods. And students had time to improve their resumes and learn how to write a strong cover letter.
“One thing I struggle with is not having written much,” Payne said. “It’s good to have practice. It was good not only to have new editors but editors who really engaged in dialogue.”
Bill Snyder, the chair of Guild Freelancers and a long-time business and technology journalist, started his first year as one of the program’s instructors. He acted as editor with freelancer and past guild president Rebecca Rosen Lum.
“The program is a place where we can just experiment in a non-judgmental environment,” said Rosen Lum. “You can get in and get your hands dirty.”
She and Snyder think the program is important to helping elevate more in-depth reporting.
“So much journalism happens on the web and there is enormous pressure to post many things as quickly as possible,” said Snyder. “Writing a more complex story requires a different level of skill and organization, a topic that Chronicle writer Heather Knight spoke about one evening.”
Interns pitched labor stories and worked on a larger project for the program’s website.
Patrick Cochran tackled the travails of workers commuting long hours from across the Bay Area. Ekevara “Ekey” Kitpowsong created a photo essay about people working multiple jobs just to survive in the Bay Area.
Elisabetta Silvestro wrote a “deep dive” project on how the California drought is affecting farmers. The opportunity to work on a longer story, collaborating with peers and getting paid left a lasting effect on her, she said.
Silvestro finished her studies at City College and writes for EMS1.com. A freelance job in San Francisco was satisfying, but they did not pay her. The next work she applies for will have to be paid for it to be worth her time.
“After all these months, I want to get paid,” she said. She plans on continuing her membership in the union.
Snyder said teaching the values of unionizing is important in keeping the union strong and helping young journalists. “We wanted them to learn a lot about our values as a labor union,” he said.
Layoffs and newspaper closures continue to change the journalism workplace, but sharing union values can help the industry and its workers.
“The local is facing significant financial challenges as more and more of our members lose their jobs,” said Snyder, noting that the program is funded by dues paid by members of the local. “That money is a real proof of their commitment to the future of journalism and the union movement.”
Erasmo Martinez is a graduate of Bay News Rising and a journalism student at San Francisco State University.