Mainstream media + j-school = BFF?

The New York Times announced recently that it plans to team up with The City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and use the students to cover areas of Brooklyn. Similar partnerships have sprung up at Berkeley, Annenberg, Missouri and, in Canada, UBC. These could, undoubtedly, be great opportunities for students, but at what point does the learning stop and the exploitation begin?

It’s a slippery slope. In a recent Students’ Lounge blog post, I wrote about UBC’s recent partnership with DocumentCloud, a nonprofit investigative reporting project. This pairing seems fairly innocuous: DocumentCloud is independent, foundation funded and, presumably, not raking in the kinds of profits that say, The New York Times might (if it’s making money at all). It’s also valuable work that a student journalist is unlikely to experience in the classroom.

On the other hand, The New York Times deal seems a bit more like cheap (or free—it’s unclear) general assignment reporting labour. Aside from exposure in a larger market and some useful contacts (both extremely valuable to a young journalist, but neither will pay the bills), what is the student really getting out of the deal?

Blogger Mark S. Luckie at 10,000 Words posted recently about the this, writing:

“The trend raises the question: are media organizations using college journalism students to fill the gap of traditional reporting and better serve local communities or are students being used as cheap labor? It is worth noting that college journalism students are often bright and talented young journalists looking to hone their skills…But are news organizations avoiding paying full or part-time reporters in favor of tapping the skills of students who only require academic credit rather than financial compensation?”

Worst still, than the Times plan, is a recent announcement that The Huffington Post plans to launch a college news section next month, which will essentially be an aggregate of college and university newspaper content from across the world. HuffPo will stream the content and, in return, the newspapers will post a HuffPo widget on their websites. At least with The New York Times, the possibility exists, however remote, for the student to get a paying job after he’s done school; no such opportunity exists with The Huffington Post, a news site whose business plan does not include paying for content.

I am torn on how I feel about this. Journalism students and recent graduates always need a foot in the door, but increasingly it’s becoming standard that that step be free labour. I can count on two hands the number of magazine internships that offer a paycheque (newspapers tend to pay their interns well), but I wonder how much this is devaluing the young journalists’ product, and how many great writers move out of the industry because they can’t afford to take an unpaid internship?

What do you think?