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Pembroke People: Olivia Crellin, PressPad

Olivia Crellin (2008) was recently awarded the Georgina Henry Prize for her website PressPadUK. PressPad connects young people on unpaid or low-paid journalism internships in London with journalists who can host them for the duration of their internship. Work experience and internships are crucial for many budding journalists, but they're often inaccessible because of the cost of living in London. For Olivia, who found it more affordable to move to Chile than to work unpaid in London for a few weeks, this is a crucial problem. In today's blog she discusses the impetus behind PressPad, the importance of diversity in the newsroom, and her hopes for the future of PressPad.


About Olivia

I’m currently an impact investigative reporter at BBC Cambridge. My staff job is at World Television as Producer and filmmaker and before that I was a Presenter and Producer at World Service Radio. At the moment I’m on a short placement as a reporter. Having made documentaries, having been a video journalist travelling all over the place, I decided I wanted to move more into the reporting.

Where did the idea for PressPad come from?

It was kind of a slow confluence of realisations. When I started out in journalism, I grew up in the Midlands, and to me it was just evident that going down to London to do back-to-back two week informal work experience at various papers was not going to be affordable. So in the end I decided to go to Chile, which sounds a bit weird because how can that be more affordable than a month of unpaid work in London? But the Sutton Trust estimates that it’s around £1,000 to do a month’s worth of unpaid internships in London. So I went to Chile and I just had so many opportunities. So that’s my own personal story of being priced out of those opportunities, even though I come from a comfortably middle-class background. I thought, wow if that was difficult for me this must be so difficult, basically impossible, for a good number of people.

Then working at the BBC I saw a different side of it. I saw the journalists who are now established, who were quite comfortable, many of whom once they were married had two homes, one of which they rented out.  There was a lot of talk about inclusivity and diversity, not just within the BBC but that was what I was able to see at close quarters. There were lots of schemes to help BAME journalists, journalists with disabilities, lots of issues of inequality that you could see. I felt that some of these schemes, while well-meaning, were tick-box exercises, were a bit superficial. I thought if you don’t take into account the geographical differences and the class differences between people who could live in London and people elsewhere in the country, you were only dealing with half of the problem. It’s sort of invisible; people don’t talk about class much.

I realised that there was a very genuine community of journalists that go above and beyond to help one another because they want to change the industry. I thought, can we leverage this in some way? With Airbnb, it’s much more acceptable than it would’ve been ten or even five years ago. It all came together and that was PressPad.

There was an element that I went into journalism, as a lot of people do, to change things. You think journalism is going to be more benign than it is. It’s quite a competitive, ruthless profession in some ways. And for me I wanted to bring some of the humanity of it back. I went to Chile and I sort of fell into journalism. I met a cameraman at a protest, he worked for Reuters and they had a job going. Then I got freelance work largely through knowing other foreign correspondents and them saying, I’m on holiday, will you do a piece and so on. Those journalists, it was a family, a tribe, and I wanted to recreate it because I felt we’d lost that within big companies. It’s very rewarding and keeps me going.

Some people say, okay, but are you not encouraging the practice of unpaid internships? Definitely not. The fact that PressPad even exists or is in demand shows that there is a massive problem and from what I’ve seen in my career that hasn’t changed in the last ten years. Obviously it’s great that there are people out there lobbying MPs and looking for change, but in the meantime there’s PressPad. We want PressPad to exist as long as it’s needed, and if it’s no longer needed, great.

How did it get started?

I launched it basically on my own, created a website, and put a message out on Facebook. I’ve got a large network of colleagues and acquaintances and friends who are journalists. Just as a pilot, I asked would anyone be interested in doing this? I thought we’d get maybe five people and in the end we had twenty hosts. I put a sign up link and within a month we’d had a hundred people signing up to help in some way, not necessarily offering rooms but wanting to help. I thought, wow, I’d just wanted to test the water and see if it was something people would be into.

At about three months in or so I got contacted by a woman called Laura Garcia, who is a Mexican journalist, but who has been studying a PhD and is a lecturer in the University of Kent, and she said she’d had a similar idea to this. I had a lot of people contact me and say ‘this sounds really interesting, can I help’ but I’d never hear back from them. Laura was super on the ball and obviously had been seeing the problem from the prospective of her students. Even though Kent isn’t that far away, they were still being priced out of doing these unpaid or poorly paid internship opportunities. So she had a different angle.

Laura came on board and from there we ran a pilot over the summer and that finished mid-autumn. Then we’ve been regrouping. I feel like an accidental entrepreneur because what we discovered early on is that people are happy to do two week unpaid hosting pilots. But we had some people who had three month long internships which I think are much more productive for people. Two week internships you can’t really get stuck in. The way we got around it for the pilot was by moving interns around every two weeks, which is obviously not ideal. So after the pilot we looked at what we’d learned, we looked at the surveys we’d asked people to fill out. We felt that it had made a difference to them, that they enjoyed it. Basically we learnt a lot about business.

I also realised that while both Laura and myself are incredibly  passionate about the project, I’m first and foremost a journalist and that’s what I want to do, I don’t want to spend all my time doing PressPad but I really believe in it and I think it could go far. So I thought we needed to go less down the route of a membership scheme which is conducted through the goodwill of volunteers, and more towards a social enterprise model where there’s a payment method. So that’s what we’ve been focusing on and we’ve had so much help, great advice from different people. We’re halfway through redesigning the website to become a marketplace website where you can go on and search for somebody according to a profile. We don’t put names or pictures, just details that could help you decide if that person would be a good mentor. The Georgina Henry Prize has been instrumental because the money from them goes directly into building the design we got at a massive discount from a great social good company called Super Being Labs. From there we’ll have another year of experimentation to see whether people pick up on it and how big it grows. It’s all kind of speculative really.

In terms of paying for the accommodation, it’s priced as competitively as possible but also to give an incentive to host in the mid-to-long term. It can be paid by the intern, or we’ll sell credit to media organisations. So say you’re the Financial Times and you’ve got 100 interns coming and you pay them a living wage but that’s not much to find somewhere decent to stay, you can buy PressPad credit which you gift to your interns and they can choose to use that. They get out-of-hours mentoring and they see how a journalist further along in their career lives their life. Or maybe it’s just having someone to talk to when you don’t know the culture of the industry or workplace. You can ask them, someone said this to me at work what do I do, or, my internship is finishing in two days’ time what should I do. Even when you’re an intern and you’re meant to be embedded you can feel like an afterthought. People don’t know what to do with you because they’re busy with their own jobs.

We will also be putting aside 10-15% of our profits into the PressPad bursary scheme. If you can’t afford it yourself you’ll apply through a means tested application and we will pay. So there is no situation where you won’t be able to afford it. But it’s tiered so that those who do have more can just go for it, those who have a media company behind them can get credits.

The idea is to say to media companies that if they want diversity and inclusivity they have to pay for it. It’s trying to change the culture of the workplace. Media companies always say they don’t have enough money, but they do, they’re just choosing to spend it in different ways. What really matters? We’re trying to change cultures really.

What do you see as being the value of diversity in the newsroom?

I realised that in journalism it wasn’t just an issue of being fair in terms of employment rights. The people affect the journalism they do. Although the BBC has great offices all across the UK there’s always a slight disconnect from those in headquarters. I realised most of my colleagues, not all of them, but a lot of people had very similar viewpoints. Even if our backgrounds were different, our skin was different, our gender was different, our life experiences were such that we were all kind of cosmopolitan, liberal, middleclass etc. That did, broadly speaking, have an impact on the reporting because most people had no idea that a lot of people don’t think that way. You’d think that’s 101.

As society becomes more fractured and divided into different identity politics it’s really important to have people reaching across the aisle and meeting people they wouldn’t otherwise do. Some people seek that out in their own lives through travel for example, but within our professions we can get quite narrow minded. We spend most of our time at work so wouldn’t it be great to meet more people that way? We’re just really glad that people are excited and allowing us to see where it goes.

What have your successes been so far?

The successes we’ve had so far really are our interns. We’ve had people get jobs off the back of internships that they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. We haven’t finished going over the data we got from the pilot, but we’re also hoping that those who are hosting are learning something, not just about younger people but people from different parts of the world. You may have gone and reported all round the world but never spent a day in Huddersfield. So getting those people together, that’s what success would be for us but it’s hard to measure that. So we think just the fact that people like the idea, and there’s a lot of goodwill for it. And interest from big companies, for example the Financial Times, the Guardian Foundation, Gal-dem, a new magazine for women of colour which won the Georgina Henry prize last year, and the Mirror. There are quite a few people who’ve got in touch and said they’d like to use PressPad.

So what’s next?

Finding clients, finding interest, getting our interns jobs, making connections. As I said some of these things are hard to measure but we’ll keep going until somebody turns around and says, we categorically don’t want this. We have a lot of belief in it and that it works. In the far future if it were to continue and be successful we’d love to launch other verticals, for law, medicine, and the arts. It’s not just journalism, but that’s the profession I know and I think it has a particular impact on the way society’s reflected to itself and reported.  And it has a huge impact on democracy as we’re seeing at the moment. That’s where we started but we think PressPad could be replicated in other industries. We’ve also had interest from places in Australia who also want PressPad to come to their city. So as soon as we’ve launched in London the idea is to get enough hosts and interest to scale to Manchester and other places.

PressPad in the news

The Guardian Opinion: "Wanted: Newsrooms that truly reflect modern Britain"

BBC The Media Show, starts at 23:20.