A Limited Expansion on “A limited defence of the unpaid internship”

My Carleton colleague Brian Platt has posted “A limited defence of the unpaid internship” on his blog. This post is meant to be part concurrence, and part rebuttal, and part expansion upon some of the critical issues that go unexplored.

This is, as is pointed out, a critical debate in journalism because of how important unpaid internships are to career development — I would be genuinely surprised if anyone working as a reporter has gone without an unpaid internship, unless they started in the business several decades ago. However, this proliferation means two things are needed: understanding of the relationship between intern and employer and an honest assessment of whether or not they are beneficial.

Brian writes:

Young journalists easily fall into a trap of

  • You can’t get a good job because you have no experience
  • You can’t get experience because nobody hires you for a job because you don’t have any experience

Internships offer a way out of this nasty little feedback loop.

I think this is only partially true.

Given the state of journalism, it’s entirely possible that you could get stuck in this feedback loop indefinitely. Maybe you’d have the good fortune to land a couple paid internships, but it isn’t difficult to work the major internships in the country, then be stuck hopping from short contract to contract, or going back to selling pants at American Eagle. Internships are the best way out of the feedback loop, but we need to be realistic about the chances of success, and success should be defined as an actual job.

It is also possible that your unpaid internship might be an epic disaster, making it a complete waste of time. For example, you might fly across the country to take an unpaid internship at a small community paper, or weekly. There, you might find there are no stories for you, or that you’re only getting to write once a week, or that there aren’t editors to help you, or that your  clippings  are of minimal use. On the other hand, an unpaid internship at a major daily or national newsroom provides real opportunities and clippings.

All unpaid internships are not created equal.

The resources newsrooms devote to unpaid internships also aren’t just financial. You need someone to edit your copy and guide you through the reporting process. At my internship, I found that there was a completely new format of writing that I had to adjust to, and I needed to be coached through that. You also need — depending where you’re at — someone to give you sources, and someone to toss you a story on a slow news day, or if you’re genuinely stuck. Without the people who can take the time in the newsroom, an unpaid internship might not be worth your while.

In short, the value of an unpaid internship comes down to the quality of the newsroom, and how much mentoring you’re going to get.

However, all of these things are really tangential to the real issue with unpaid internships, which is that they restrict the profession of journalism to rich kids.

Brian writes:

As long as these unpaid internships are short, they aren’t exclusive to rich kids. Anyone who’s lived as a student (as practically all young journalists have) will be able to get by on a few weeks with meagre earnings.

This is true. However, for a student that needs to take the summer to work, a few weeks work in a newsroom means you’re not going to get that cushy job cutting grass with the city that starts May 1. It, more than likely, means you’ll have to settle for part-time instead of full-time work or work for a private company; everyone knows government jobs are the cream of the crop for big earning for students in summer, and an internship makes that difficult.

Where I do agree with Brian is that we should get rid of the unpaid internships that go for months. The Walrus, which is probably Canada’s flagship magazine, offers six-month unpaid internships. That’s completely unrealistic. On a similar note, The Nation magazine (which incidentally pays handsomely for freelance work) also wants young journalists to work for free…while living in New York City, and as far as I can tell from their application package, don’t even let interns write.

The problem is that as students we hear that editors want to hire “hungry” young reporters. It would be for the best if we really did get rid of long internships (because those are the ones that do exclude on the basis of class) but so long as people keep pushing for them because they can afford it, market forces are going to keep those around.

While too many arguments that are actually ethical devolve to economics, there is a point in this discussion where the ethics of internships are overwhelmed by economic considerations.

One last thought:

• Does the willingness of young reporters to do unpaid internships contribute to a culture where editors expect people to work for free (perceiving some benefit to reporters) and want freelance work for free? This became crystal clear during the Nate Thayer affair of some months ago, and the dangers of freelancing from war zones in the hope for a paycheque are well known.



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