Critical Thinking: Are Non-Paid Interns Being Exploited?
Posted: 2/19/2014  |  By: Nu Yang
Recently, several interns filed lawsuits against media companies citing insufficient pay while working long hours. Even though most newsrooms do not pay for internships, should the experience be enough compensation or are interns being exploited?

Lanie Lee Cook, 25, University of Louisiana at Lafayette
 
Cook earned her bachelor’s degree in print journalism in December 2013, where she served as social media editor for its student-run newspaper, The Vermilion. She’s currently reporting on government meetings and education for NewsTalk 96.5 KPEL in Lafayette.  

When Condé Nast announced the termination of its unpaid internship program after two former interns sued, other Condé Nast interns came forward as disappointed with both corporation and plaintiff.

But could this significant move by a major player lead to good news for future journalism graduates? Could an elimination of unpaid internship work lead to organizational restructuring and open more paid slots in entry-level positions?

Without much protest, students accept unpaid internships as unavoidable. They invest money to earn degree credit through these opportunities, and in return, they gain knowledge and connections valuable to their future careers.

Yet this unpaid sector of the U.S. workforce raises social and economic concerns. All this free work seems not only to skew the value of paid employees—especially at the entry level—but it also puts lower-income students at a competitive disadvantage. Should students have to choose between unpaid professional development and the job that keeps them afloat? Sometimes they have no choice but to keep the lights on.

Some students even spend money to relocate for internships, considering more desirable positions are generally stationed in the most expensive cities in the world. But such unrestricted apprenticeship isn’t afforded to those without third-party support, whether it’s through inherited affluence or student loans.

If students aren’t privileged enough for the former, should it be necessary for them to incur debt and face a daunting financial future? Or should they carry full-time jobs simultaneously, thus forsaking health, money, time and personal livelihood?

To pay interns would improve quality-of-life expectations for both students and graduates while opening the pool to all hard-working candidates nationwide, regardless of their economic status.

Let’s hope—with great optimism—that Condé Nast’s decision is a step toward eliminating unpaid positions. The industry and economy will benefit.  

Michael Hengel, 59, editor, Las Vegas Review-Journal
Hengel has edited the Las Vegas Review-Journal since 2010. Before that, he edited papers in California and Arkansas and served as publisher of dailies in Arkansas, Michigan and Oklahoma. A native of St. Louis, Hengel has been a working journalist since graduating from of the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1976.  

At the Review-Journal, we use quite a few interns throughout the year, as many as eight to 10, usually in 10-week stints. They tell us the experience is worth a lot to them. It must be, as we receive offers from some to work for free. We pay them, however, because it makes sense. They are always scrappy and generally very capable. We look at them as beginning reporters who have bills and student loans to repay and who need to start somewhere—just like the rest of us once did. Why wouldn’t we pay a staffer who brings value to the organization?      

I suppose if interns came to us with no skills or training, if the burden of teaching them the basics fell completely on us, we might have to consider “free” internships at least until they could handle a basic story. We have not found that to be the case, however.

We’re lucky enough to be near several universities that have excellent journalism programs. Their professors work very hard to produce well-trained beginning reporters who are capable of asking the right questions and writing basic stories. Some have far more ability than others. By teaming them up with experienced reporters and editors, who coach them very quickly, both sides benefit.

A number of R-J’s very best journalists themselves once worked as R-J interns. It’s possible in the future we may have interns from time to time who are not paid because they are receiving college credit for an educational experience and they impose a burden on the newsroom to teach them basic skills. 

Nearly all interns bring with them the expertise and vigor to use new storytelling tools now essential for all journalists (Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram, video, mobile). Not surprisingly, some of our veterans are lacking in those areas and have learned a few things from the interns. We’re grateful for that.