By: Ed Zintel
I had just turned on my computer and was getting settled in at my desk one recent morning when I came across this headline: “Northwestern’s Journalism Program Offers Students Internships with Prestige, But No Paycheck.”
I almost spit out my coffee.
Here it was, 2014, and I was reading that the world-renowned Medill School of Journalism offered a great education for about $15,000 in quarterly tuition, along with unpaid internships.
What, in the name of Sander Vanocur, was going on over at that place? I wondered.
Apparently, during their mandatory quarter in Journalism Residency, as it is known, Northwestern journalism students would work full time at standout media organizations such as CNN and Conde Nast. That is, at least until the good folks at Conde Nast dropped their internship program last year, presumably because they were tired of being questioned why they wouldn’t pay their interns.
The way it’s worked with the Journalism Residency program, employers pay Medill $1,250 for every intern placed, but don’t pay the student. The intern does receive academic credit and a small stipend from Northwestern for relocation expenses that range from $600 to $1,200, if necessary. But that hardly makes it easy for a college student to decide whether or not to take an internship, and risk going broke (broker?) in the process. Most internships are acquired during a student’s junior or senior years, just when the student loans and other bills are really starting to stack up.
To me, this almost smacks of slave labor. While an internship at a place like CNN or Conde Nast is unquestionably valuable for the student, how can news organizations expect to attract the top talent if they aren’t willing to pay at least a minimum wage, and so that at least a student can afford to take the 3-4 months off to work and live in another city?
The answer: they can’t. And, as a result, some organizations—News Corp., NBC Universal, Inc., Conde Nast and Gawker Media, to name a few—have faced lawsuits from nonpaid interns who argue they should have been paid at least something.
Look, I was once an intern myself. I recall working in the news bureau of a school district and, in addition to receiving a full three units of course credit, I received a minimum wage salary (well, it was $1.65 at the time, but still). Plus, I was given a nominal stipend for “gas and mileage”.
Heck, I remember receiving about $300 a month for serving as executive editor of my campus newspaper one semester. And this was in 1974!
For its part, Medill has asked companies to consider paying at least minimum wage to all its future interns.
But, how many organizations will instead decide to drop their internship programs rather than foot the bill in these tough economic times?
Of course, many companies do pay interns, even if it’s just minimum salary. Still, as much as news organizations complain about the inability to find good talent these days, you would think they would be willing to invest a little, just a little, to keep alive the opportunity to attract quality talent.
This whole (bad) business of unpaid internships needs to end.
If nothing else, there’s another good reason to end unpaid internships: legal protection in the workplace. Last year, a New York federal judge threw out an intern’s lawsuit charging a media firm with sexual harassment because only paid employees are covered by the city’s human rights law. The U.S. Civil Rights Act dictates only paid workers are considered employees, with the right to sue their employers.
A truly educational experience is well worth the difference between being unpaid and getting minimum wage. If you can pay $15,000 a year to go to Northwestern, it would be foolish to skip an opportunity to get top-notch experience for what amounts to $3,000 over the summer. I’d put that over a year at J-school any day. There’s not enough information in this article to determine whether these internships are that educational. But it’s important to note that if the internship is not educational — if interns are fetching coffee and/or doing lame work assignments without the staff spending as much time educating them as they’re getting back in labor — it will get the whole company in trouble with the Department of Labor. Big companies’ HR departments know this. Anyone who has tried to find a job straight out of J school with no internship experience these days knows the job experience is not just valuable but necessary and that companies pulling unpaid internship programs because they’re getting too much flak from other media hurts the students. More internship availability is better, period. Then the most promising students can choose the best internships (and presumably paid ones) while the others at least have options.
Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater
I went to the same college as Ed. One student at the time deemed it exploitation if news organizations used paid interns instead of hiring staff. I fully agreed.