Newsroom Interns: Helped, or Hurt By Cuts?

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By: Elaine Williams

The long-suffering job market for journalists isn’t just affecting full-time staffers. Interns, a steady presence in the newsroom, are falling victim to the industry’s financial woes, too. Budget constraints are forcing many papers to reconfigure their internship programs, and in some cases, completely eliminate them.

“It was either staff or interns,” Julie Engebrecht, The Cincinnati Enquirer’s director of news, says of the paper’s decision not to take any on for the past five years. In prior summers, it had hired roughly a dozen paid interns per year. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram also cut its four to five paid intern slots this year, a move that Executive Editor Jim Witt attributes to budget cutbacks.

Linda Waterborg, a senior j-student at the University of Missouri, experienced the cuts firsthand. Waterborg had secured a summer design and copy-editing internship at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but in February she received an e-mail saying that the paper had cut its program and she no longer had a position there. After frantically rearranging her schedule to take classes in the summer and intern in the fall, Waterborg found a design internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Even those newspapers that continue to hire interns have had to scale back either the number of students they take on, or their pay ? and sometimes both. Heather Johanning, director of human resources at the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, said the paper brought on four or five interns for the summer of 2009. The number of interns was equal to previous years, she says, but this was the third summer where the interns have worked for no pay.

The Capital-Journal isn’t alone. Many papers eager to retain their interns have simply switched to an unpaid or for-credit system of compensation for most of their internship slots.

Even papers that can still afford to pay have had to limit the number of interns hired each season. The Post-Dispatch used to employ some eight paid interns per summer, but has now lowered the number to about six. The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., offered two paid internships this summer; the norm used to be three or four.

This shift to for-credit and unpaid internships may lighten the financial burden for the newspapers, but an entire summer without pay makes it difficult for some students to accept such an offer. “If I took an unpaid internship I would have to get a part-time job,” explains University of Missouri senior Roseann Moring, a journalism major who was a paid intern at both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past spring and the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald this summer.

Moring says that even though she managed to secure internships this year, many of her peers weren’t so lucky: “I had some friends who were qualified who didn’t get an internship and probably would have in previous years.”

Some have a more optimistic outlook. “It’s a great time for internships,” says Carl Lewis, a journalism and Southern Studies major at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. The 20-year-old interned at the Telegraph this summer and says, “Everyone is short-staffed, so they’re looking for as many people as they can to work part time, and without benefits.” Papers are turning to interns to pick up some of the slack ? and not just the morning danish.

“While we see some internships disappearing at news-papers, we see others that are growing,” says Ernest Sotomayor, Assistant Dean for Career Services at Columbia University’s journalism school. “There are more types of internships in the past five to 10 years.”

Some newspapers are so eager to retain their interns that they seek outside funding from organizations and universities to pay their students for their work. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, has alliances with Kaiser Media, the Collegiate Network and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

“We always make sure our interns are paid, whether through us or another organization,” says Irvin Harrell, the paper’s director of community outreach and newsroom recruitment. Paid internships, he notes, are a policy of parent company Lee Enterprises.

Most editors don’t see the trend toward fewer internship opportunities changing anytime soon, but many newspapers are willing to take students on board ? without pay ? to learn the ropes. Papers such as The Cincinnati Enquirer and the Telegraph work with local colleges to recruit students for either unpaid internships or part-time employment.

Plus, with fewer full-time staffers, “If an intern is in the design department, they’re designing,” said Harrell. “If they’re in the Metro or Business department, they’ll write metro and business stories.”

Josh Grossberg, assistant to the editor at The Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., agrees that modern interns are getting the benefit of real hands-on experience. “They don’t come and make us coffee,” he says. The Daily Breeze has stuck to its policy of hiring two paid interns each summer, adhering to what he calls the paper’s “giving-back philosophy.”

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