Handbook offers guidance on fairness and pay in small newsroom internships


Small newsrooms have a lot to think about when considering internships. Small news staffs are pulled in a multitude of directions day to day. How much can an intern help? How much of a distraction will they be? How could internships help with future hires? 

On top of those questions, there are many more concerning the logistics: How do I recruit interns? Should I pay them? If so, how much?

A new handbook written by Barbara Selvin, an associate professor emerita at the School of Communication and Journalism at Stony Brook University, addresses all of these questions and many more. The handbook is presented by The Daily Catch, a nonprofit news source based in Red Hook, Hudson Valley, New York, with funding support from the D.J. McManus Foundation.

Selvin, who worked as a reporter for 15 years before starting her career as an educator, had plenty of contacts with editors and publishers in small newsrooms. She tapped that network to find the best advice for those who employ college interns.

The result is an easy-to-read, well-designed document titled “Hiring, Training + Working with Interns: a Handbook for Small Newsrooms.”

It’s a 54-page document, starting with a chapter on Internship Basics. The document includes tips on nearly every page to make it easily digestible, with deeper information about each topic.

Selvin said a few critical topics bubbled up when researching.

One topic was the ethics of paying interns. The section on fairness and pay is “actually the section that I’m the most proud of,” Selvin said. “It’s something I feel really strongly about after teaching for 25 years at a public university — and seeing, in some cases, fantastic students who could just not give up a summer to work for free and then pay for credits on top of it. They couldn't because they needed to work and earn money to pay their tuition. Their families couldn’t float them that money. So, I’ve come to believe that unpaid internships are inherently unfair, and it’s just a bad habit that the industry has to abandon.” She said that practice is dwindling but still alive.

Selvin said there are revenue solutions for internships. Foundations and charitable nonprofits are more commonly providing funding for internships. She said she has also seen for-profit organizations donate funds for internships.

Another idea Selvin said she wants newsroom managers to understand is that interns’ talents and abilities vary widely. Don’t expect a cookie-cutter approach to work. On one end of the spectrum, an intern may be highly motivated, well-trained and ready to zoom off to cover a story without much coaching. Others may take much more time and mentoring.

“You do get to possibly have a lifelong influence on a young person, and you can’t put a dollar value on that impact. You’re building your pipeline for either that one person to come back and work for you when they finish school or to send other intern candidates your way. And you’re giving back to the industry by providing this training, which is so important. She said one important tip is to have an intern shadow a reporter to show them what good reporting looks like.”

Selvin said she and most of her contacts agree that hiring interns is worth the effort. And she hopes the handbook helps those who worry about the process.

“I think there’s a lot of good advice about expectations. [You need to manage] your expectations as an editor, and the interns need to be really clear,” Selvin said.

Hiring, Training + Working with Interns is free to download.

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. Bob also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called The Lawless Files.


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