Stony Brook J-School Dean: Unpaid Internships Are Unfair, Discriminatory

Throughout almost 20 years of recruiting, I was glad I worked at a newspaper where interns were paid, thanks to decent management and a union contract that required it. But I talked to plenty of interns who had to work for free elsewhere.

Paid journalism internships at television stations were rare, and they could be tough to find at magazines, too. Newspapers seemed to lead the way in paying, but as the economy sank, some started telling candidates they could still have internships — as long as they brought their own money. The budget gave them grave alternatives: have unpaid interns or none at all.

The New York Times’ Steven Greenhouse raised the issue of whether it is legal to have unpaid interns and noted crackdowns in several states and by the U.S. Department of Labor.

On Wednesday, DailyFinance media columnist Jeff Bercovici reported that the folks at Atlantic Media read the Times story and decided to start paying its current interns — and last summer’s as well. Mediabistro published a piece by one of those interns, who explained what being paid retroactively meant to her.

Let’s hope other media open their wallets as well. It is the right thing to do.

“At what point are we just feeding this beast that continues to use these students as surrogates?”Howard Schneider, founding dean of the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University, said that he and his colleagues at other J-schools have talked informally about whether they should even let newsrooms recruit their students to work for free.

“At what point are these internships turning from advantages for these students to exploitation by these news companies, and what should the J-schools do about this?” he asked in a phone interview with me.

Schneider spent 35 years at Newsday, which uses unpaid interns, and became its editor. As a dean, he’s talked about a price of admission for newsrooms that want to use college talent. He said the students deserve a robust and genuine educational experience, that the interns should have some opportunities at the end of the internship, and that the newsrooms should put some money on the table for pay, scholarships or expenses.

Some newsrooms, Schneider said, have created revolving door internships in which one unpaid intern after another goes through but no one gets a real job. “I think we have to call a timeout and ask if we are really serving our students. At what point are we just feeding this beast that continues to use these students as surrogates? At what point do we wind up helping these news organizations defer ever deciding to hire anybody?”

Given the economy, students are encouraged to work at any cost, and J-schools compete with each other to have their students in good internships. But working for free just isn’t possible for everyone.

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“Unpaid internships are discriminatory,” Schneider said. “You are basically eliminating students who can’t afford to do these.” Many students simply have to make money to help out their families or to support themselves. Financial pressures on students have grown right along with the pressures on newsrooms.

Schneider wondered how J-schools could preserve opportunities while barring newsrooms from hiring their students for unpaid labor. “I think we might have more leverage than we think if we work together,” he said.

In the Times article, Trudy Steinfeld, director of New York University’s Office of Career Services, said that some banks called her, eager to recruit free labor. She said she told them, “No way. You will not list on this campus.”

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