News Organizations Should Rethink Unpaid Internships

The issue of unpaid internships just won’t go away. Monday brought news that The Huffington Post had auctioned an internship — unpaid — for just $9,000 this year. Last year’s went for $13,000.

For years we have swept the issue of unpaid journalism internships under the rug or looked the other way. This year, it may not go away so easily. In April, after The New York Times wrote about the rising number of unpaid internships, Atlantic Media responded by saying it would pay its current interns and last summer’s, retroactively.

In April, the Department of Labor issued Fact Sheet #71, which outline the rules. Mediabistro followed up with a piece that commented on the fact sheet, tongue in cheek and point by point.

Sweeping through job postings over the weekend, I saw several media companies that said they had unpaid internships “available for credit.” This is disingenuous. The companies do not make the credits available, of course. Colleges and universities do that. The companies are hoping to use the for-credit rule to get around federal law and have people work for free. But having someone earn credits — for which they pay college tuition rates — is not enough by itself to satisfy the law.

There is significant and legitimate concern that if we eliminate free internships, we will be cutting out opportunities for college students. But, in actuality, we would be eliminating those opportunities only for the students who can afford to work for nothing. Students who have to earn money to go to school were eliminated a long time ago and, as Stony Brook University’s journalism dean Howard Schneider said in this space a few weeks ago, that is discriminatory.

The $9,000 Huffington Post internship benefits the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. It is unfortunate that a well-intentioned effort unjustly excludes all but the wealthy.

But the category of people who might be too broke to afford an internship is broader than you might think. One of my students landed a prestigious internship in Washington, D.C., — she is clearly well-qualified — but had to turn it down even though it pays because it basically pays just enough for the rent. To have that experience, she would pile more debt onto $20,000 in student loans, perhaps needing to move back home with mom and dad and delaying her plans for marrying when she is debt-free. And this was a paid internship.

A remaining objection, then, will come from my colleagues in the newsroom who say that times are tough, budgets have been eviscerated and people who will work for free are lining up three deep on the sidewalk, so why not let them? Their help is essential when we are watching every penny, I have been told.

But it is not right to run a for-profit enterprise with people who you do not pay.

Either we have some multimillion-dollar media companies that will fail without free college help or someone is not being totally honest about all this. A charity auction internship like the one at The Huffington Post is a different thing, of course.

For next year’s RFK auction, in the spirit of justice and human rights, I suggest that The Huffington Post simply send $10,000 of its own money to the center and then put a deserving college student on the payroll. This year’s auction item was valued at $15,000, so I assume that would be a fair rate.

Let’s just pay these interns.

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Ultimately, the media companies are the big losers as they lose their lifeblood — talented people with so much heart and passion they would even work for nothing.

On Wednesday, my Poynter colleague Colleen Eddy and I will have a fee live chat at 1 p.m. ET on what you can do to have more confidence in job interviews.

On Thursday, I’ll write about the role colleges and universities should take when they line their students up with unpaid internships after charging them tuition for the privilege.

E-mail your questions on internships and careers Joe for an answer.

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