Journalism internships can be a ‘financial strain’

ProPublica’s report on the Medill Journalism Residency, or “JR” program, raises valid ethical and financial concerns about unpaid academic internships. Medill recently asked news organizations that host its students for the mandatory internships to consider paying them. That’s a good step: The program can put a financial strain on Medill undergrads.

My time at Poynter as the Institute’s first JR student was transformative. Working with Mallary Tenore and Andrew Beaujon at Poynter Online improved my technical skills as a reporter and writer and was invaluable in my ethical and emotional development as a journalist. I also gained newsroom and social media experience that was distinct from on-campus, classroom-based learning.

(Poynter decided it would start paying its JR students after receiving the request from Medill: “We thought it was important to do so, given the work we are asking of the students,” Tenore told me in an email.)

For students, the costs of JR can be high. I applied for internships in five cities, and after I found out I’d drawn Poynter, I had a little more than a month to find a sublet in St. Petersburg, Fla., where Poynter is based, and I also had to find someone to sublet my apartment in Evanston, Ill.

Medill awards a stipend to students on JR, which ranges from $600 to $1,200. However, since students are charged tuition, the stipend essentially functions as a rebate on tuition. I received $900, which covered about one month’s rent. St. Petersburg taxed me $200 per month on top of rent because my stay was less than six months, and my subletter in Evanston backed out mid-term, which meant I had to pay two rents. When this occurred, I applied for and received a grant from Medill’s Ben Baldwin Scholarship Fund, which helps students who have financial trouble during JR.

Victoria Hilbert came to Medill because of the residency program, but her choice of JR location was limited by finances.

“I was very fortunate because my brother lives in Dallas and there was a site, my year, in Dallas,” Hilbert said. While the site in Dallas was her first choice, she would have otherwise completed her JR in Chicago due to money issues.

She also took issue with the fact that students, until this year, weren’t permitted to work at another job while on JR. “I know so many students who get by with work study (or) jobs in Evanston,” she said. “That was my main concern with the program.”

“It does make sense to have an internship as part of getting a degree in journalism,” said Fenit Nirappil, a 2012 graduate who completed his residency in South Africa in spring 2011. But “why does it need to be a requirement that you pay tuition? All across the country, people are able to get internships by themselves.”

Nirappil suggested that ideally, newsrooms pay their interns, “or Medill wouldn’t make it a requirement to pay tuition.”

Medill declined to comment.

The residency program’s unique benefits arise from connections Medill has to news organizations, as well as its requirements regarding mentorship and the work JR students can be assigned. I do hope that the things that make JR great — like mentors and the opportunity to do meaningful reporting and not only grunt work — become characteristic of journalism internships in general.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m ungrateful to my school for the opportunities I’ve had during my Northwestern career, because I know my education here has been invaluable. At the same time neither the stipends nor scholarship funds Medill offers do much to make the program easier for students who aren’t upper middle class.

But I don’t think Medill should foot the bill for students on JR. Part of the residency program is learning how to work and live as a reporter, and that includes remembering to mail a rent check every month. What’s more, not every student on JR has to go to New York or another city with a high cost of living. But there needs to be a better balance between students’ costs and their obligations to the university, and the university’s expectations of what students can afford.

Related: How to tell when unpaid internships are opportunities, when they’re an abuse | Journalism is becoming a ‘rarefied practice’ best-suited to ‘the well-off’

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.

  • Chris Van Ormer

    Old-fashioned paid apprenticeships would be a good replacement for all unpaid internships.

  • hbarca

    Does Northwestern continue to receive tuition from students while they are on the JR program? If so, then Northwestern should help foot the bill by waiving or pro-rating the tuition during the period. Interns are learners. The media companies who bring them aboard are helping with that learning. Depending on attitude and ability, an intern can be a help or a time consuming drag on the staff. It should be a shared responsibility between both the media company and Medill.

  • dougmitchell

    NPR started paying interns year round a few years ago. Even when the economy went and remained sour, the budget line for paying interns was kept. Hence, we’ve noticed a large increase in economic, educational and ethnic diversity our internship pools and by result, broader intern classes that reflect America today. Secondly, CUNY’s Grad School of Journalism pays it’s students to intern at a company during the summer session of the program. This past summer, three public radio stations took in their students and I’m fully expecting to grow that number next summer. Having the school plan for and fund students for summer internships again creates a more level playing field for students who cannot afford to work for free and for (at least) our member stations who cannot pay interns, it create a chance to work with and recruit the next generation of talent into public media. Student debt is very out of control today. Leadership at academic institutions and media companies should work together to develop talent and not (completely) dump the cost of such on the student.