I was an intern, hear me roar

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Words of wisdom, if from an odd source (Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”).

As we get further into June, so begins that magical summertime stretch of Internship Season. Each year, thousands of high school and college students get experience in their industries of choice. Some get paid, some don’t.

Recently, there’s been a big to do about unpaid internships and the ethics involved in them. Seeing many of my friends go off to their own summer gigs, it got me reminiscing and thinking about my intern days.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my summer work. I didn’t have the time to intern the summers before and after I studied abroad, but the summer after my junior year, I earned a Dow Jones editing internship at the Indianapolis Star. A Dow is pretty much the gold standard in editing internships, and I had a great summer in Indy.

My next two internships — in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from KU and in the summer of 2010 before I came to Canterbury — were also with large, respected newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star, respectively.

I will point out two critical features that all three of my internships had in common: I did actual hands-on, deadline-based work, and I was compensated.

Apart from getting some technical help and one-on-one critiques, I was expected to do the work of anyone else on the copy desk. Often I was responsible for front-page or front-section displays, and at the Kansas City Star, I often had an entire page to put together from the dummy up. After clearing my content choices with the slot, getting it done was on me.

So it’s with some dismay that I now read stories about unpaid interns, desperate to get their feet in the door, who trudge through their summers doing mindless, menial tasks. I was trimming AP wire, editing house copy, writing headlines and cutlines and posting stories to the Web. Many of them are fetching coffee and running the Xerox machine.

I’ve noticed that journalism, particularly the magazine industry (not all magazines, certainly, but many of them), is a career path rife with unpaid and unchallenging internship work. Many outlets apparently think that working for them is enough of a reward in and of itself.

I have two serious problems with this.

The first is that not every college student can afford to go two and a half months without a paycheck. Internships often require you to pull up stakes for the summer (two of mine did). Valuable experience or not, it’s a big burden to bear, needing food, rent and living expenses with no income. This puts more affluent students at an unfair advantage, regardless of skill sets or talent. This annoys the hell out of me; I value fair play.

The second is that I think students should feel that their work is appreciated. A hard-earned paycheck is a great thing to hold in your hand. It is a clear message that your employer finds you valuable. I don’t find anything greedy about people wanting compensation for their work. I do think it’s greedy when employers use unpaid college students to do grunt work and try to explain it away as “valuable work experience.” I received valuable work experience at all three of the newspapers for which I worked; they still saw fit to pay me.

There’s evidence that the tide’s turning away from unpaid internships. Many colleges refuse to list them in career center postings, a position I enthusiastically support. More media attention is focused on them now, and there’s also some naming and shaming going on. I know some people who simply refuse to apply for them.

I think that last point is the key. As long as droves of students sign on for unpaid work — some companies even charge students to get them internships, which I frankly find kind of tasteless — the trend will continue. But if the talent pool starts drying up and students hold out for internships where they’re appreciated and compensated, maybe employers will wake up. 

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One thought on “I was an intern, hear me roar

  1. I might add that even though you were compensated for the work you did, it did not cover all your expenses such as travel to and from the city of the internship, rent deposits, rent itself and food. Most of what you earned went to school expenses while Mom and Dad footed the bill for your existence in Indy, Columbus and yes, Kansas City. I agree having parents that can afford to step up and cover expenses for their kid to pursue an internship is a bonus and kids whose parents are not in a position to do so have a distinct disadvantage. You were under strict instruction to only pursue internships that paid but even then you were lucky enough to have parents who could help cover other expenses.

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