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Posted by Tamara Baluja on May 27, 2014

By Janice Tibbetts

At Concordia University’s journalism department, we have been considering whether we should have a policy on unpaid internships.

The faculty—reflecting a sentiment common among many journalists—is conflicted on whether journalism schools and departments should post advertisements for work without pay, which could be interpreted as giving tacit support.

Debate over unpaid internship programs has persisted, on and off, for decades. However, they have drawn a flood of criticism in recent months after the Ontario Ministry of Labour ordered The Walrus and Toronto Life magazines to shut down their internships programs, asserting they violated the province’s employment standards law.

Journalism educators from schools across Canada are expected to discuss the prospect of adopting policies when they gather for a convention at Ryerson University on May 31.


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Journalism schools have long considered internships to be a vital part of the real-world experience that help students land paying media jobs after graduation. Some schools require internships as a condition of program completion, while others consider them to be an optional element. At Concordia, there is no mandatory internship, although they are encouraged. The school posts positions—both paid and unpaid—that are considered to have journalistic merit.

There’s a consensus that there is a compelling upside to unpaid internships: students get contacts, work experience and sometimes paying jobs.

A strong argument against unpaid internships is that they favour students who can afford to work without pay and virtually shut out those who do not have the luxury of offering their services for free. Often, these are the kind of workers who are already missing from media outlets. Effectively, unpaid internships give students with money the advantage of boosting their resumes, at the expense of their have-not counterparts.

Another problem is that there is a sense that unpaid work is increasingly replacing work for pay, and calling the positions “internships” is a way of sidestepping paying minimum wage.

When assessing the pros and cons, journalists and journalism schools often draw a distinction between short internships of a couple of weeks—usually during the school year—and longer stints of possibly several months during summer breaks or after graduation. The former is generally considered to be a good opportunity to gain experience, while requiring aspiring journalists to work without pay cheques for months on end is another matter.

The dilemma is far from confined to journalism. While there appears to be a lack of data on the number of unpaid interns in Canada, University Affairs magazine reported last September that there are as many as 300,00, according to some estimates. The publication, which surveyed universities and individual programs, reported “there is a mixed bag of policies on internships and most policies aren’t coordinated across the university.”

University of Regina’s journalism school, which requires students to complete a 13-week internship, only endorses paid gigs. Ryerson University’s journalism school, in Toronto, according to University Affairs, encourages but does not require internships and does not insist that they be paid. However, students can receive course credits as compensation.

At Concordia, students get credits or scholarships to offset unpaid work. Another option is a new co-op program that began this year, in which students with high marks are eligible for paid work placements.

The journalism department wants to examine policies and practices at other Canadian journalism schools before deciding whether to adopt a policy.

 

 

Janice Tibbetts teaches journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. She spent more than two decades in the daily news business, working for Postmedia News, Canadian Press, Chronicle-Herald and the Halifax Daily News. She has written extensively about justice, federal and provincial politics and legal affairs.

 

 

 


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Comments

Unpaid internships can be a benefit provided the students are mentored, supervised, coached and allowed the chance to improve their writing and build their portfolio. I am troubled by established publishers that elminate entry level positions in favour of permanant internships. Even worse are the smaller operations (typically online operations) that ONLY take on interns, never pay anyone a cent and put students to work writing pointless infotainment pieces about bars and nightclubs.  

Fortunatley, my prorgam has built valuable relationships with a number of publishers that provide valuable experience to our students. I am happy to report that most editors are enthusiastic about developing young talent and take their responsibilities to students very seriously.  

 

A couple of things need clarifying here.

Any Ryerson student enrolled in an internship course who completes the placement successfully will receive an academic credit. The credit is not "compensation" related to lack of payment but rather, as with any course, recognition of the work performed, which includes not only the employer's assignments but weekly journals and a self-reflective essay filed to the academic supervisor. Whether paid or unpaid, these academic-credit internships are legal in Ontario. With more than 130 placements per year, not all of them in commercial newsrooms, it would be hard for us to enforce a salaried-only policy.

Whether journalism schools should distribute information to students about non-credit opportunities, paid or unpaid, is really a separate issue -- and not always as simple as it might seem. Some unpaid positions may be legitimate volunteer activities with not-for-profit organizations. Others may be legal in some jurisdictions but not in others. Still others may appear legally borderline but turn out to be precisely what a particular student is interested in.

Two questions arise for the schools. First, do we have an obligation to investigate the legality of offers of work before distributing them? Second, should we arbitrarily withhold knowledge of offers our students might find attractive?

Speaking personally, I answer "no" to the first question. We lack the time, resources and expertise. We're educators, not labour-ministry inspectors. So we should educate -- make information available to our students about the law on compensation, working conditions, health-and-safety,  employee rights -- and for that matter, data on wage levels and freelance rates. And we should post it where everyone, including employers, can see it.

My answer to the second question is also "no." We aren't nannies or parents. Our job -- our duty, if you like -- is to help our students navigate the complicated and uncertain terrain of contemporary journalism. We should insist that anyone offering a journalism opportunity make the nature of the work and the terms of engagement clear. We can post our own statement about the issues raised above by Janice Tibbetts. But we must remember that our students are adults, capable of making their own decisions. From us they need information, perhaps guidance -- not crude attempts at labour-market gatekeeping.

Which in any case are likely to be futile. Most if not all of the offers we're asked to distribute will also appear on journalism job boards or general career sites. Our students visit these places -- and if they don't we should show them how, because good paying jobs appear on them. The idea that we can shelter students from the conditions of contemporary work is simply unrealistic. (In some respects they probably know a lot more about it than we do -- especially the ones working two or three jobs to make rent and tuition.)

None of the above is meant to deny that unpaid work is a serious issue in Canadian journalism. Too much work and content creation is uncompensated, and too many business models assume the availability of free labour. One of the results may be that a successful career in journalism becomes less accessible to students from low-income or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. As educators and researchers we should direct our energy toward investigating this field, documenting conditions, disseminating the results and speaking out about the consequences -- not necessarily in that order. This would be more productive than devising job-offer policies that may seem righteous to faculty members, but reflect a patronizing view of students and offer no real prospect of affecting conditions in the working world of journalism.

Paul Knox

School of Journalism

Ryerson University

Good piece on the sticky internship issue. I say they stay. I gained wonderful experience from my internships while at Carleton and know they led to my being hired - as I recently wrote about on my blog: http://bit.ly/1rtSlKs

As you point, Janice, we could solve this by ensuring the internships are supervised and of short duration. Otherwise the potential for exploitation lurks.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.