If there is one thing that many young journalists can bond over, it’s the common experience of having worked in unpaid internships to gain experience. The downside to this is obvious and well-documented. But as Belinda Alzner explains, panelists at a recent conference on precarious workers demonstrated the topic of unpaid internships still prompts a complicated conversation.
In no way did I ever think my experience was unique. In fact, I know it wasn’t. And that is the troubling part.
The topic of unpaid internships – and the complicated issues of class and opportunity that surround them – took off in Canada last year. And as a young journalist, eager to start my career – if somewhat confused about how to go about doing so – the discussions resonated with me.
I was on a roadtrip from Toronto to Halifax for my journalism school convocation when Ross Perlin published his exposé of unpaid internships in Intern Nation. I was completing my second unpaid internship when Bethany Horne declared she would no longer work for free, when Carly Lewis took a stance in the Ryerson Review of Journalism opposing Horne’s, and The Globe and Mail looked at the supposed pros and cons of working for free.
The conversation surrounding unpaid internships has continued since then, and there are largely two ways of looking at them: Unpaid internships are a necessity to gain the relevant job experience that employers seek; and they are exploitative and classist. These two points of view can overlap though, as discussion at a recent conference on the plight of precarious workers that took place at Ryerson University’s Centre for Labour Management Relations showed.
Disclosure: I am a two-time unpaid intern, having completed stints at two very different organizations. The first, an online start-up that treated me as a valuable part of its newsroom and allowed me to continue to file – for money! – after the completion of my for-school-credit internship. The second, a straight-up unpaid internship on the online side of one of the largest women’s magazines in Canada where I knew my web skills were valued, though it was made clear in no uncertain terms that I was replaceable.
The conference, titled Will Work for Exposure: Culture Work in Precarious Times, featured keynotes from journalist/musician/Davenport MP Andrew Cash and New York University professor of social and cultural analysis Andrew Ross and panels that focused on real-life experiences of journalists, artists and others who find themselves in precarious employment – and that includes interns.
When Kim Pittaway started out as a journalist in the 1980s, she said there was something called a “first-time job.” Young journalists today aren’t so lucky. These “first-time jobs” are now called internships.
“The reality is, most won’t get job experience or be considered to be employable without internships,” Pittaway said.
They very well may be a rite of passage for young journalists these days, but as Andrew Langille, founder of youthandwork.ca, lawyer and graduate student at Osgoode Hall Law School, pointed out, there are no statistics on unpaid internships in Canada. This was seconded by Agata Zieba, whose Master’s research for her MA at Wilfrid Laurier University focused on internships in the magazine industry.
Langille estimates there are between 100,000 and 300,000 unpaid internships in Canada (with 100,000 being a conservative estimate, he says). Zieba says based on her research, 59 per cent of internships are unpaid and even if they find the work exploitative, 86 per cent are willing to work for free.
But due the disposable nature of most internships, many interns will self-exploit as well – that is, work insane hours in an attempt to stand out to their employer and prove their passion for the publication and subject matter, Zieba said.
Edward Keenan, a senior editor at The Grid, represented the other side and presented an alternative path to gaining the exposure and experience necessary to land coveted jobs. Keenan has been an intern, organized interns and advised interns, and said he doesn’t believe he would have ever made it as a journalist without internships – after all, they were more cost-effective than going back to school for him.
But internships and traditional jobs aren’t the only paths anymore, Keenan said. “You don’t need to work for anyone else for exposure – you can work for yourself to get exposure today.”
Keenan, who runs a writing as a business class at the Academy of the Impossible in Toronto, maintains you can start a blog, gather an audience and establish a reputation and credibility all on your own. Because of technology, these audiences are easier than ever to find, Keenan says.
One of the arguments against unpaid internships is, of course, that only those who can afford to work for free are able to participate in them, thereby setting up an intrinsic class divide. This is what Horne wrote about in her piece on unpaid internships last summer, citing Robert Krulwich’s idea of “The Fortress of Journalism.”
“Unpaid internships may make the fortress accessible, sometimes, sure. But they only make it accessible to some people, the kind of people who are already over-represented inside,” Horne wrote. She continues, asking how the media can tell the types of diverse stories that are relevant to the public when “even your lowliest come exclusively from privilege?”
At the conference, PIttaway acknowledged this idea that internships are inherently classist, but continued, saying that she felt doing work for a small publication or a non-profit whose cause you believe in could be acceptable. But when it comes to companies that can afford to pay their interns? “Nobody should be expected to do free work for Rogers or [Transcontinental],” she said. “It’s morally repugnant.”
Keenan also touched on this point, though his interpretation may be applicable more for journalists who have at least some experience under their belts. A distinction must be made between work done pro bono and work done to build your career, he says. Then, you can choose what you will do for free accordingly. But still, young journalists have to be sure to ask themselves what they expect to get out of an internship.
Journalists are largely “not forced into this business by circumstance,” Keenan said. “We all choose to be here.”
While it may be true, it doesn’t answer the question: What about those who are talented and driven, but can’t afford to work for free?
Andrew Weir is one of the founders of the Canadian Intern Association, a new organization formed over the summer. Its mission statement says that it will work to improve working conditions for both sides – the intern and the employer. “The Canadian Intern Association advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers.” The association is still in the learning stage of its development, Weir said, though it hopes to be able to take measurable action soon.
Claire Seaborn, co-chair of the Association recently told CBC’s Amanda Lang and Kevin O’Leary that there are two types of bad unpaid internships: ones that lack an educational component and ones where the intern is replacing a paid employee.
Like many other twenty-somethings, I came into journalism – and my adult life, really – in a climate of uncertainty. It’s all I’ve ever known.
During my convocation for my first undergraduate degree – a Bachelor of Arts in international development and political economy – in the spring of 2009, the keynote speech largely focused on the recession the U.S. had slipped into over the previous nine months and the uncertainty that it meant for us, the new university grads who hadn’t even had time to frame our brand new sheet of embossed parchment yet.
To say it was the hopeful convocation address that film and television often depict would be a bold-faced lie. But yet, it was inspiring. If the grown-ups couldn’t figure out how to fix the mess or what comes next, maybe us young people could have a shot at it.
I went into journalism school a year later fully aware of the tough go that lay ahead for both myself and the industry. I figured that on top of the educational investment I was about to make, I would need to make a professional investment as well. That is, I would have to work for free in an effort to prove myself.
And maybe that’s not right; maybe there is a class issue there. I remember many days that I left the magazine’s office fuming that I had paid nearly $20 in GO Transit and TTC fares to get to and from my internship from my parents’ home. But I’d prepared myself for it. (Though admittedly, not much can prepare you for the lack of sleep that comes from the intern-by-day, bartender-by-night lifestyle.)
Either way, my experience is not unique. And that is why these discussions persist.