Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:39

Posted by Mary McGuire on June 28, 2011

It's time for media companies to stop offering unpaid internships, says a journalism student, Bethany Horne. The only students who can afford to work for free the summer, she says, are those lucky enough to come from families with money. That's no way to bring diverse voices or fresh perspectives into a newsroom.

I just finished the final year of a journalism program at a university. Most of my friends and peers are in the position I am: looking for a way in to the “Fortress of Journalism,” as Robert Krulwich called it in this speech which has been picking me and my friends out of the doldrums in between our failed job applications.


Those already inside the walls say their craft rewards independence and wiliness, yet the lords of the fortress are large conglomerates—corporations with their own cultures and chains of command. I won’t dwell too much on the nature of the fortress itself.But what we are told, the tribe-less loners on the beach, is that the surest way in to the media as it is, is through the internship. Harkening back to the mentor/apprentice relationships of old, the internship is understood as a bridge: in between being a student and becoming a worker. Journalism educators, usually allergic to clichés, trill the words “foot in the door” on the heels of “internship” like it’s going out of fashion.


I did one. It was great. It was a start-up company, with a concept I really believe in, so I was ok with it. But I had to do an internship, to earn the right to graduate, so I didn’t fret over the ethical implications at the time.I do, now. Because my friends who had to do a short internship to graduate are now doing summer-long or longer ones, with no job in sight. The first foot in the door was kicked out, I guess.


I have no doubt my friends will eventually find work, and possibly through people they meet through the fake work of the internship. But, I don’t think the system, as it is, helps journalists, and I don’t think, ultimately, it helps journalism, or the public this industry is supposed to serve.


First of all, most of the clansmen leading the armies atop the fortress didn’t get there through an internship. In fact, they didn’t go to journalism school at all. The training media organizations used to pay employees to take has been downloaded onto institutions where the potential employees pay to be trained and then have to work for free to prove their worth. It’s brilliant, I tell you. Coupled with rights-grabbing freelance contracts, it’s a good business indeed.


But unpaid internships, ultimately, are harmful because they restrict the kinds of people who can access employment by our media, and they perpetuate the problems that are already present, in terms of the race, class and origin of the people who hold media power.


It’s not that I won’t work for free exclusively on ethical grounds. Practically: I can’t afford it. And neither can most people who can’t live at home, or supported by their parents, to do unpaid work in Toronto or Montreal, or god-forbid Vancouver -- a lovely but awfully expensive city.


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. Those who can afford to work for free. So the young people who don’t come from the city, and who don’t come from money, are shit-out-of-luck. And what of anybody who has to support a family, either here or back home wherever home may be? We know of the taxi driver doctors, but how easy is it for a first generation immigrant to get into our media? They won't do it through a lowly internship, that's for sure.


In the 21st century? In Canada? There’s no doubt that media organizations need immigrant, rural, working class, inner city, diverse voices in order to be at all relevant to the public they serve. Actually, they need people like that in editorial positions, and behind the publisher’s desk, but let’s start at the bottom.


How are you ever going to get the rest, when even your lowliest come exclusively from privilege?


Thus, I am boycotting the system. I don’t judge my peers who engage in it: we are not to blame. But I won’t support with my free labour a media organization that cuts its legs out from under itself.


They are profitable institutions. They can afford to pay. I would advise that for their own good, they start doing so. Because as Krulwich kind-of alludes to: we (the writers as well as the public) don't really need the fortress, anymore.

Bethany Horne is a freelance writer and multimedia producer in Halifax who is completing a Bachelor of Journalism Honours degree at the University of King's College in Halifax. Read some more comments on her post at


Right on! Too often, cheap labour is labelled as an internship opportunity and a 'may the best candidate win' philosophy cloaks the fact that the media company just got 16 weeks of labour for the price of 4. Standing up to this practice is simple. Don't accept unpaid internships and encourage others not to accept them either. When you are a part of a company, don't allow them to employ workers without pay. It costs so little to provide a decent living for a person who has just finished university. Even a thousand dollars a month helps pay rent and pay down student debt. It's certainly better than nothing. Any company that can't afford to hire someone at an annual salary of $12,000 doesn't deserve to be in business anyway.
Don't be quick to turn your nose up at unpaid "internships." Some are worth it. I'm a staffer at a newspaper after freelancing for 9 years. Before getting work as a freelancer I worked for free for a couple weeks in order to learn. I still do free work now in order to learn new skills in my staff job, meaning that I do work outside my work hours to train myself. Many of my colleagues do. If we were to bill our employer for all the overtime that we do, learning, researching, etc., we'd be rich. There are people I know who work in both print and broadcast who all had to do the same thing. It's the way it is. It takes a great deal of sweat and motivation, and you can't and won't get paid for everything, especially when you're starting out. Best of luck to ya.
The U of R School of Journalism accepts paid internship agreements only, and placements must be real hands-on journalism work for a minimum of 13 weeks. It works great for both sides: students get more respect and responsibilities when they're paid, and employers can hold them to higher standards. Once in a while an employer wants a free intern, and we tell them sorry, no dice. We find that if we hold the line on this principle, employers will dig for dollars rather than miss out on good interns. And if they can't come up with a paycheque, there's always another newsroom that will. The few times we've let a student talk us into accepting an internship he/she "really really" wants to do, but it doesn't pay, or pays a token amount, the student has regretted it. He/she soon discovers that when not paid, you get treated accordingly. Paycheques - the great equalizer!
The only work that I'll do for free is for myself....
There is a metric involved in this that nobody wants to talk about. Granted there are a number of reasons for the rise of the unpaid intern economy, but it has occurred in the context of an explosion in the number of Canadian colleges and universities with journalism programs. There were 3 in the mid-1970s, less than 10 in 2001 and something like 33 today. As far as I know there is no equation which links starting a new journalism program with an increasing demand for professionally trained journalists. Rather what we see is a kind of job Ponzi scheme in which the mission of Canadian journalism schools seems to be to produce more credentialed journalism graduates so that there are more jobs for Canadian journalism professors. Consider. Carleton has 40 journalism professors/instructors of one sort or another. Ryerson has 49. Concordia has 33. UBC, which only has a graduate journalism program, has 15. What is interesting/troubling is that in 2011 the graduating class at UBC numbered 30. Ryerson graduates according to my calculations about 140 undergraduate students a year. Carleton appears to be about the same number. Concordia's in the same ballpark. So what we have is a training metric that suggests it takes one teacher to graduate somewhere between two to four competent journalists. Yes, I know, some of these teachers are part time. But think about this comparison. The school of engineering at the U of T reports that more than 230 engineering professors are in a faculty that yearly hands out diplomas to 1150 undergraduate students and roughly 200 graduate students. That is about 1-to-5 ratio. Maybe it's me but I kinda think it should take more intensive training and require more teachers to produce a skilled engineer than a skilled journalist. The implication of all this (admittedly) not truly scientific number crunching is that if we reduced the number of journalism programs, there were be fewer graduates vying for scarce jobs and as a consequence media organizations would have to pay their interns if they really wanted to get competent trainees. It at the very least raises a question you might pose to your teachers. Namely, what kind of job could YOU get if the journalism teaching bubble bursts?

It was great to see this raised in this morning's Globe! I've just sent the folloing to the Globe's Letters to the Editor address:

I was very pleased to see the issue of the ethics of internships raised in the Globe (Working for Free – July 19). I well remember our then-sales manager, Mical Moser, pointing out to me in the late 1990s that the practice of hiring interns discriminates against anyone not rich enough to be able to afford to work for free; since then we at Broadview have had a policy against internships. That so many companies in the book publishing industry (and in the media, evidently) have allowed internships to proliferate—and that publicly funded universities and colleges have supported such a discriminatory practice—is unconscionable. We can see discrimination plainly if it’s against women, or Jews, or Muslims, or visible minorities, or gays and lesbians; why should we be blind to it when it’s directed against people who are poor?

Don LePan

(President, Broadview Press)


I'm suspicious about the charge that only well off journalism graduates can "afford" to complete an unpaid internship. I completed two unpaid internships in Toronto and worked waiting tables at night to pay rent and bills. When I graduated, I moved west to work at a small-town newspaper. Now I work at a city magazine. Is free labour terrible? Maybe. Yet one is left with the distinct impression after reading Ms. Horne's argument that she has perhaps applied to and been spurned by a city daily in a major media market one too many times. Like many before her, myself included, she is perhaps too willing to foresake the whole industry as an inaccessible and discriminatory fortress. (I mean, why wouldn't the Globe want to hire a new graduate who says all the right things, but in practical terms knows nothing?) My advice is to move to a small town and work your way up like the rest of us. Canada is a big country once you leave Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. 

You're also effectively boycotting a career in journalism, in case you didn't realize it.Which is fine - one fewer self-involved Gen-Y j-school graduate in our industry, the better.

No, wait. That's too easy. I'll try to be a bit helpful. You seem to assume that the only jobs in journalism are in big cities and that the only companies you can work for are big conglomerates. That's demonstrably untrue. Why not take a leap of faith and take a job at one of the hundreds of community newspapers in this country, many of which aren't run by Transcontinental or Quebecor or Black Press or any of the other objectionable corporate entities that you don't seem to want to work for. Most of them would kill for an educated and well-trained journalist - no, it's not glamorous, and no, it doesn't pay much, but it's work. I'm not sure it'll help you subvert the paradigm, but it's a step in the right direction.

And as far as a summer job goes, well, do what young journalism students have always done - find another job to pay the bills. The world isn't limited to internships at Rogers Publishing and the Globe and Mail, you know. Maybe if you spent less time complaining about the injustices in the world and more time trying to figure out a way around them you'd have better luck.

Oh, and Melissa? It's "role," not roll. Keep making mistakes like that and you'll never leave the intern ghetto.

Why not come to the U of R? Classes are small and internships are paid. (See comment above.)

Some commenters seem to be missing the point about how unpaid internships block access to the media to people without privilege. How does this hurt our media? How does this hurt our public discourse? Like I said: I had a good internship experience. Which led to paid work with the same company. I'm not saying the system doesn't work for those of us to whom it is possible to do an unpaid internship: I'm saying it doesn't work for anyone else. It doesn't work for those who need to get a regular pay cheque after school, it doesn't work for the media organizations who are pulling their hair out about how to appeal to a broader demographic, and it doesn't work for media consumers who struggle to see themselves represented in the media that is out there.
I sympathise with Bethany Horne's frustration at the scarcity of paid internships. No one should work for free. However, considering the state of journalism today I think the notion of turning down unpaid internships is very unrealistic. It is very important to get paid but an internship offers additional opportunities that are hard to put financial value on. I did a free internship with a Tokyo-based design magazine. I didn't enjoy working for free but the internship offered me all kinds of incredibly useful things like the opportunity to publish my own articles and more experience with computers&blogging. But probably the most important things it gave me were contacts, friendships and entry into fields I previously couldn't access. And in turn, those benefits lead to more opportunities down the road. There are just too many aspiring writers out there rushing to get their foot in the journalism door who will work for free. Boycotting unpaid internships just won't work. And considering the benefits to be gained from internships, if such prestigious publications as The New York Times, Nature or The Walrus offered me an internship (paid or not), I doubt I would look a gift horse in the mouth.
Bethany, your points, hyperbolic imagery aside, are, I would have thought self-evident. Is this really a huge problem? As far as I know the chain I work for, Torstar, doesn't allow unpaid internships at any of its dailies, and I'd thought that was pretty standard in the business. (I'm excluding high school co-op positions and very short, i.e. 4 week internships - which really offer no true net financial benefit to the company; you spend more in training and management than you get in work. We do run summer internships, and these are typically VERY productive, but these are paid at the same rate as 1st year employees (I confess I'm not sure if they get benefits, I suspect not). I know unpaid internships are more common in some parts of magazine publishing - in New York where fashion magazine interns PAY as much as $10-$15,000 for a single year, unpaid position, but those are not truly journalism positions, certainly not really in the news business. Or are you only talking about start-ups and under-financed digital operations?
I agree, I'm currently filling the roll of an unpaid intern, and while I think it is giving me the experience I will eventually need, I need to feed and house myself. By not paying interns, companies are being bias in the selection of recent graduates or students they hire. Great Article!
Bethany, you're correct. Unpaid internships only attract those who don't have to worry about paying the rent, buying food, etc. and by extension it means students who come from underprivileged backgrounds cannot participate in the slave labour, thereby cutting out valued voices.. So what do you get? Middle and upper class people doing the work. I remember one of my J school classmates, from a wealthy background who had a very dismissive view of poor, mentally ill and aboriginal people. Sadly, unpaid internships perpetuate a certain spin that's evident in the news. They also demonstrate the lack of value and respect for journalists. I was one of those fortunate University of Regina students who got a paid internship in Lloydminster SK/AB. It was great. I was paid the starting wage, which was enough to cover my rent and buy necessities. I even saved money. I was also treated like a regular employee, not a go-fer.
Interesting story Bethany. I am an art director that works with interns. I initiated an internship program that would benefit both the company and the person doing the internship. Paid internships are definitely preferable to everyone over unpaid internships, but at the time I initiated the internship program, it was a new venture that didn't have any money attached to it. My boss eventually got an approval for at least an honorarium, but I understand your point about how it limits those who are in less fortunate circumstances, and cannot afford to do an unpaid internship. I also wondered if I was perpetuating the growth of unpaid internships in the media industry. We still do unpaid internships with honorariums given at the end of the internship. My hope is that as mentioned above, both parties involved benefit. Although it may mean unpaid internships will limit certain applicants, but I suppose that's just the reality of life. It's a larger problem not limited to publishing companies offering unpaid internships. Thanks, however, for opening up the dialogue.
An interesting essay, and fascinating comments. I have to respectfully disagree with Bethany. I owe my career to an unpaid internship. I worked for Eye Weekly - now The Grid - for four months, for nothing. It was hard work. It was grunt work. But it gave me a foundation that I stand on to this day, five or so years later, not to mention contacts in the journalism world that I still use (And Bill, you are wrong: Torstar, which owns Eye/The Grid, has TONS of unpaid interns. The paper relies on them). I do not come from money (the classism in this piece bothers me, by the way: young journalists who take unpaid internships do not come "exclusively from privilege?") Do you know what I did? I lived on loans for a summer - loans I'm still, technically, paying back. It was worth it. If you are determined to make it in this business -- an extremely, extremely difficult business to make it in -- you'll do whatever it takes to succeed. If working for free for a few months isn't palatable to you, I wonder how much you want actually it? (I'm not saying Bethany doesn't want it, by the way - she's obviously determined as hell.) Also, how about aspiring journalists who can't afford to go to an expensive school like King's?
Speaking as a 50-something journalist, I agree with Bethany. A four-week unpaid internship as part of your university education is one thing - I did one and it was very valuable. An unpaid summer "internship" is slave labour. I had a summer job at a newspaper right after journalism school, and it was valuable experience - but I also got paid. Aside from everything else that has already been said, I think it's worth noting that when employers expect not to pay a qualified person to work for them, it tells us they don't value any of their employees much. It may be true that the only way to break into journalism these days is through unpaid internships. Here's a modest suggestion. If you must work for free to get started, then do it for a non-profit media outlet. Anyone who asks you to work for them for free should not be expecting to make a profit from your work. Finally a response to Stephen Strauss's comment - let's face it, most of our "journalism" programs aren't training people to be journalists. They're training them to go into PR. The Economist recently noted there are now six PR people for every working journalist in the U.S. - I expect Canadian figures aren't much different.
I agree. The internship system mitigates against anyone whose parents aren't at least reasonably well off and/or who don't live in a major media centre. I'm surprised this is only coming onto the radar now.

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