Working for free …

The news business likes to swaddle its past in gauzy nostalgia—crusty editors with cigars o’ gold—but the fact is the industry has never been all that kind to its young. Newspapers were quite happy to insist on exemptions from child labor laws so they could send paper boys out into the pre-dawn at a starveling wage, and the traditional entry-level newsroom job of copyboy was about as nurturing as a fraternity hazing.

Still, at least the young used to get paid something, which is one custom the industry has apparently decided it could dispense with. Meet the internship. Increasingly, the only way for fledgling journalists to try out their wings is as unpaid help. Cub reporters, nowadays, have to give it away.

They’re not alone. Unpaid internships have spread like a rash across the belly of American business and finance. A recent front-page article in The New York Times chronicled the soaring use of these semi-skilled, fixed-term, white-collar gigs. A 2008 survey found 83 percent of college graduates had held one, up from 9 percent in 1992. How many are unpaid isn’t clear: The Times offered unsourced estimates of from one-fourth to one-half.

It’s not limited to this country either. In Britain, The Guardian reported last month, the Trades Union Congress, UK’s equivalent to the AFL-CIO, says one-third of the country’s internships are unpaid, and the British journalists union says 80 percent of its members who had held internships and had work published weren’t paid.

That’s a lot of free labor. Technically, ever since the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, employees are supposed to be paid for their labor. The law allows an exception for trainees. But they have to receive actual training, they can’t displace real employees, and their employers aren’t supposed to benefit directly from their efforts. If the employer does benefit—say, by publishing their work—the intern is supposed to get paid.

Regulators in several states and the U.S. Labor Department have begun tapping on employers’ windows, according to the Times, but so far the response to the newspaper’s report has been muted. One exception is Atlantic Media, which publishes the Atlantic magazine and the National Journal, and which decided in light of the Times article not only to pay its interns in the future, but to send back-pay to last summer’s class. “Who will follow?” asked Jeff Bercovici, the AOL DailyFinance columnist who broke the news of Atlantic’s decision.

One answer came from Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday and founding dean of Stony Brook University’s journalism school. “I think we have to call a timeout and ask if we are really serving our students,” he said in an interview with Poynter Institute’s Joe Grimm. “At what point do we wind up helping these news organizations defer ever deciding to hire anybody?”

Having free interns do work that would otherwise justify paid help is one concern. Another, as Schneider noted, is fairness. If employers aren’t feeding these interns, who is? And if unpaid experience has become a requirement for real jobs, what happens to the kids who can’t afford to work for free?

Is a business that has labored mightily to widen its relevance by encouraging ethnic and racial diversity now backing into a situation where students who can’t do without summer income while in school deny themselves an essential qualification?

The problem seems absurd. After all, the real costs of running an internship program are those of recruitment and supervision, which consume the time and energy of highly paid managers; the low-end wages these kids get—especially without health coverage and other costly benefits—aren’t going to bankrupt anybody. Stiffing them is like eliminating bagels from the department heads meeting: A nod to austerity that needlessly leaves people hungry.

But my concern is different. Even if these interns were paid; even if they were given honest training, and not used for scutwork that cutbacks left untended; even if those things were fixed, I’m wondering why anybody believes the best thing tomorrow’s journalists can be doing with their summers is spending them in newsrooms.

The virulent spread of internships as a universal job requirement deters students from developing a more vital qualification: A wide and rich exposure to the realities lived by the people they will be trying to understand, cover and serve in their professional lives. That’s what is so indispensable about summer work waiting tables, handing tools up the ladder, selling this, making that, longing for Friday.

Behind the internship row is a greater danger, that of a narrowing of the imagination, a misguided belief that the experience that matters most to good, brave, sensitive, knowledgeable journalism is something you get inside a newsroom.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally distributed through the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and published on April 12, 2010 on Ed Wasserman’s blog.

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