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Unpaid internships perpetuate class inequality in media

Published: Saturday, March 21, 2009

Updated: Sunday, March 22, 2009 18:03

money

Gino Toriani


When the May 16 commencement rolls around, I hope to have landed my very own "real-life" journalism job, complete with long hours, strict deadlines, and the possibility of getting my byline out to thousands of readers.

And if I'm really lucky, I may even get paid for it.

With the nation's unemployment rate increasing to 8.1 percent in February, jobs are at a premium. Traditionally entry-level jobs are now being scooped up by more seasoned workers, leaving new graduates scrambling for any position they can find.

In order to avoid going head-to-head with this competition, many graduates are looking toward summer internships as their first out-of-school job. Perhaps the greatest appeal to these internships is the possibility of a permanent job offer after their completion, an inarguable boon in today's struggling economy. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers offered a full-time job to nearly two out of every three interns.

However, there is one pesky catch to the seemingly easy answer of a post-graduate internship: you're likely to be spending your summer working for free, with nary a health benefit in sight.

Students in the field of communications are at a particular disadvantage regarding the phenomenon of the unpaid internship. According to an article published in Slate magazine in 2006, the majority of internships in journalism and politics are unpaid. And when the average paid intern at a bachelor's degree level brings in $15.99 an hour, as shown by the 2007 NACE survey, journalism interns are at a definite disadvantage.

But I believe graduates who don't come from a privileged background are at the biggest disadvantage. Only a small number of graduates can afford to work full-time for free, and when other costs such as health insurance, accommodations, and transportation are factored in, that number dwindles.

Let's look at the cost of one of these internships. In February, ED2010.com posted a listing for a full-time editorial intern at Marie Claire in New York Cityfor the summer. This is an unpaid internship which must be taken for college credit. At Wilkes, each credit costs around $700, so a three-credit internship would cost $2,100. Then there's the whole business of moving to New York City. According to myapartmentmap.com, the average studio apartment in the city costs $2,334 a month, bringing your total housing expenses for the summer to $7,002. Three months of unlimited subway use costs $243, and food for the summer would add another $1,000.

So not counting incidentals, you would be paying $10,345 to work full-time for free as a magazine editorial intern.

No matter how ridiculous it may seem to pay the cost of a brand new Hyundai Accent just so you could toil away at 40-hour weeks, the fact remains that these internships are important stepping stones for anyone interested in a career in media. Media outlets that offered unpaid summer internships for 2009 consist of The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and MTV Networks, which include MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, and Spike TV. And since employers are hiring two out of every three interns, I believe those graduates whose families can afford to back these expenses have started their careers with an unfair advantage.

So who's working these unpaid internships? According to a 2004 USA Today article, 60 percent of these interns come from families who make over $100,000 a year, which is only 20 percent of the entire college population. Students chosen for these competitive internships may be the best out of the applicant pool, but it's unlikely they are the best of best, since a majority of the potentials don't even apply because of financial infeasibility.

Because of this, media organizations that offer unpaid internships are hurting their own upper hand by ignoring a pool of potential applicants that could only enrich their organization. Newspapers, magazines, and television stations have a diverse audience out there, and staffing their outlets with journalists who aren't representative of the whole picture can leave important needs unmet.

Some media organizations who understand the importance of a diverse staff are making efforts to bring in staff members with different backgrounds, but they seem stuck on only one aspect of diversity. Previously, there have been minority internships offered at The Chicago Sun-Times, The Seattle Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News, as well as with the Kaiser Foundation for Urban Health Reporting. That's a step in the right direction, but it's forgetting that diversity exists beyond what's reflected by skin color.

The danger of these internships is the perpetuation of a class bias at our most well-known and sought after media organizations. It's no surprise that media organizations like to hire what they know. If an intern spent the whole summer producing quality work for an employer, he or she is going to have an obvious edge over unknown graduates applying for that same job.

And if these organizations are offering only unpaid internships, the majority of the work familiar to these media moguls will be that completed by interns from a privileged background. That's what will comprise their staff.

So what's there to be done about this? The obvious answer is for media organizations to offer a living wage to their interns. But in today's struggling economy, especially in regard to journalism, that could be financially difficult for them, even if they saw the need to do so.

Some schools are trying to even the playing field by allowing all of their students to apply for any internship they wanted, regardless of financial need. The College of William and Mary, Wellesley College, and Brandeis University, among others, offer stipends for unpaid internships.

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