Unpaid journalism internships may serve as barrier to profession for low-income students

By Ashley Jones-Quaidoo, Lesley Le Platte, Jeanne Li and Ellen Pham
with the staff of The Princeton Summer Journal

Like many aspiring journalists, Harvard University student Michelle Hu went hunting for media internships this summer. But as a student on financial aid, Hu had to consider money when making her decision. Hu simply couldn’t afford to take an unpaid internship.

In the end, she got an internship with Al Jazeera in Washington, and was able to pull together money to cover basic expenses—a $1,000 stipend from Al Jazeera and a $1,000 scholarship from the Asian American Journalism Association. Even with this funding, however, budgeting for the summer still wasn’t easy.

“I had to find a place with cheap rent,” Hu said. “Every time I bought food it was a conscious decision.”

At least Hu was able to find funding. With the economy sluggish and the news industry struggling, unpaid journalism internships seem more common than ever. And that means students from low-income backgrounds are facing a major barrier to entry in the industry.

In a survey conducted by The Princeton Summer Journal, 53 out of 80 college students working at internships in the media this summer were not paid by their publications for their work. (Last week, the Summer Journal sent emails to approximately 1,000 students who work for college newspapers asking about their summer employment. Eighty of those who responded were interning in journalism.) Of those 80 students, 25 (or 31 percent) were on need-based financial aid. According to data compiled from U.S. News and World Report, 46 percent of students from the colleges and universities that these 80 students attend are on need-based financial aid.

The reasons for the disproportionate underrepresentation of financial-aid-receiving students in journalism internships appear to be complicated. Only six of the 27 students in paid internships are on financial aid—suggesting that money isn’t the only reason low-income students are not working at journalism internships. (A lack of family or friend connections in the media world may be partly to blame.) However, there is no doubt that lack of payment can be a barrier to low-income students. Of the 19 students on financial aid who were polled and are working at unpaid internships, at least 14 are receiving scholarships or some help from their school—and might not have been able to take the internship otherwise.

“It was a concern how I was going to support myself,” said Celia Bever, an unpaid intern at Seattle Met magazine who is on financial aid. When a $4,000 grant came through from her school, the University of Chicago, she was able to take the position. “I probably would not have done it if I didn’t get the grant. I wouldn’t want to ask my parents to cover it.”

Even students who manage to find paid internships say the compensation isn’t always enough to support themselves, especially if the internship is in a different city. Lauren Carroll, a Duke University student interning at The Tampa Bay Times, is one of the few students on financial aid polled who landed a paid internship. She also got a grant to pay for the car rental she needed for her reporting trips—which was necessary because her $11.25 per hour wage wouldn’t have been enough to get her through the summer. “I would not actually be able to do this internship without this grant,” she said.

For students in unpaid internships who aren’t on financial aid, their families can be a key source of support. Daniel Greenberg, a student at Wesleyan, is an unpaid intern at The West Roxbury Transcript who gets by with help from his parents. “The company isn’t wealthy enough,” he explained, when asked why he wasn’t being paid.

The problem isn’t that editors don’t want to pay their interns. It’s often that they can’t. “I would prefer to be able to pay my interns, but if we had paid internships I don’t think we’d be able to afford an internship program. Our budget is very tight,” said Mike Madden, editor of the Washington City Paper. “Since I’ve been there, we’ve cut several full-time staff writing positions.”

Others, like Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman, said they were working with schools to find sources of compensation for their interns. “We have pioneered this program to make sure interns of any income can get paid,” he said. (Disclosure: One of the Summer Journalism Program’s directors currently edits Newsweek, which does not pay its interns. The Summer Journalism Program was founded 12 years ago in part to combat the lack of diversity in media.)

The editors were sympathetic to unpaid interns. “Even at $10 an hour, it’s difficult to make it in a major city like New York or Washington. It can be done by living in a group house, eating Ramen noodles—but it’s difficult, no question, and it’s much easier if you have rich parents to pay your rent for you,” said Ryan Grim, The Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief.

Recent court challenges could change the practice of not paying interns. In June, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that it was unlawful to withhold compensation from two production interns on the movie “Black Swan” who answered phones and fetched coffee. In the wake of that ruling, former interns for Condé Nast and Gawker Media also filed suit. Decisions on these cases may help shift the way news organizations view their summer programs.

“We need to change . . . the way people think about it. If everyone thought, ‘Gee if you have an intern, you need to pay them,’ then you wouldn’t have places not paying interns,” Madden said. “We’re reducing the pool of potential interns who can work with us and we’re reducing the pool of places potential interns from low-income backgrounds can spend their summers working.”

Grim, for his part, thinks progress is being made. The recent lawsuits filed by former interns—coupled with a major project by the non-profit journalistic institution ProPublica on the subject—have inspired some media companies to reconsider the fairness of their own unpaid internship programs. Still, Grim worries that potential job candidates are being left behind because internships are open to only the most financially privileged. “The field is dominated by Ivy League, private school, children of wealthy parents,” he said, “and that’s a problem.”

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