Are Journalism Internships a Joke?

March 10, 2007

Learn to be a journalist
Photographer: davidfg. Used under a Creative Commons license.
Last week I came across The Editorialiste’s blog, and this post in particular: Journalism Internships Are A Joke (Financially). Period.

Mr. Nusca makes some good points, and yes, there are many who take this same viewpoint, but I believe there are some things the naysayers don’t address.

As I interpret it, Nusca sums up the problem like so:

-An internship is virtually necessary to get a job in this industry these days.

-Internships that look good on your resume (with big, well-known magazines or newspapers) pay little or nothing.

-Internships with smaller papers or magazines are not worth an intern’s time.

-Therefore, only J-students subsidized by their parents can afford to work three months for peanuts, therefore anyone doing “the right thing” is punished.

Point 1 is absolutely true. That’s just the way it is. Journalism really cannot be learned from anyone else; you learn by doing. Since no college newspaper or radio station mirrors a real newsroom, the only way to become qualified to work in a newsroom is to work in one.

“When did such a low-paying industry become so elite?” asks Nusca.

Maybe when the profession became so popular. A survey published in 2006 hailed the fact that out of all the 2005 graduates receiving bachelor’s degrees in journalism, 62% of them had found jobs by the end of the year. That means over a third were unemployed for over seven months. And this is good news? I bet nursing students don’t have to wait over half a year for a job offer.

With any “glamour profession” there has to be some sort of winnowing process. What career counselor worth his salt would advise an aspiring actor without a warning that the road ahead is tough and pays terribly? If a counselor neglected to tell said actor that he or she would most likely be working for free or cheap for years, waiting tables in the meantime, the counselor would be fired.

(Just to be clear, I’m not comparing journalists to actors in any sense other than that they’re both popular professions. Surely we can agree that journalists are far more necessary than actors. Didn’t Thomas Jefferson once say “If I had to choose between Hollywood without newspapers, and newspapers without Hollywood, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter”? Perhaps I am paraphrasing.)

Nusca goes on to crunch some numbers for a hypothetical intern living in New York. I’ll let you read his math at his site. The basic idea is that interning 2-3 days a week and working the rest of the weekday is nowhere near enough money for rent, food, and transportation. One could argue that perhaps the hypothetical intern could work only two days a week and take a paying job for four (One might argue this, because, in fact, it’s what I did), but it’s true not many people want to give up even half their weekend to sell sandwiches. (“Pressatas,” in my case. Sexy.)

Nusca agrees: I am leaving weekends out of this. Not only does any sane human need time off…

(But he also writes: An intern would give 50 or 60 hours a week if they did not have to worry about basic living needs. Hmm.)

Okay, okay, 50 hours working at a deli is not nearly as much fun as 50 hours in a newsroom. But 50 hours is 50 hours. Since as Woody Allen says, 80% of success is showing up, can we call this a system of weeding out the people who want to be journalists because they think it “sounds fun” or because they don’t know what else to do? Someone only mildly interested in journalism will not make it through this system.

Is it true that internships discriminate against the poor by making it possible for only those subsidized by parents or loans to intern? Yes, it’s harder for someone on his or her own to survive a summer of remarkably tightened belts, but it’s possible to do regardless. This is true for any profession or any aspect of life, and I don’t see why journalism is a special case. If internship providers discriminate, then the rest of the world does, and we should be trying to fix the problem as a whole, not one symptom of it.

The other problem, Nusca explains, is that big papers think they can get away with not paying because you’re getting a line item on your resume, but that doesn’t excuse no-name rags who’re simply trying to score free labor.

Really, how many times have you seen “NO-NAME MAGAZINE” offering unpaid internships? Why? Never heard of it! And then you want me to work for you for free? Side-by-side with full-time employees the same age as me? And assume that I’m learning a lot because 1) you say I am, 2) you’re a publication, 3) I’m working closely with the ‘editor,’ one of three total people on staff, and 4) clerical duties really subscribe to an experience an internship can provide but a secretary job can’t?

This might not be an internship I’d take, but I can see the draw, and I don’t think Nusca should be so quick to dismiss it. Two days a week with a magazine that is or could be an up-and-coming publication is something you can take away at the end of the summer and show to employers. It looks good if you say “I put this entire spread together. This is mine, this is mine, and this is mine.” An internship like this might be worth a shot, because you will not be performing clerical duties on a staff of four, I can guarantee that. What will you have to show at the end of a summer in the mailroom or fact-checking department?

Besides, smaller newspapers–which are not at all the same as “No-Name Magazine,” though Nusca seems to conflate the concepts–are…I don’t want to say “perfectly respectable” because that’s still looking at them from a “big city” lens. A smaller paper is more than perfectly respectable, it’s an aspiring journo’s ticket to the big dailies. Expect to be asked to choose between a resume line that looks good but translates to filing, photocopying, and inventorying the newsroom’s “junk closet”–or a resume line with a small paper and a portfolio full of clips.

So is the system “broken”?

School can only teach you so much. You can only learn to write from having written. Is it really so terrible to let someone to work for free two days a week? By taking on an intern, sure, a company’s getting free labor, but they also have to deal with supervising the kid to make sure he/she doesn’t totally screw up. Most internships offer some sort of mentoring program along with the work a student’s expected to do. More time and resources. Am I so cynical that I wouldn’t trust most of my peers in a major metropolitan daily? Actually, yes. Hell, I wouldn’t trust myself. Hence the internship I’ve accepted. I don’t mean to apologize for a system that many find unfair, but it’s a system that’s worked for me and for many others. (Oh. I guess I do mean to apologize for the system.)

(And I’ve heard the “well move to another city then!” thing before, and I think it’s hogwash. Media is here. Opportunities are here. Why move away?)

Because if someone can’t find an opportunity, especially with multiple internships under his or her belt, how are we so sure so sure the jobs are here? The market here is saturated. Let’s be realistic. I love New York, but I’m not going to spend five years writing obits for the Daily News just so I can have the chance of moving up to court reporting, so I can maybe see my name in the New York Times a quarter-century from now. In 2002, everyone was recommending doing a stint outside the tri-state area. I doubt much has changed, so I’m going to spend some time away from New York, build up my skills, become someone more valuable than an obituary writer, and then, maybe five years from now, I’ll come back.

And I’ll be better for it.

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3 Responses to “Are Journalism Internships a Joke?”


  1. Thanks for picking up on my post, Rachel. Your comments are insightful and wonderful to read, especially because you’ve had the New York experience!

    I just wanted to clarify something: I’m not dismissing small internships for smaller publications. You’re absolutely right – they can indeed be valuable! I just think that seeing, in a list of journalism internships available on the J-department websites of journalism programs in the city (for example), a small company looking for a clerical intern for free is just blasphemy to me. How do you expect me to want to work for you? Sure, you can have a great experience and learn a lot at one of these places. But that’s very hit-or-miss, and there’s far too many little (unpaid) internships to make that wager. (I do understand that small budgets leave little money for interns. That’s why there should be top-down reform). I’d rather get a real job and be comfortable and freelance for great clips than put in unpaid time at a place that isn’t teaching me anything (prestigious or not).

    The bottom line is we are adults, not kids. How exactly can society say “if you get a college degree, you’ll succeed” and then expect poverty after the degree — unrelated to all those loans we still have to pay off? There’s a disconnect there, somewhere.

    And to comment on the “working weekends” thing: What I mean to say is that an intern would work his or her respective butts off if they could live comfortably. But to go paycheck-to-paycheck while working six or more days a week? Forget it, man. It’s not worth it when I can get a real job – especially as a graduate. Don’t forget the “been there, done that” aspect. Why should I inconvenience myself to the point of poverty when I’ve got a college degree and plenty of working experience already?

    However, I must say, the leaving the tri-state area idea is one of hot debate. Some say yes, others say no – I say do what works for you. It’s hard as hell to write ’round these five boroughs, true, but I think it depends on the person. I think we shouldn’t be so quick to recommend doing one thing or the other — I’m pretty sick of hearing “you need to leave town to get experience” from people with jobs who never left town. Clearly, it isn’t that black and white. That’s why it’s hogwash to me.

    Thanks for reading and please continue to (I enjoy your anecdotes),
    The Editorialiste.
    http://editorialiste.blogspot.com/

  2. Rachel Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Andrew. (Mr. Editorialiste?) I think what you missed in my post is that journalism is exceedingly popular as a profession right now. (Go figure.) This is great, of course–I’m proud to be part of a generation so passionate about changing the world–but it also means that a lot of people aren’t going to make it, and a lot of people are going to struggle before making it. The simple fact is that there are more people with “communications” degrees than there are job openings. Just like any other glamour profession–acting, fashion, “being a novelist” (always a good one), the ones who aren’t talented enough, hardworking enough, or lucky enough, will have to find other avenues in, or another career.

    I intend on being one of the talented, hardworking, lucky ones. :)

  3. CubReporters Says:

    Thought you might be interested in checking out CubReporters.org, an online career guide for young journalists and college students.


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