The intern debate

Are free internships exploitative or invaluable?

The newsroom is humming. Reporters chowing down on pizza and watching the results of the provincial election surround Colin Chisholm. The adrenaline in the room is palpable. For Chisholm, this moment is more akin to “something out of The West Wing.”

In later weeks, one of his stories will be splashed on the front page of the Halifax Metro, and go on to be included in the Toronto Star. Chisholm may be on the bottom of the proverbial journalism food chain, but he feels on top of the world.

“(It was) one of those big realization moments that even though I’m an intern, you can still make a really big impact and your writing is still just as important as everyone else’s,” says Chisholm, reflecting back on his time at Metro.

“The term ‘intern’ has allowed people to use it as a map to undervalue the skills of young people.”

— Claire Seaborn, president, Canadian Intern Association

Chisholm was an intern the summer of 2009 after his third year at the University of King’s College. At the end of his six-week internship the staff gave him a thank you note and a gift card to Future Shop. That was the only compensation Chisholm received for the work he did.

“Would it have been great to have received minimum wage? Absolutely, but at the same time I don’t regret my experience. I don’t wish I could go back and do something for money,” says Chisholm.

Fast forward four years later and unpaid internships like the one Chisholm did are still common. A CBC story published online in July 2013 estimated this year between 100,000 to 300,000 young Canadians were unpaid interns at any given time. With the recent economic recession, employers are using unpaid interns to fill in gaps in the workforce. With 16.5 per cent of Canadians younger than 24 unemployed, there aren’t a lot of other options right now for young people.

Due to the impact of the recession on journalism organizations, internship programs are becoming widespread across the industry. From larger, well-known publications like CBC and Vice Canada to smaller papers like the Coast and the Grid, many news organizations are taking on unpaid workers. This allows young journalists to learn the ropes while they wait for full-time paid positions to open up.

“A lot of circulation went down, a lot of newspapers, a lot of people laid off, not a lot of hiring,” says Lars Osberg, an economics professor at Dalhousie University. “The bigger impact is the whole upheaval in the media in general with newspaper sales way down, ad revenue way down for newspapers. It’s a tough time for print, specifically.”

Interning is a good way to get practical experience, but some internship programs are problematic.  Recent media coverage has publicized complaints by former interns for Bell, Fox Searchlight, and Gawker, after they allegedly used interns to do menial tasks and replace employees, instead of giving them vocational training.

Seen on Craigslist recently: “I inherited four large plants. I think they may be ficuses but am unsure. I’ve been watering them semi-regularly. I am looking for an unpaid intern to arrive at my apartment at 8:30 every morning to water my plants. Also make coffee, sweep, mild cleaning, walk my two beagles.”

This ad strikes at the heart of this issue. Are interns getting valuable job experience or are they just gofers?

For Chisholm, it was the former. “It’s invaluable, being an intern, whether it’s paid or unpaid. It allows you to get into the workforce… You’re testing the waters, you’re finding out what’s right, what’s wrong. Its like you’re trying out the profession and I think that’s absolutely important.

“It gets you out of the classroom and out into the real world, doing real stories that a whole lot of readers are going to pick up and read the next day.”

Former Metro intern Colin Chisholm reading the paper in the Public Gardens.
Colin Chisholm says interning at Metro was great.(Photo: Rachel Bloom)

“The term “intern” has allowed people to use it as a map to undervalue the skills of young people,” says Claire Seaborn. She is the president of the Canadian Intern Association, an organization which works with businesses, universities and other organizations to improve conditions for interns. Seaborn is a third-year University of Ottawa law student, who has completed two legal internships, one for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. and one for the office of the attorney general of Canada.

Seaborn, currently on an academic exchange in France, says she formed the association in June 2012. After speaking to friends who had interned, she realized interns need representation of their rights. One of the main goals of the Intern Association is to get provinces to amend their provincial employment legislature to include interns. The only provinces that have done this are Ontario and British Columbia.

This is specifically an issue in Nova Scotia, says Andrew Langille, a youth and employment lawyer in Toronto. Nova Scotia’s Labour Standards Code mandates a minimum wage of $10.30 for employees and says an “employee” is a person employed to do work. In Nova Scotia, it’s been ruled that “interns” and “mentors” who Langille would consider to be employees under the law, were considered volunteers and awarded no wages.

With the lines between volunteers, interns and employees blurred, interns currently aren’t recognized as employees in Nova Scotia. In August 2013 the Nova Scotia Labour Board decided that, under the law, a Halifax woman’s work in a mentorship program was completed strictly as a volunteer and not an employee.

This would not have been the case in Ontario. Ontario labour laws lay out specific conditions that mandate the difference between paid work and internship programs.

Internships are also becoming commonplace in academic programs. Most journalism students in Canada are required to intern at some point in their program. Amanda Hawkes, a second-year student majoring in Radio Broadcasting at the Nova Scotia Community College, says interning at radio station Lite 92.9 helped improve her writing. During her four weeks at the station, Hawkes wrote commercials and got on air, a welcome change from learning in the classroom.

Others, like Chisholm, apply to internships independently from their schools to supplement classroom learning. Chisholm’s editor at Metro, Philip Croucher, takes on these interns, saying it would be wrong, as a community paper, to turn away young people eager to learn.

Croucher gives interns helpful tips on how to finesse their writing, gives them the chance to build up their portfolios and gets them out in the field doing real-life reporting. “I remember having an intern here and on her first day there was a shooting and all my other reporters were out. I said ‘We’re getting in a car and going over there.’ You don’t get that in a classroom,” he says. “I wasn’t going to throw her out into it by herself but I thought it was great experience for her to come with me.”

Croucher gives interns a taste of the real world in the form of expectations as well. He requests interns write the same number of stories per day as full-time staff, with the same strict deadlines and set hours. Croucher has even let an intern go for consistently not showing up for work.

For most interns, abiding by these deadlines and hours isn’t a problem. Eager to learn, Chisholm bused to Halifax to work every day from Lower Sackville. He worked from 9 a.m. to “around suppertime” before hopping on the bus for the long ride home. On top of his hours at Metro, Chisholm also worked two or three shifts a week at Empire Theatres, a job he still holds, on top of his freelancing position with the Chronicle Herald.

Chisholm writes two or three stories a week for the community section of the paper. Chisholm admits he could afford to work for free because he lived at home and didn’t have any rent or additional bills to pay. Living with his parents allowed him to intern for a month and a half, the maximum amount of time Croucher says he lets interns stay.

Seven years of internship

Imagine interning for seven years. For apprentices in the Middle Ages, seven years of job shadowing was not outlandish. In fact, it was the norm.Today, most journalism internships are six weeks long. It would take approximately 61 of those placements to parallel an apprenticeship of yesteryear.

Originally craftspeople, like blacksmiths, took on apprentices and provided food, boarding and training, in exchange for the apprentice’s free labour. Apprentices would gain the skills necessary for working under pressure, dealing with clients and, with time, would eventually become masters of the trade themselves.

Apprenticeships developed into internships, which emerged in the medical world. Before the Second World War, internships were exclusive to hospitals; the word “intern” originated from the French word “interne” in Boston City Hospital in 1865. Internships spread to the political realm in the 1930s, reaching newsrooms in the 1960s.

In addition to a time cap, Croucher has a few other guidelines for interns. Croucher covers transportation costs (taxi chits, parking costs, gas money), assesses their abilities before letting them go out in the field and aims to bring in students currently enrolled in journalism programs. Having completed two internships himself, one at the Halifax Daily News and another at the Enfield Weekly Press, before becoming editor of Metro, Croucher says unpaid internships do lead to opportunities.

“Two of my last three hires were through internships, so they came here working an internship and eventually worked into freelance work and then eventually made it to full time work,” he says.

Some of Chisholm’s peers disagree with his views. For fellow King’s journalism grad Bethany Horne, unpaid internships are not a career option she is willing to pursue. In her opinion, they are not the only way into journalism and are not a practical option for most post-graduates. After writing an anti-unpaid internship manifesto on her personal website in 2011, and having it published on J-Source, Horne aimed to build a career in journalism while refusing to work for free.

Currently in Quito, Ecuador, working as part of an economics research team at a local university, Horne is part of a global journalism co-op launching soon called Important/Cool. For alternatives to unpaid internships, she lists off starting at papers in non-urban areas and points out the example of Mixtape magazine, a magazine started up by former King’s colleagues that launched in September 2013.

“I think you’ve got to find your own path. There’s no right answer,” says Horne. She says she doesn’t judge those who take unpaid internships. “They want to learn. They’re just desperate enough to work for free to do it.”

Edit/Layout by Kimber Lubberts
Spring 2014