The price of free labour

With unpaid internships on the rise, are news organizations providing the right experience?

By Lucy Scholey

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Kim Hart Macneill among piles of donated books at This Magazine. She spent her three-month unpaid internship answering phone calls and fact-checking articles. (Photo courtesy: Kim Hart Macneill)

By Lucy Scholey

Kim Hart Macneill needed another internship. Even if it was unpaid. She applied to different journalism jobs, but heard the same tune: she didn’t have enough experience.

Frustrated with this dead-end response and eager to exercise her journalism degree, Macneill grasped the opportunity to work an unpaid internship at This Magazine.

She stuffed a bag with clothes and a quality knife, placed a laptop and frying pan in each hand and departed for Toronto. She planned to couch-surf until the end of her three-month internship and her return to husband and cats in Montreal.

It’s how the journalism graduate survived without pay.

The alternative magazine plunged her into fact-checking feature articles about raw milk and the legalization of drugs. On top of her daily calls to sources, the phone rang non-stop.

This is a survey of 10 news organizations. The number of interns does not count the total interns per year. It counts the number of interns per session.
This is a survey of 10 news organizations. The number of interns does not count the total interns per year. It counts the number of interns per session.

With three other people in the newsroom – the editor, the publisher and another intern – it was no surprise she had lots to do.

“I feel like we’re really essential to the whole thing,” she said. “Without interns, there would be no space for fact-checking.”

It’s no longer about coffee runs. Many internships demand fast-paced and committed people to shoulder some workload, sometimes for free. A survey of 10 news organizations and interviews with scholars and interns paint this increasing trend.

In the midst of media cutbacks, the question is whether unpaid internships help fledgling journalists, exploit them or both.

Last year, the media industry looked grim. Kubas Consultants, a newspaper research firm, predicted cutbacks in its 2009 Preview. The survey of 422 North American papers said most newsrooms would reduce staff and non-staff costs during that year. In many cases, newspapers fired employees, said Ed Strapagiel, the company’s executive vice president.

Canadian magazines didn’t do too well either. The industry suffered a 30 per cent drop in advertising revenues last year, resulting in several staff layoffs, according to a Magazines Canada budget report.

How these numbers affect internships is unclear. Some media outlets recruit interns on a casual basis or don’t have a structured program. This makes it difficult to pinpoint how interns fit into news organizations. It’s especially difficult in non-unionized news rooms where the number of interns might not be as closely managed.

Paid internships are still available – nearly half the Canadian print internships listed on J-source.ca are paid or offer an honorarium – but the competition is fierce.

So whether aspiring journalists work for pay or experience, most are familiar with the tired cliché – internships beef up portfolios and provide an avenue to entry-level positions. Sometimes that means gritting your teeth and working a six-month unpaid position.

A one-way or two-way street

For Mike Gasher, unpaid internships teeter between experience and exploitation.

“There does come a time when you need to start getting paid for your work,” said the director of journalism at Concordia University, referring to unpaid internships that span months.

He understands the value of internships, but finds their increasing duration unsettling.

He has organized a spring meeting for the chairs of journalism departments across Canada. Internships will be a topic. Gasher said he hopes all universities can agree to a time limit on student internships of one to three weeks.

“Anything more than that strikes the line of crossing into exploitation.”

Not so, say some editors.

Jennifer Campbell, online editor of Fashion Magazine, said internships benefit both the intern and the employer. That’s partly the reason she bumped the three-month internship program to four months.

“We don’t want to overburden people if we’re not paying them,” says Cassandra Jowett, TalentEgg’s editor of publications. (Photo Courtesy: Cassandra Jowett)
“We don’t want to overburden people if we’re not paying them,” says Cassandra Jowett, TalentEgg’s editor of publications. (Photo Courtesy: Cassandra Jowett)

“I just thought it was, obviously, better for me having somebody who was a little more experienced, but also better for them because they can start taking on higher-level projects,” she said.

And if interns aren’t up to speed, they are sometimes more work for the editor, said Mark Laliberte, Descant managing editor.

“When you take on interns, there’s responsibilities too,” he said. “It’s not all like get, get, get.”

But Gasher said he’s still seen a flood of intern requests at Concordia since he started three years ago. It isn’t mainstream organizations asking for extra help, he said, but smaller, independent outlets.

Big help for the little guys

University students probably hadn’t heard of TalentEgg when they saw an internship opportunity in their school inboxes last September.

The student- and graduate- run company sent e-mails asking for volunteer assistant editors to look over its freelanced articles. Based in Toronto, the website provides job and internship resources for university and recently graduated students.

The company is feeling the growing pains, said editor Cassandra Jowett, one of five hired staff members since the company launched over a year ago. Interns can ease the process.

“I’m just looking for people to sort of take over the smaller tasks … reading through the articles and fixing the spelling and grammar and putting the links in,” said the 23-year-old Ryerson graduate.

The company sells its website space to employers, but looks to volunteer writers to provide content.

“We’ve all been students ourselves. We’re all recent grads. We’ve been there, so we know that it’s tough,” said Jowett, who’s worked unpaid internships at the National Post and TalentEgg. It’s possible for companies to exploit interns, she said, but it’s not the case at TalentEgg, where interns will work just five to 10 hours a week.

“If they want to do more, then that’s awesome, but we don’t want to overburden people if we’re not paying them,” she said.

A few blocks northwest of TalentEgg’s office, The Walrus Magazine is taking a financial hit.

It’s a clear reality to Ashton Osmak. When she sat down for a Walrus internship interview, she found herself listening to a presentation about the not-for-profit organization’s financial pinch. Shelley Ambrose, executive director and co-publisher, presented Osmak a pie chart that showed advertising – one third of the company’s revenues – down 50 per cent.

Osmak said the numbers were discouraging but “there was never a ‘And then we’re gonna throw in the towel, you’re really just here to … mop up the blood.’ It was more of a ‘We’ve got this challenge ahead of us. Are you ready?’”

Months later, Osmak made her own presentation. Ambrose tasked her with creating a database to record individual donations. Osmak had to instruct the publishing staff about using the database.

Philip Croucher, managing editor for Metro Halifax, says his interns leave as better journalists. (Photo Courtesy: Lucy Scholey)
Philip Croucher, managing editor for Metro Halifax, says his interns leave as better journalists. (Photo Courtesy: Lucy Scholey)

The Walrus opened her eyes to the inner workings of a magazine and landed her a paid internship at the International Festival of Authors. Still, she had mixed feelings about working for free.

“You financially take a hit because you’re not getting paid,” she said, “But on the other hand … you’re not paying someone to teach you.”

When the magazine took a hit, the company cut its art and editorial internships from six months to four months. This time frame wasn’t enough, said managing editor Jared Bland, also a former Walrus intern. Interns don’t usually grasp the work until the third or fourth month.

Ambrose says the magazine might increase its editorial and arts internships back to six months because interns “don’t want to leave after four months.”

This Magazine – another not-for-profit organization – hasn’t cut any staff. The newsroom is already too slim, said editor Graham Scott. He relies on unpaid interns, reluctantly, because he said it’s exploitive.

“I would love to pay our interns and I think that they’re worth it, but we just don’t have the cash for that,” he said, adding that he’s frustrated with larger, wealthier news organizations who take unpaid interns.

“When they don’t pay their interns, I think that’s bad for those businesses,” he said. “I think it’s bad for the interns and I think it’s bad for the industry.”

On a bigger scale

When Metro English Canada cut staff at its Toronto location last year, rumours circulated that the company replaced its workers with unpaid interns, but Dianne Rinehart, former editor-in-chief for Metro English Canada, said internship programs at any news organization aren’t linked to staff layoffs.

It’s a fair assessment. Internships and staffing levels don’t translate on a company’s financial statement. If interns play a role, it’s a minute fraction of the overall structure.

“It’s not like workers are being replaced by interns,” said Concordia University’s Mike Gasher. Ask any news organization. Of course they’ll say the same.

But the numbers suggest otherwise.

The 10 news organizations surveyed by King’s Journalism Review saw a staff decrease and an intern increase over the past year.

Some outlets, like TalentEgg, saw an intern increase partly because they are new.

Metro Halifax launched in 2008 and lost four full-time staffers 10 months later. When Philip Croucher took over in February, he rotated five university students during the spring and summer, each at overlapping four- to six-week intervals. It was the paper’s first summer with interns.

The students submitted several stories a day and their bylines frequented the front page.

“They’re right in the grind,” said Croucher, Metro Halifax managing editor, referring to his summer interns. “There weren’t many days where they were left with not much to do.”

But interns aren’t essential to the operation, he said. Any Haligonian who flips to the local pages every day will see the same four bylines. The head company in Toronto produces the paper, pulling other stories from The Canadian Press and Torstar News Services.

Jennifer Casey holds an article she wrote for Metro Halifax. She says the unpaid internship helped land her a job at News 95.7. (Photo: Lucy Scholey)
Jennifer Casey holds an article she wrote for Metro Halifax. She says the unpaid internship helped land her a job at News 95.7. (Photo: Lucy Scholey)

Internships at Metro are more for the benefit of the interns said Rinehart, whose 30 years of journalism experience includes teaching at a university.

“I’m not sure how you can exploit someone who is doing something voluntarily,” she said. “It’s their choice, it gives them the requirement that they have for their classroom studies … and also gives them the opportunity to upgrade their skills even if it’s not a requirement at journalism schools.”

It’s similar at Eye Weekly, where interns are appreciated, but not necessary, said senior editor Edward Keenan, though interns help ease the editors’ work.

For Gasher, such loaded work isn’t the problem. He’s worried more about the exploitation of planting interns in the corner of a story meeting with little to do. This was hardly the case with the 10 sampled news organizations. In most programs, interns fact-check, edit, write and almost anything else.

So it can boil down to a win-win situation for the company and the intern.

That’s how it worked for Jennifer Casey. Her Metro Halifax internship helped snag her a paid position last June.

“The managing editor here … looked at me and said, ‘Oh you worked for Metro. That’s good. I know you can write short,’” said the News 95.7 audio editor.

Wearing jeans and an old Montreal Canadiens T-shirt, the sports enthusiast covers Moosehead games in snappy, 50-second radio voicers, not unlike the 300-word stories she wrote for Metro.

Kim Hart Macneill interned at Metro during the same time. She pumped out several articles, but like any freelancer at This Magazine she had to pitch a story if she wanted to write a feature piece. She was willing to do the grunt work for free.

“It’s financially very hard and slightly uncomfortable,” said Macneill, but “I don’t want to miss out on something that a) I paid a lot to learn to do and b) really love doing.”