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In defense of unpaid internships

In 1999, I published my very first article: a 400-word review of a book about Japanese art from 1615 to 1868. It was a catalogue for an exhibition that spring at Yale University, and I got the assignment not because I was an expert on Japanese art, or because I was a student at Yale, or because I doggedly shopped my idea around until I found a magazine that would publish it. I got it because I was already at the magazine that did, the Utne Reader in Minneapolis, as an editorial intern. The $50 I earned for writing that review was the only payment I received at that magazine, where I put in roughly 30 hours per week for six full months without a vacation. But I didn’t care: I was there to learn from accomplished writers and editors, to make mistakes without fear of losing my job, and to figure out if I really wanted to be a journalist. And that’s exactly what I got.

This week the magazine publisher Condé Nast announced that it was ending its unpaid editorial internship program after being sued by two former interns at two of its magazines, W and the New Yorker. The lawsuit was filed on June 13th, just two days after a federal court district judge ruled that production interns on the film Black Swan should have been compensated for their work. And a few days later, on June 17th, a former Atlantic Records intern sued that company for not paying him during his time as an unpaid intern in 2007 and 2008.

It seems pretty safe to say that the Black Swan ruling inspired others to seek the same recompense. But is the same recompense due?

In the case of Black Swan, interns were treated like gofers. They spent their time fetching coffee and answering phones, and gained little to no marketable experience that might help them get paid work later on. The lawsuit brought to light how interns in certain “glamour” industries like entertainment and media are often exploited for free labor, leading to a significant distinction: For an internship to be unpaid, it must foster an educational environment; if interns are treated as they were on the set of Black Swan, then they should be paid. It’s that simple.

But sometimes what counts as “marketable” or “educational” experience isn’t cut and dried, and there’s a lot to be said for the apprenticeship model that (good) internships are based upon–even if the apprenticeship sometimes entails some very tedious tasks. Plenty of former Condé Nast interns went on to get  jobs that they could not have gotten without having had those internships, and my own editorial internship, which included some grunt work that wasn’t even remotely editorial, led to job offers from ArtForumLingua Franca, and the Silicon Alley Reporter. I accepted the latter because it promised writing opportunities; the others were fact-checking/research jobs.

The point  is that I would not have gotten those offers without having had that internship on my resume. At the time, the Utne Reader was a well-respected and well-known magazine, and the experience my internship there provided was invaluable. I learned as much about journalism in those six months as people I knew who paid $40,000 for master’s degrees in the field — many of whom couldn’t find work after they graduated. I, meanwhile, learned not only how to edit and fact-check and pitch ideas, but how to approach writing not merely as a utility, but as a craft. Sure, I had to wait tables to survive, but I came out even at the end, not in debt.

Admittedly, my rent was $300 because it was 1999 and I lived in Minneapolis. I couldn’t have done it otherwise, and even then, I was scraping by. Interns in New York face a far more daunting reality — unless they’re independently wealthy. But this has been the case for decades, and no one ever said that aspiring journalists have to begin their careers in one of the most expensive cities in the country. They could cut their teeth elsewhere and then move here with a few clips under their belts. That’s what I did, and it paid off in the long run. Maybe not in riches, but that’s not why I went into this field in the first place.

My salary at the Silicon Alley Reporter was $32,000 a year, which even 14 years ago was not much money in New York, and I’ve since written freelance articles for as little as $.010 per word. But I’ve also written articles for as much as $1.50 per word, and I’ve gotten to ghostwrite books, cover political conventions, teach college classes, and write about topics ranging from business and technology to independent film, contemporary art, and even my avocation, competitive distance running.

In each of those jobs, I have been guided by one precept: if my name is attached to something I’m going to work on it until it’s as good as I can make it–regardless of how much I’m getting paid. If I’m editing someone else’s work, I’ll do the same thing. And for this, I credit my time at the Utne Reader. 

One day, as the senior editor at that magazine and I brainstormed leads for the piece I’d just written, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose while I stood by in awkward silence. We’d tried several leads already, and none of them sounded right. He looked pained, and I worried that he was annoyed. He had become my unofficial mentor at the magazine, and he even persuaded the other editors to let me write the article. Interns didn’t usually get to write for the magazine, and I didn’t want to let him down.

Eventually, he released his grip, opened his eyes, and relaxed his face. He typed out an opening line, glanced up at me for approval, and I agreed that it worked. But if I hadn’t, he would have stayed there with me until we landed on one that did. After all, it was my article, and that’s what editors do. The good ones, anyway.