Unfair and Unpaid: Denouncing Unpaid Journalism Internships

Cartoon by Emma Hines

In 2013, Condé Nast — the media company that owns renowned publications like The New Yorker, Vogue and Vanity Fair — announced that they were disbanding their internship program. 

The news hit the journalism industry hard. Prospective interns — mostly undergraduate or graduate students — felt shocked. “We’re no longer going to have that foot in the door,” one student told The New York Times when the cancellation of the internship program was announced. 

Looking back, the frustration seems misplaced; because in reality, the metaphorical door that so many young journalists felt was closed in their face, was really ever only open to a select few. The decision to cancel the internship program came in the middle of a legal battle, in which two previous interns were suing the company, claiming that their internships violated both federal and state labor laws. 

The internships offered at Condé Nast brands were, for the most part, unpaid labor. In some cases, interns were paid stipends that maxed out at $500 for their entire internship; In others, interns walked away from 12-hour shifts with just $12. 

Almost a decade later, not much has changed. According to a survey completed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2018, 43% of internships in the United States were unpaid. Just this week, a poll on The Oracle’s Instagram account (@newpaltzoracle) found that 68% of SUNY New Paltz journalism students past and present had completed an unpaid internship; 91% feel that unpaid internships are unethical. 

We at The New Paltz Oracle agree with the majority of our readership in that unpaid internships — including internships for college-credit only, or those that offer an unlivable stipend — are unethical and outdated. Regardless of experience, everyone deserves to be paid a livable wage for their work. 

In a piece for Forbes titled “CONSTRUCTIVELY DISQUALIFIED: The Exponentially High Cost Of Unpaid Journalism Internships,” Carla Bell wrote that “By design, journalism internships can perpetuate structural segregation by income, education, and race.” This may explain why — according to data released by the Pew Research Center in 2018 — 77% of all newsroom employees in the United States are non-Hispanic whites. 

Throughout history — and still today — the journalism industry has been a rich boys club. As noted in the Forbes piece, in a pre- and post-COVID world, a majority of internships at major, notable publications require interns to be present in their offices and newsrooms located in major cities. Even with stipends or travel costs being covered, affording to live in these cities is a luxury that is only accessible to those in a higher economic bracket. 

While today, most internships offered at major publications are paid positions, one’s access to higher-education plays a direct role in their access to these internships. Not only are they often advertised via universities’ job boards — essentially blocking out prospective journalists who are not enrolled in a four-year journalism program, for whatever reason — but they also select their candidates from a small pool of universities. 

After conducting research into internships programs at seven highly-regarded publications — including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington PostVoices reported in 2019 that in the summer of 2018, “65% of interns from those seven organizations attended a group of intensely selective universities that make up just 13% of U.S. four-year colleges.” 

These universities included Ivy League schools, like Yale, along with “elite” universities, such as NYU and Northwestern. The common thread between a majority of the schools that the publications selected their interns from was that they were overwhelmingly private, four-year universities. The findings can be discouraging to prospective journalists who are not in a financial position to afford these universities. 

So — under the guise of “experience” or “resume building” — students accept unpaid positions at local publications, often having to sacrifice hours at part-time, paying jobs in order to devote the required time to these internships. 

At SUNY New Paltz, an industry-related internship is required to graduate with a major or minor in journalism. While some positions will offer pay in addition to college credits, a majority of internships in the industry offer credits in lieu of pay, or even a stipend. 

Due to this, many New Paltz journalism students find themselves accepting unpaid, for-credit positions not because they feel the experience will advance their career, or that they will even gain valuable skills — but simply because they must, in order to graduate. 

We at The Oracle believe that rather than requiring students to earn credits from an internship in order to complete their degree in journalism, internships should simply be encouraged. This requirement, combined with a lack of financial resources available to students to ease the burden of accepting an unpaid internship, can often lead to students being forced to accept an unpaid position, despite the financial situation it puts them in. 

A quick glance at other undergraduate journalism programs — from schools like NYU and Columbia, to fellow SUNY school, SUNY Purchase — reveals that the requirement of an internship is not necessarily the norm. Of course, an internship is an important step towards the eventual goal of becoming a journalist. However, requiring for-credit internships only fuels the acceptance and normalization of unpaid internships. 

Not only is an internship required to graduate from the journalism program, but the road towards securing one is at times lonely — and confusing — for students. 

While the department of digital media and journalism does provide students with a monthly newsletter advertising internship opportunities, these are overwhelmingly unpaid positions, and tend to lack diversity in the positions being advertised. An Instagram account (@npcommmedia) does exist for students to browse industry-related opportunities, but the combination with the department of communication leads to these postings casting a wide-net, with positions like social media and production internships flooding the feed. 

For those who are able to secure an internship, the process doesn’t end there. Because internships must coincide with the semester during which the student is earning credits, you must secure a position prior to the end of the add/drop period for that semester. This means that if, by chance, a student is offered a position after this period, they must make the decision to complete the internship for nothing more than “learning experience,” or they must decline the offer. 

Additionally, students who make the popular decision to complete their internship during the summer intersession still must apply for credits and complete a 1-credit “internship seminar” course along with their internship. 

The internship information packet provided by the department of digital media and journalism reads: “Summer internships credits are not part of your annual tuition charges. Summer internship credits must be paid for individually PER CREDIT HOUR according to your residency status.” Meaning, not only are students often forced to accept unpaid positions, but they can find themselves quite literally paying out-of-pocket for these positions. 

The internship information packet reads: “Most internships are unpaid positions. An organization offers you a learning experience in exchange for your labor.” Nowhere in the packet, however, are students provided resources for how they can avoid the financial sacrifice this “learning experience” requires them to make. 

We believe that the benefits of requiring an internship to graduate with a major or minor in journalism do not outweigh the financial strain it can put on students. Should this requirement remain, we believe that more needs to be done to encourage and assist students in seeking out positions that will compensate them for their work. 

Your work is worth more than just “learning experience.”