A Great Career Opportunity Or Indentured Servitude?

Sep 18, 2013

This summer, I had the opportunity to meet one of the lions of our industry, a revered pioneer of our craft who has, in recent years, taken his treasure chest of knowledge, experiences and talents to academia.  Each year, his students emerge with a solid set of employable skills and a strong sense of journalistic integrity.  

Within minutes of meeting him, I mentioned one of his students had applied for an internship at our station and I had been impressed with her.  Unfortunately, I told him, she had taken advantage of another opportunity.

His response was swift and surgical.  “Were you going to pay her?”

“No,” I replied.  “We’re a pretty small station and we don’t have …”

“I would have told her to go somewhere else,” he barked.  “I think it’s terrible to expect a student who’s paying $50,000 a year for her education to work for you for free.”

I thought about trying to explain our station’s financial state, our commitment to making internships a valuable experience, and the mutual respect and gratitude we share with our interns.  I thought about describing my own history as an unpaid intern at Grand Rapids’ WCUZ in the summer of 1982, an experience that ignited my passion for radio and set me on a course for a career that has been creatively and intellectually fulfilling.  I also thought about suggesting universities reimburse interns by trimming a couple grand from their annual tuition, room and board, a figure that has increased an average of 42% at public institutions between 2000-2010 (when adjusted for inflation). 

Instead, I opted to discuss the Pleasant Weather We’d Been Having

In justifying my decision to change the subject, I can blame my distaste for confrontation and my desire to avoid a public scene.  But ultimately, I knew I was occupying the moral low ground in this particular argument. 

Today’s college students are facing an uncertain and frightening future.  They are graduating with unprecedented levels of debt and they’re entering an economy with an unemployment rate that simply refuses to fall.   Journalism majors are confronted with an industry going through a dramatic transition that challenges our very existence.   

In her Entrepreneur.com article “The Case For Paying Interns”, Kathleen Davis points out that 61% of unpaid interns are forced to take a second job simply to meet their day-to-day expenses.  Sixty-five percent say they have to rely on their parents to help them pay their bills. 

Aside from the moral argument, there are legal considerations.  Earlier this summer, PBS talk show host Charlie Rose and his production company announced they were paying a group of former interns $60,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the plaintiffs claimed a right to compensation.  The announcement closely followed Fox Searchlight Pictures’ settlement of a claim by several former production interns that they were entitled to payment for their work on the production of the 2010 film “Black Swan.”  Many more media companies that have long relied on the contributions of unpaid interns are awaiting their legal fates, from Atlantic Records to the Fox Soccer Channel. 

This upheaval is bound to create a chilling effect in our industry.  If a station can’t afford to pay an intern, how can it possibly afford to defend itself against a lawsuit? 

At WUOT, we make every effort to address internship candidates honestly about the absence of compensation.   We deliberately downplay any discussion that would lead a potential intern to assume future employment at the station.  

However, we do promise an interesting, enriching and mutually beneficial experience.  Over the course of the internship, the student will learn how to recognize good stories, mine data, find sources, arrange and conduct interviews, edit sound and write up copy for the newscasts.  They’ll cover press conferences and meetings.  They’ll post content to the web.  And they’ll produce a four-minute feature for air.   When they leave the station, they’ll have accumulated enough content to produce a respectable resume reel to take with them into the world.

Given all the current pressure to pay interns, our newsroom may have to re-visit the wisdom of providing an internship program.  Public radio stations around the country will have to examine their educational priorities and the risks inherent in offering unpaid internships. 

If they can afford to pay their interns, perhaps they should.  But a lot of stations can’t.  And the unfortunate result is that thousands of students will miss out on a complicit opportunity to see this remarkable profession from the inside.  

It’s a difficult decision that involves a careful examination of station finances, personal morality and a heavy dose of realism.  

In the meantime, Pleasant Weather We’ve Been Having, yes?