Unpaid Internships

Last week one of my former students, now a Master of Journalism graduate, asked me if I’d give her a reference for a job. No problem  – except it wasn’t for a job – it was for a THREE month, unpaid internship at a reputable magazine.

This student speaks three languages. She has a BA and an MJ. She’s worked, in journalism overseas. She’s done other unpaid internships for big media outlets. But she can’t find a job and she’s currently waitressing. She figures more unpaid work is the only path to a career in magazine writing.

This student is impressive and I gave her a positive reference. But I also told the magazine manager I would have preferred recommending this grad for a PAID job. I said hiring this intern would be one heck of a deal – for the magazine.

I have no problem with internships. That’s how I got my foot in the door at CBC 20 years ago. But I believe an employer/mentor should be able to get a sense of the intern’s capabilities within the first two weeks. If the employer wants the intern to work after that – great – but they should pay him or her. Three months of unpaid work is excessive and exploitative.

This graduate would love the opportunity to freelance for this magazine. She’s smart and she has ideas, but she says her freelance proposals won’t likely be heard unless she does her time as an intern first. Perhaps some more guidance at J-School, geared towards building freelance pitches and finding original, enterprising story ideas, would have given her more confidence to skip the unpaid internships and simply hang up her shingle as a professional writer. Freelancing involves a lot of work, but it’s paid work and it results in by-lines, not just fact-checking or proof reading.

She got the internship. Of course she did. They’d have been insane not to bring her on. But she won’t be hanging up the waitress apron for at least three months – days at the magazine, nights at the bar.


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