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Unpaid Internships: Are they worth your time?

unpaid internship
Thomas Martino
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Published on May 7, 2014

This is a guest post by Kate Grise for Student Stories.

Each summer, hordes of undergraduate students flock to places like Washington, D.C., and New York City to try their hands at the media industry. The media industry welcomes these doe-eyed laborers with open arms, but many times they do not open their checkbooks to pay interns for their work.

In 2012, two former Condé Nast interns filed a lawsuit against the company claiming that they were mistreated and did not receive any form of compensation, monetary or learning experience, for their time and efforts. In an already struggling industry, should employees be expected to pay their interns, as the slew of interns who are suing their former bosses say they should?

Most media professionals and former interns argue that the experience you receive in an internship is a form of compensation that will serve you better in the long run.

“I believe in the freedom to (negotiate your own) contract. If you decide to contract with a company for no pay in exchange for experience, and you agree to the terms of the internship and that you can leave at anytime, I think that it is perfectly fine,” said Hannah Jackman, program director at the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.

For many undergraduate students looking to break into the media industry, internships are the best way to get started.

“It’s important to have a college degree, but at the end of the day, (employers) want to see some type of related experience if you’re going into the media industry,” said Jay Eubank, director of career services at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“It is the currency you will use to get a job.”

Below are some things to consider when looking for an internship:

What’s in it for you?

Classes and lectures about journalism can only teach a student so much, but the fast pace of a newsroom cannot be simulated in a classroom, as former interns have found out.

“It’s difficult to teach a student in lecture how to handle the various situations and problems that arise in the production of a broadcast news segment. A student learns best by trial, error and observation in instances like that.”

– Gabby Morrongiello, a junior at George Washington University and former intern at the Washington Examiner

Morrongiello says that she has learned more from her time as an intern than she has in her journalism classes, but she was also exposed to the harsh realities that come with a job in the media industry. She states,

“It’s typically understood that a career in media is rarely going to result in a six-figure salary. Journalists are at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of compensation per hours worked, and I think it’s important for a prospective journalist to understand that. There is also the lesson to be learned through the unpaid internship that once you graduate and are hired into the industry, you’ll often be working hours and putting in an exhausting effort that seemingly deserves better compensation. So I think the unpaid internship is also used as a tool of preparation.”

This type of real-world experience also serves to show interns what they don’t want out of a career before they begin a job search.

“(My internship) gave me insight into what I didn’t want. It helped me look for jobs afterwards by weeding out work environments and publications that I didn’t want to be a part of,” said Kaitlyn Schallhorn, a former intern at Red Alert Politics, a conservative news website geared toward young people.

Even when interns are not paid for their work, they are more than compensated  by the experience, bylines, and connections they make, says Schallhorn. She says that her internship also gave her the opportunity to prove herself to future employers.

Morrongiello says hers provided her with a network that has proven more than valuable in her search for other internships and jobs.

“Each internship/job opportunity subsequent to my very first journalism internship has been made possible through former editors or recommendations from sources. You really can’t succeed in the field of media without first establishing a network and continually expanding it,” she said.

What’s in it for them?

In an ideal internship, both parties are gaining something that is valuable and worth the effort they put in. For employers, they are getting the obvious “free labor,” but they gain much more by hosting interns.

“An internship is a good way for an employer to vet our potential future employees,” Hannah Jackman said.

The media industry is constantly evolving and is always looking for new talent. Hosting interns gives an employer the opportunity to evaluate a student’s work and find people who would be good fits for its publication.

“Unpaid internships in the media industry really shows just who goes that extra mile to achieve their dream. And if they go the extra mile to obtain an internship, even unpaid, it kind of proves that they already have a great work ethic,” Schallhorn said.

Jackman says she has certainly seen many of the interns that she places with media outlets turn their internships into full-time jobs because they were able to prove their worth to the company.

Picking the right internship

Eubank says that while he wishes that all internships could be paid, that is not reality, so students should be more focused on gaining experience and not get caught up in the paid vs. unpaid debacle.

Rather, he says students should assess their internship opportunities and find the one that will best meet their needs.

“I think it’s a good internship if it allows the intern to do hands on work, if they get to write or produce stories or edit things,” he said.

Eubank also recommends talking to former interns who have worked with the company to get a feel for the work environment and to ask many questions about what your job will be. According to Hannah Jackman,

“Ask if they have a plan for how they will use you, if you get the position. Ask as many questions beforehand as you can. Ultimately, an internship is a modern-day apprenticeship” It’s not blacksmithing, but working in a newsroom. You’re getting to be around people who do a craft that you’re interested in a getting into and having the opportunity to dabble in that craft.”

Thomas Martino

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