Interns At The Nation Pass Final Exam, Stand Up For Better Pay

August 2, 2013, 1:11 pm

66th Annual Tony Awards - Show

In a tradition dating back to the quarrels Alex Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens and Katha Pollitt used to have with each other (sometimes printed one right after another), interns at The Nation have decided to hold their employer publicly accountable.

Back in June, my favorite left weekly ran a good piece about poorly paid journalism internships, and how this route to work experience is reserved by default for kids (white, middle class or rich) who can pay their own way.  In “How To Fix Journalism’s Class and Color Crisis,” (June 3 2013) Farai Chideya linked “the resegregation of the American media” to “endless unpaid internships….Getting your start in journalism often doesn’t pay. Instead, you have to chip in to join the club.” Stipends that pretty much cover lunch in a major United States city make housing, travel, a few items of business clothing and any other expense up to Mumsie and Dad.

Young people who ain’t got the do-re-mi either can’t think of doing a journalism internship, or they end up sleeping in their offices and living on ramen noodles. Chideya might have included another fact as well: most financial aid packages requires a student contribution, money that is to be earned over the summer. I knew a number of students who would have liked to have done a great internship over the summer but could not because the $2000 – $3000 they were expected to produce by August was not going to come from Time or CNN.

“You’d be amazed at the sacrifices many young working-class journalists and journalists of color make,” Chideya writes:

When I was in my mid-20s, working in TV, I mentored a young woman of color graduating from college. She had been in the fostercare system and wanted to take an unpaid internship in network news. I let her stay in what used to be my home office for six months, free, because there was no magical trust fund that would allow her to work without income in New York. She ended up getting a job and later winning an Emmy, among other awards. Now I have journalism students, white and nonwhite, who are grappling with questions like, “Can I take my dream internship if it pays me only enough each day to buy lunch, but not pay rent?” (While some media companies—like the one my protégée worked for—have responded to concerns by making their internships paid, others still do not pay interns or offer only a token “honorarium,” which does not a salary make.) I’m proud of them for continuing to fight for their place in journalism—and dispirited that they’re finding it so difficult. By contrast, I started my career through a paid minority internship program at Newsweek during college, continued there as a full-time paid intern once I graduated, and later landed a job.

One can only conclude that the answer to the question — “Why do media conglomerates employ young people for pennies” — is: Because they can. There are so many more young people who want an entree to some kind of meaningful work than there are openings, you could probably agree to throw a handful of pennies on the ground once in a while and still get a superior cohort to sign up.

In response to this article, the most recent crop of interns at The Nation reports — in a letter to The Nation – that they currently receive a stipend of $150 a week. Now The Nation, to which I have subscribed since Watergate, is not part of a media conglomerate. And yet, you would think they could do better than that.

Apparently they plan to (HT Kay Steiger.)

Currently $7.25 an hour, minimum wage in New York is set to go up to $9.00 an hour by 2016.  For the fall class of interns, this will mean that their gross pay will double to $290 a week, minus all of the deductions that will now go into play because the students are now workers rather than interns.  So my guess is that if the fall class of interns see $225 a week they will be lucky, but The Nation Institute is also fundraising for travel and housing grants (my memory of how they have handled housing in the past was putting an ad in their classified section asking the readership if they would like to have a Nation intern come live with them.)

The situation at major corporations, ones that have resources about a zillion times greater than The Nation, is truly scandalous. Last year Les Moonves, CEO at CBS, received a $22 million bonus for signing a new contract with the media company (his total compensation for 2011 was $68.4 million.)  What do CBS internships pay? Nothing.

Myself? I have always thought internships were dicey. The good ones, where you do real work, ask students to accept little or no pay in exchange for “valuable experience” or college credit. The lousy ones allow corporations to cover the vacations of receptionists and secretaries without having to pay a temp agency. Why can’t companies agree to expand their payrolls for ten weeks in the summer to give all students a fighting chance to make some sense out of how their education might translate into a career?

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