The True Costs of Unpaid Media Internships

Unpaid internships: the once-slick maneuver for media companies to save on operating costs while gaining able, eager minds looking for “real-world, hands on experience.” Except now, those minds are becoming apt at recognizing their worth – and they’re starting to fight back.

In 2011, following his work as an intern on the movie Black Swan, Eric Glatt sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, claiming that the company used interns as a way to cut costs.

“They have internal memos saying, ‘We have budget cuts, what do we do?’ ‘Get more interns,’” said Glatt in an interview with MediaFile.

Instead of receiving an educational experience that would introduce him to the world of filmmaking, Glatt found himself performing menial office tasks like making copies, assembling office furniture, and running frivolous errands for the film’s cast and crew – tasks that would have otherwise been performed by a paid, entry-level employee.

Yet, Glatt says, it was difficult to find other interns to join his suit. While other interns supported his cause, they didn’t want to jeopardize their potential careers by voicing opposition against such a large media company.

Over the last five years, many media companies have made adjustments to their internship programs following a wave of lawsuits alleging that unpaid internship programs were being used as an excuse to hire unpaid labor.

In Glatt’s case and in other cases brought against big media companies like Conde Nast, Hearst, and Viacom, lawyers for the interns have argued that the internship programs provided by these organizations violate the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for unpaid internships.

The guidelines, which outline seven measures for determining the legality of an unpaid internship program, stress that educational opportunities afforded to the intern are the most important part of the experience. According to the guidelines, the employer should receive no immediate benefit from the internship program, and interns should not displace paid employees.

The judge in Glatt’s case originally sided with him, stating that internships had to meet all seven requirements outlined by the Department of Labor. A judge in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, however, overturned the ruling, finding that overall, internships must be of greater benefit to the interns rather than their employer. This was the case for Glatt, the judge ruled.

Labor advocates have argued that such a definition is far too lenient, and it will continue to allow companies to replace paid employees with interns under the guise of educational benefit. Such programs, they argue, are not only illegal, but damaging to the overall labor market.

“Whenever you replace entry level jobs with unpaid internships, then you’re requiring people to do unpaid internships in order to get experience to eventually be hired. And that means that you’re only able to get experience in a field like journalism if you’re able to afford work for free for at least a few years,” said Peter Sterne, the founder of Who Pays Interns, a Tumblr blog that lists media outlets that pay their interns.

Sterne himself had a number of unpaid internships during his time as an undergraduate at Columbia University, and said that he was inspired to start the blog after classmates asked him if he knew of media companies that paid interns. Unlike him, Sterne reports, some of his classmates could not afford to take unpaid positions.

Access to unpaid positions is foundational to many critics’ arguments against such roles. Many argue that while unpaid internships, in certain cases, may violate labor laws and suppress the number of paying jobs available in a given field, they cause further damage by placing critical barriers in front of young people who may not be able to afford to work for free. For journalism, such barriers may be contributing to the continued diversity problem.

So if you have [an] industry that is based on people doing unpaid internships and they need to do unpaid internships…in order to get jobs in journalism, than what you’re going to do is make it so that only people who are upper middle class are able to get jobs in journalism,” said Sterne, now a Politico media reporter. “And you’re going to foreclose journalism opportunities to entire classes of people who cannot afford to work for free, and that makes it much order to have a diverse newsroom.”

Paige Pflieger, an associate producer at Philadelphia public radio station WHYY, agrees with such an assessment. Pflieger held numerous unpaid internships during her time in college, and now runs the internship program at WHYY.

“Public radio has a diversity problem,” Pflieger said. “We’re making such a mistake by continually stacking the cards against other people.”

Additionally, the lack of legal employee protections for unpaid interns brings additional complications to their role in the workplace. Unpaid interns do not currently receive legal protections, which includes protections against sexual harassment in the work place. In multiple cases, interns have had court cases thrown out because unpaid interns aren’t legally protected under federal anti-discrimination laws.

Now, the responsibility to protect interns has become the responsibility of states, which have typically been slow to take up the cause. As of 2015, only five states had passed legislation to protect unpaid employees from sexual harassment and discrimination.

As a result of the shifting legal landscape, many media companies are backing away from using unpaid interns, opting for paid internships or no internship program at all. Recently, companies have been turning towards fellowship programs, which offer temporary paid, full-time positions. Conde Nast announced they would be replacing their internship program with a fellowship, joining other media companies offering fellowships like BuzzFeed, Vox, and the Huffington Post.

Still, these programs have not been without their difficulties. Offering full time positions makes it harder for college students to gain the hands-on experience allowed by a part-time position. And pay is still an issue; Vox recently came under fire for offering a fellowships with a troublingly low salary, especially for the metropolitan locations offered.

For Glatt, who now has a law degree and acts as an advocate for intern pay, the shift to fellowships does not necessarily indicate change for the better. “There are always going to be internships, just under different names,” he laments.

As it stands, Glatt is correct. Regardless of the rising opposition against them, a number of media companies still offer unpaid internship positions or impose limiting requirements, or modified pay rates, for their interns. As deadlines for summer position applications draw near, it may be necessary for aspiring media mavens, journalism students, and media outlets alike, to consider the true cost of unpaid internships on the future of news.

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