When hiring editors call Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism, in search of interns, they better be ready for a grilling.

Here’s how it typically goes:

GRIMM: Do you pay your interns?

EDITOR: Well, no.

GRIMM: Why not?

EDITOR: Because we don’t have money to pay interns.

GRIMM: They don’t cost that much. Is that your business model, to get content for free?

Grimm then tries to cajole the editor to offer some kind of compensation — a small stipend, a scholarship to cover their tuition, even money for gas. Sometimes he succeeds. Other times he simply ends the conversation by saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you.”

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Joe Grimm

 

Grimm isn’t some ivory tower academic with unrealistic expectations of what his students are worth. Not long ago he was the one doing the hiring.

Between 1990 and 2008, Grimm was the recruiting and development editor for the Detroit Free Press, hiring 16 to 18 interns each year. Pay for interns was in the contract with the Detroit Newspaper Guild. The newspaper even had an apprenticeship program for high school students, who worked 20 hours a week and were paid a little less than the college students.

But shortly after Grimm left, the Free Press ended its college internship program. (It still has the high school program.) Other media outlets have reduced the number of paid interns they hire or have switched over to unpaid interns who work for academic credit.

“A lot of people are seeing journalism schools as a source of free labor,” said Grimm. “I’m torn about it. Internships — whether they’re paid or not — are a vital stepping stone to paying jobs.”

Grimm sees unpaid internships as a barrier to the profession for poor and minority students. “They essentially screen out people who have less income or less family income. This more often works against minority students so it becomes a diversity question. The poorer people can’t get those stepping stones.”

A Long Tradition of Unpaid Work

Unpaid internships are nothing new in journalism, particularly in the magazine and television sectors of the industry. For years, enterprising college students have spent their summers fetching coffee, making copies, transcribing recorded interviews, fact-checking articles, and sometimes writing and shooting photos for major media outlets, all with the goal of breaking into the journalism business.

In many cases, these eager interns have worked for free, sometimes spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on airfare, tuition for college credit, and pricey summer apartments.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track of how many internships are unpaid, but a review of listings on MediaBistro, JournalismJobs.com, Craigslist and other websites listing media internships suggests that many, if not the majority, are unpaid.

Now a trio of class-action lawsuits — one settled with the Charlie Rose Show late last year and two others pending against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Magazines — have reopened the debate over the legal and ethical ramifications of unpaid internships.

In December, Charlie Rose and his production company agreed to pay as much as $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by former unpaid interns who claimed violations of minimum-wage law. Under the tentative settlement, Rose and his production company, Charlie Rose Inc., will pay back wages to 189 interns who worked for the show between March 14, 2006 and October 1, 2012. The settlement calls for the interns to receive up to $1,100 each — $110 a week in back pay, up to a maximum of 10 weeks.

A class-action suit against the Hearst Corporation launched by a 2010 Ohio State University graduate who claims she worked as many as 55 hours per week without pay for Harper’s Bazaar, and a suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures by a man who worked as an accounting intern, are wending their way through the court system.

Adam Klein, a partner at Outten & Golden, the New York employment law firm that has brought the three lawsuits, says unpaid internships have become “a normative behavior” in much of the media industry. He believes most of these internships violate the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state laws, too.

In 2010 the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor issued a factsheet (PDF) that spells out what constitutes a “legal” unpaid internship:

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Will Pay For Work

Klein says media companies skirt the law by saying they provide valuable training, and increasingly companies require that interns be students who can get college credit for the experience.

“The defense is they’re getting college credit and they’re learning something,” Klein said. “I don’t understand that defense. Every intern we’ve talked to does productive work, replaces other employees, is basically a low-level clerical gopher. They’re entitled to a minimum wage rate.”

What rankles him and other opponents of unpaid internships even more is that students who do internships for academic credit have to pay for those credits.

“The schools are complicit with the employers providing unpaid internships,” Klein said. “They’re making money doing it.”

Klein notes that some schools don’t count internship credits toward graduation and yet they’re happy to accept money for the credit. “These schools are not providing the facility for classes. The professors don’t teach or give grades — all they do is make sure you completed the internship. These schools are charging students for nothing.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, agrees that the internship business is a racket.

“To me, two-thirds of the unpaid internships are probably illegal because they’re doing work that is indistinguishable from the work done by salaried employees,” he said. “If you’re doing a job that at one time was done by a salaried employee, that’s not primarily educational.”

But the practice goes on because few interns are in the position to challenge their employers.

“Honestly, I think it’s beyond the capacity of any individual student to change this because there are plenty of people who will willingly take on the financial sacrifice just to get their foot in the door,” said LoMonte. “I’m not naïve enough to think college students are going to unionize or organize a boycott.”

Warren Lerude, coordinator of the internship program at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, can see the internship conundrum from all sides. Over the two decades he served as publisher and editor of the Reno Evening Gazette (now the Reno Gazette-Journal), he hired a slew of interns. As an internship coordinator for nearly 30 years, he has overseen the work of thousands of interns, about 100 each year.

Students at the University of Nevada are required to do at least one internship — paid or unpaid — to graduate and pay nearly $600 in tuition for the experience.

Lerude says he tries to get employers who don’t pay interns to at least cover the cost of the tuition for their credits. “A lot of them do,” he says.

A Novel Solution

The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism has come up with a unique solution to the problem of unpaid internships: If the employer won’t pay, the school will.

All students are required to participate in a 3-credit internship at a media outlet during the summer between their second and third semesters.

“We provide a stipend to participating students with unpaid internships, to keep everyone on an even footing,” the school pledges on its website. “Either way, students can expect to receive a minimum of $3,000 for their summer internship.”

When A. Adam Glenn, an associate professor at the school, mentioned this perk on a Facebook group for journalism educators, some of his colleagues virtually drooled. Others said schools shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of paying interns.

“I’m happy that CUNY is able to shell out $3K stipends,” wrote Steve Fox, a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Unfortunately, not every program out there is able to do that, nor, really should they. The onus should be on the company, not the journalism program, to make sure that students are compensated for their efforts.”

LoMonte thinks the tide may be turning on unpaid internships, thanks to the recent lawsuits and increased scrutiny on unpaid internships.

“Either the industry has to own up to the fact this is really work or it’s going to be sued into acknowledging it,” he said. “It will not take very many more lawsuits before employers realize paying their interns the minimum wage is a lot cheaper than the going rate for litigation attorneys.”

Rachele Kanigel is an associate professor of journalism at San Francisco State University, where she advises Golden Gate Xpress, the student newspaper, and teaches reporting, writing and online journalism classes. She was a daily newspaper reporter for 15 years and has freelanced for magazines and websites, including U.S. News and World Report, TIME and Prevention. She directs summer study-abroad programs for ieiMedia for Education in International Media) and is the author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. Follow her at @jourprof.