Condé Nast’s Choice To Stop Using Interns Might Help With Diversity in Media
Julia Beck, friend and founder of Forty Weeks, shared this article announcing the news that Condé Nast will stop using the help of interns to avoid liability. Liability that it has faced due to the fact that they have allegedly abused the program (and the interns) by using them as cheap or free labor in a way that is, in my opinion, not surprising but also unacceptable. They are now facing the consequences of their actions. Instead of rectifying their behavior, they are simply eliminating their participation in it all together. You can read the full story here.
Of course, depending on your interests you will probably immediately think of your favorite Condé Nast publication (mine: Condé Nast Traveler) and wonder how they will be affected.
I had a lot of thoughts when I read this article.
My initial thought, I will admit, was a bit snide, “Who will make the copies and get the coffee?” and I suspect that a lot of people who lack an understanding or appreciation for what an intern is will think the same thing.
But to the interns, especially the really good ones, it is a lot more than just making copies and getting coffee. I also see the role as encouraging (or not) of the pursuit of professional goals. Julia elaborated on her thoughts further and on how her company views the role of providing internships, stating:
“…the role of a these internships is not to encourage, IMO. Encouragement is a different and very important animal. I learned as much from simply listening, watching and taking in the interpersonal play, the hierarchy and the vibe than anything else in my internship days. It helped me to know who I wanted to be in business and much as who I did not want to be. It helped me to understand how to present myself, how to communicate, and the unspoken boundaries of business. It is off-book learning. And again, to my thinking, critical. I do not think encouragement is what we provide in internships — it is exposure. My interns sit in MY office as much as possible for that primary reason – I want them to get the whole of the picture (good and bad) in order to identify their path.”
I agree with Julia on how important the experience of having an internship can be, though I was never an intern myself. Mainly because I couldn’t afford to be.
Which brings me to what I thought next as I processed this information.
I couldn’t help but feel that maybe the elimination of underpaid, free internships in media is a good thing. Maybe if we eliminate the prospect of work for free in exchange for exposure and education and replace it with paid work with the opportunity of exposure and education, then we can even the playing field and increase diversity among those who need the money, but would also like the experience.
I am forever talking about the face of media and its lack of diversity and there are many reasons that lead to this. Unpaid internships are a part of that. When such valuable professional access and experiences are offered to only those who can afford it, there is little opportunity for those who might be equally ambitious, equally qualified, but less fortunate financially.
The connections and experiences we make through our careers, especially as we are starting out, are invaluable in the long haul of our success. So, as annoyed as I am with Condé Nast and other companies who would rather avoid internships then do the right thing, as aware as I am of how much these internships help to provide much needed education and training to a new generation of professionals, I am hoping that this change will have some impact on balancing access to opportunities.
In my career I had many of the same experiences an intern had, but I had to be paid for my time as a salaried employee. I wasn’t paid much, mind you, but enough to cover my food and rent. I made sacrifices that not many interns have to make, such as go to school at night, which limited my college and career choices as well (there aren’t a lot of college programs offered to night students, so instead of journalism, I had to choose communications/public relations because it was the only thing I was interested in that I could take). In my school, those who chose journalism and went on to unpaid internships could afford to do so. Those who couldn’t, like myself, had to pick the next best thing and take the longer road. Had there been an opportunity for paid internships I would’ve jumped at the chance and been able to pursue my first choice. I have no complaints. I managed to get to a great place in my career before choosing a different path, but I also witnessed as others were able to skate right past me at times because of the connections and exposure they were given through their internship experiences.
As bloggers we struggle constantly with the work for free in exchange for exposure thing. It’s still a concept embraced by some who want to further their careers (think of those big online publications that don’t pay their bloggers, but give them tons of exposure supposedly), but not embraced by too many, especially those who can’t afford to do so.
Lastly, one has to wonder how an industry that is already faltering will manage to stay competitive when they start to eliminate their cheap/free labor resources. Listen, any company that refuses to be fair and follow the law should sink, as far as I am concerned, but it’s an incredibly surprising approach considering that it is the enthusiasm, curiosity, and ambition of many of these interns that might help to keep the magazine industry alive. Behaviors like these don’t help and only further the growth of their biggest competition: bloggers.
I completely agree. Unpaid internships are inherently classist – I did an interview over the summer for a year-long internship that paid 500GBP a month. In LONDON. It wasn't unpaid obviously, but when I asked HOW anyone could afford to live in London on that, they informed me that their previous intern lived at home and took out a loan.
Umm..no. Not to mention, they expected a degree and a significant amount of experience. They wanted me to 'be a part of growing their business'. Sorry, I'd rather do that for a full-time wage. I think it's ridiculous that some companies exploit interns and use their work to grow their businesses.
Whoa, rant. I'm still looking for work in London, so I'm bitter about competing against new grads from OxBridge universities who will work for next to free… ha!
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Thanks for sharing Alyssa…and rant on, girlfriend! I GET it! Good luck on your search and good for you for not getting yourself into debt for someone who wouldn't go the extra mile for you by offering to pay you a decent wage for your time and work.
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I guess the question if we are specifically talking paid vs. unpaid internships is this: What *is* enough if interns are paid? I worked several unpaid internships in NYC–one, I worked full time Monday-Friday, 9am to 6pm, and then worked a paying job on Monday nights 6pm-3am on the side and red carpet gigs four or five nights a week, all to be able to afford my unpaid internship. Though I had no desire to go into entertainment reporting (both night jobs were at tabloids), the money was good and these side jobs allowed me to intern at a dream publication for no pay. I also spent my entire senior year of college working three jobs and saving every penny because I knew making it in New York was going to be the hardest thing I ever did.
Then, I moved abroad and came back to NYC and had to start from scratch after a year away. I landed a coveted PAID Time Inc. internship. Each magazine had two, and mine paid $10/hour (or $400 a week or $1600 a month…which just covered my rent and utilities after taxes). That's still around minimum wage and not enough to live on in one of the world's most expensive cities. So I guess where do you draw the line: Next, are interns going to be required to make EA salaries (which are still abysmal)? And at that point, they're not really interns but EAs.
I wish more programs did what Southern Living does and hire year-long fellowships, which is an internship that is paid and only offered right after you graduate and then you have a whole year to immerse yourself in the publication and really get your feet wet (and have a better chance of getting hired full time after an editor has that long to work with you). When I was just out of school, I know Outside also offered a similar one in Santa Fe. Wouldn't it be awesome if every magazine operated like this?
I get your argument against unpaid internships, I really do. My only concern is that a) many magazines will not bite the bullet and start paying interns and then b) as a result, you'll now have thousands of college students a year vying for the 20 or so paid spots that are available. So all these budding journalists who have dreamed of being in magazines as long as you and I have will never get that chance because it's not available to them.
At the same time, I DO like that those who abuse it–who "hire" six or so interns per semester and have them produce their entire department, then continue to rotate each term and never hire a staff because they can get by on slave labor–will be penalized in this process. So there are pros and cons to each argument. Unfortunately, in my experience, I never worked with those who abused it. I DID work at a fashion magazine at Conde Nast but none of the ones (like Vogue or W) that notoriously abuse their interns. Maybe instead of punishing the industry as a whole, the offending magazines get sentenced instead. Because there are still plenty of publications that do it right.
And like I said in my FB post, there are always inequalities, not just financial ones. I got into Ivy universities but chose to go to a state school in my home state instead so I would graduate with no debt. As a result, I was overlooked for plenty of jobs in the publishing world because I didn't have a coveted degree from Columbia or Northwestern. Which was worse: graduating from Columbia with mounds of debt or being debt-free but not even in the running for a job because my diploma said the University of Tennessee? I don't really know. My point, though, is that discrimination applies in all facets of this industry (and others), and just because I was "privileged" (if you want to say that because I had no loans to pay off) doesn't mean it was any easier for me to hack it in the publishing world. Rather, I worked two to three side jobs as a result to pay my bills and interviewed for 37 magazine positions in a three-month span…and got none of them (which is how I wound up as a freelancer, funny enough…people wanted to pay me to write just not pay me to be on staff).
Bottom line here, though, is that I don't agree with the lawsuit because the two who filed it knew what they were getting into–they signed up for this. To me, they seem like privileged Ivy kids who didn't want to put in a little hard work and used daddy's money to hire a lawyer to "stand up for their rights." As one of the interns in the article said, at any time they could have just quit.
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caincarolCamels & Chocolate
I understand what you are saying Kristin, and I agree that there has to be a middle ground. I don't want to seem supportive of this particular lawsuit, especially since I don't know much about the details and because, yes, there are a lot of entitled kids out there who demand so much more then they are worth. As someone who built a successful brand from scratch, I am a true believer, and always have been, in proving your worth. I believe that someone who isn't willing to put in the time and the effort, doesn't deserve the recognition. Of course, I understand, as per my post above, that some just can afford to do that alone. I worked for a lot of non-profits and this is where I spent most of my public relations years. We had fellowship programs like that one you mentioned and they brought in a diverse group of people. It was wonderful and I would love to see the industry evolve more to this mindset. In the end, I was able to quit all my jobs and have my undergrad tuition reimbursed to me after proving I had passed (each grade level merited a percentage of reimbursement, with a B and A totally 100%). It was a good system and allowed me to grow and learn in a career that wasn't my first choice, but a good one…all while paying my a salary, assisting me with college, and allowing me to attend school at night. It may just be a sign of a dying industry. Publishing as we know it just can't sustain the demands of this new generation, but also of the many talented writers who are finding more success as freelancers. I don't know. But, I just think, as much as it hurts to say it, that this is a sign of end of days in publishing, especially if they aren't willing to do the right thing, or figure out a way to improve a system that in all honesty doesn't support the financial demands of our current reality.