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.