Monday, August 18, 2008

the problem with internships

Friday's post seems to have struck a note with some of you, drawing out some lengthy comments (here and here) on the lack of opportunities to develop skills, and on the amount of available salary information there is on the industry (as far as I know, we only have the Masthead Salary Survey and colleagues willing to dish about their own salaries to consult). There's one comment I'd like to pick up on, though. Says one anonymous poster
I've worked at several large monthly consumer mags and in general am shocked at the entitlement complexes, poor attention to detail and lack of enthusiasm amongst the interns I've worked with.

I'd like to suggest that perhaps our quality of interns would go up if we started paying them. I know, I know, tight budgets, can't afford to, yada, yada. Working out budgets isn't my job, but if we don't spend the money on developing good editors, we won't have any good applicants to hire, for both intern positions and entry-level editorial positions down the road. We owe it to the industry to ensure its future success by developing the editors we want to hire.

If more magazines started paying their interns either with a livable wage or with course credit as part of a school program, our pool of potential candidates would expand. We wouldn't be limited to interns who can afford to work unpaid for weeks, months. We would actually have our choice of the best applicants, of anyone who wants to be an editor. The publications that do offer a wage appear to be the most competitive, and I would venture to guess, get some of the best interns because they can pick and choose.

That sense of entitlement Anonymous mentioned? A large part of that comes from having to work for free.

Update: The Masthead Salary survey is available to subscribers here.


Briony said...

Here, here! Paying your dues is important, but it does sting a little when many magazine's entire factchecking or administrative staff are unpaid interns, or the interns are just hired to do hardcore gruntwork that won't give them an ounce of real editorial experience.

What magazines need to get is that it needn't be an all-or-nothing deal. It's not like we need to start throwing money at our interns willy-nilly. Why can't we meet in the middle?

A magazine could pay a stipend that would cover a majority of one's rent, for instance (one of the major publishing companies, for instance, pays a $2,000+ stipend for a four-month period), and then make up the rest in perhaps a transit pass, or a gym membership.

Most importantly, they could "pay" their interns by providing an internship structure that would involve writing, factchecking, copyediting, and crash-courses in these disciplines.

I did a summer-long internship with a couple of mags in the States: one a glossy city monthly, and one a glossy trade quarterly. It was unpaid, but the editors there make a real effort to give their interns the tools they need to form a solid editorial base. They expect several pitches a week, give out writing assignments (including small department pieces for those who show ability), and teach you how to copyedit and factcheck.

You only had to work mornings or afternoons to allow you to hold down a part-time job to make a living.

Any major edits on stories are gone through together with the intern so they can improve as a writer. The admin duties were there, but they were minimal. At the end, the editors made a big deal of each leaving (even though they have four at all times!) to show their appreciation, and would do exit interviews to answer any questions.

It wasn't money, but the experience and fancy-looking clips and guidance I got there was worth a lot, and I think that that might help editors in the long term looking for a budget-friendly way to groom better lower-level editorial staff. It might take up some of their time, but it will help them in the long run, both during hiring periods and when working with them!

Anonymous said...

I had to complete an internship in order to graduate from school. I went in knowing it was unpaid but still worked hard since I would be evaluated at the end and I wanted to make a good impression.

Some interns, just like some employees, will work harder than others just because they have a better work ethic. My internship was four months long. By the end of the first month, I was receiving assignments for short articles and sidebars and was being treated like a freelancer. I still had to do some administrative type tasks, but I was also being paid for my writing - if I didn't do it, they would have assigned it to a freelancer anyway, so they paid me at the same rate. This was extremely encouraging and unlike a freelancer, the editors took the time to go through the edits with me. They either gave me feedback and asked me to make the changes myself or made the changes and showed me why they had changed what they had.

The way they paid me was probably even better motivation than if I had started the internship thinking I would make a particular amount, no matter how hard I worked (or didn't).

That was almost two years ago and I still write for that magazine AND have been hired by another mag at the same company.

While I agree that many magazines need to change the way they treat their interns, I also know that there are a lot of interns who think they will get a free ride just because they have a well-known publication on their resumes, so they try to do as little work as possible and are then surprised when they can't get a job. I know some of my peers probably could have acquired the skills editors are looking for when they're hiring, but opted to use Facebook at their internships instead. A good deal of learning at an internship depends on the intern's initiative.