It's time for media companies to stop offering unpaid internships, says a journalism student, Bethany Horne. The only students who can afford to work for free the summer, she says, are those lucky enough to come from families with money. That's no way to bring diverse voices or fresh perspectives into a newsroom.

It's time for media companies to stop offering unpaid internships, says a journalism student, Bethany Horne. The only students who can afford to work for free the summer, she says, are those lucky enough to come from families with money. That's no way to bring diverse voices or fresh perspectives into a newsroom.

I just finished the final year of a journalism program at a university. Most of my friends and peers are in the position I am: looking for a way in to the “Fortress of Journalism,” as Robert Krulwich called it in this speech which has been picking me and my friends out of the doldrums in between our failed job applications.

 

Those already inside the walls say their craft rewards independence and wiliness, yet the lords of the fortress are large conglomerates—corporations with their own cultures and chains of command. I won’t dwell too much on the nature of the fortress itself.But what we are told, the tribe-less loners on the beach, is that the surest way in to the media as it is, is through the internship. Harkening back to the mentor/apprentice relationships of old, the internship is understood as a bridge: in between being a student and becoming a worker. Journalism educators, usually allergic to clichés, trill the words “foot in the door” on the heels of “internship” like it’s going out of fashion.

 

I did one. It was great. It was a start-up company, with a concept I really believe in, so I was ok with it. But I had to do an internship, to earn the right to graduate, so I didn’t fret over the ethical implications at the time.I do, now. Because my friends who had to do a short internship to graduate are now doing summer-long or longer ones, with no job in sight. The first foot in the door was kicked out, I guess.

 

I have no doubt my friends will eventually find work, and possibly through people they meet through the fake work of the internship. But, I don’t think the system, as it is, helps journalists, and I don’t think, ultimately, it helps journalism, or the public this industry is supposed to serve.

 

First of all, most of the clansmen leading the armies atop the fortress didn’t get there through an internship. In fact, they didn’t go to journalism school at all. The training media organizations used to pay employees to take has been downloaded onto institutions where the potential employees pay to be trained and then have to work for free to prove their worth. It’s brilliant, I tell you. Coupled with rights-grabbing freelance contracts, it’s a good business indeed.

 

But unpaid internships, ultimately, are harmful because they restrict the kinds of people who can access employment by our media, and they perpetuate the problems that are already present, in terms of the race, class and origin of the people who hold media power.

 

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It’s not that I won’t work for free exclusively on ethical grounds. Practically: I can’t afford it. And neither can most people who can’t live at home, or supported by their parents, to do unpaid work in Toronto or Montreal, or god-forbid Vancouver — a lovely but awfully expensive city.

 

Unpaid internships may make the fortress accessible, sometimes, sure. But they only make it accessible to some people, the kind of people who are already over-represented inside. Those who can afford to work for free. So the young people who don’t come from the city, and who don’t come from money, are shit-out-of-luck. And what of anybody who has to support a family, either here or back home wherever home may be? We know of the taxi driver doctors, but how easy is it for a first generation immigrant to get into our media? They won't do it through a lowly internship, that's for sure.

 

In the 21st century? In Canada? There’s no doubt that media organizations need immigrant, rural, working class, inner city, diverse voices in order to be at all relevant to the public they serve. Actually, they need people like that in editorial positions, and behind the publisher’s desk, but let’s start at the bottom.

 

How are you ever going to get the rest, when even your lowliest come exclusively from privilege?

 

Thus, I am boycotting the system. I don’t judge my peers who engage in it: we are not to blame. But I won’t support with my free labour a media organization that cuts its legs out from under itself.

 

They are profitable institutions. They can afford to pay. I would advise that for their own good, they start doing so. Because as Krulwich kind-of alludes to: we (the writers as well as the public) don't really need the fortress, anymore.

Bethany Horne is a freelance writer and multimedia producer in Halifax who is completing a Bachelor of Journalism Honours degree at the University of King's College in Halifax. Read some more comments on her post at www.bethanyhorne.com