What are unions doing to ensure that students get this vital experience and also get paid?

By Errol Salamon for Story Board

Summer internship season is about to begin. But decently paid internships, like jobs, are hard to find. Still, internships are often seen as the pathway to a job in journalism. That’s why media unions in Canada have been leading efforts to help emerging journalists find paid placements. What are unions doing to ensure that students get this vital experience and also get paid?

Paid internships

Some unionized media outlets, such as the Canadian Press (CP) and The Globe and Mail, pay summer interns the equivalent of the entry-level employee rates outlined in their collective agreements. Both internship programs, based in Toronto, are still thriving. While The Globe usually hires up to 20 summer internsCP normally accepts about six applicants.

At other media outlets such as the Victoria Times Colonist, unions have created paid journalism internship programs. The internship program at the Times Colonist was established in 2002 by the Victoria Vancouver Island Newspaper Guild (CWA Canada Local 30223), wrote local president Chris Carolan in an email.

“We negotiated interns into our contract in 2002 and the initial rate was $530 per week,” he wrote.

However, Carolan said that the Times Colonist stopped hiring interns in 2014 due to a hiring freeze at the paper.

“Given the fact that the company is laying off current reporters due in large part to the declining revenues at the newspaper, the company doesn’t have any appetite to even hire interns, although their wage scale pales in comparison to a reporter’s weekly wages,” he wrote.

While some paid internships have disappeared, unions have actively helped expand internship programs at other media organizations so that students can get paid work experience.

CWA Canada launched a unique partnership program with CP for interns in 2012. CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon negotiated with CP to open up the internship program to members of the Canadian University Press (CUP). Until then, CP mainly hired interns from j-schools. CWA Canada also offered to top up the $100 weekly honorarium that the news agency normally gave interns, as outlined in the collective agreement.

In 2015, CWA Canada expanded its $100 contribution to all student interns at CP, not just CUP members.

“Our goal is simply to help out students by getting them work experience – and giving them a bit more cash,” wrote O’Hanlon in an email.

Special training rate 

Other media outlets pay interns a special training rate. The pay amounts to a percentage of the starting wage for entry-level staff in the job classification in which they work, according to their respective collective agreements. For example, summer students at the Montreal Gazette are paid 80 percent of the starting rate.

By comparison, summer students at the Winnipeg Free Press are paid 65 percent of the entry-level rate. The Free Press has hired five paid summer interns in 2016 for the city news, sports, photography, and copy desks, wrote Free Press associate editor Sara Lilleyman in an email.

Paid internships at non-unionized newspapers are rare, but the long-running internship program at theCalgary Herald is a notable exception. The paper has hired two paid interns to work full time in the newsroom in summer 2016, said Herald senior editor Tony Seskus in an interview. The pay rate is competitive and determined by human resources.

Pay rates vary

However, internship pay rates can vary even within a particular media organization, so it’s often difficult to place an organization into only one pay category. Although CP, The Globe, and the Free Press pay more for summer placements, they offer only modest honoraria ranging from $50 to $200 per week for short-term school-year internships lasting from two weeks to six weeks.

The location of academic-year internships can vary, too. In 2015-2016, CP had a total of six interns in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. That year, The Globe hired eight interns in its Toronto office and 10 interns in its Vancouver bureau.

Generally, the lower-paid school-year placements are educational internships for students, while the higher-paid summer placements are open to students, recent graduates, and people with more journalism experience.

“Educational internships are for students, not graduates, and they are meant to give the students a chance to learn in a newsroom setting. Some companies don’t offer pay, or just an honorarium, because they see it as part of the educational experience,” wrote O’Hanlon. “Longer-term internships are clearly not just educational. Interns are doing real work and should be paid a proper working wage.”

Necessary training

Regardless of the specific pay rates, representatives of media companies and unions alike agree that internships provide emerging journalists with necessary training and work experience.

“This kind of work experience is essential for journalists starting out. Our summer interns are given the opportunity to develop their reporting and writing skills, make connections and build relationships. They are valued members of our team in the newsroom,” wrote Lilleyman.

Internships also provide emerging journalists with valuable real-world experiences that they can’t get in school.

“The real-world application of the things you’ve learned in j-school is the springboard to becoming a better journalist,” said Seskus.

Internships ultimately have an important role to play in training the next generation of journalists.

“Internships would play a significant role, I believe, in training up-and-coming journalists because they are, for the most part, much younger than our current stable of reporters and would better relate with the next generation of journalists,” wrote Carolan.

According to Jim Sheppard and Sarah Nolan, co-chairs of the internship program at The Globe and Mail, a school-year internship can be a stepping stone to a summer placement or even more—a job.

“We find the academic-year intern program to be a great place to identify promising young journalists for our summer program and possibly for future employment,” they wrote in an email. “In some years, one-third to one-half of the summer program participants were chosen for that role after successful internships.”

Interning at The Globe, in fact, gave Nolan herself a jump-start on a career in journalism.

“Sarah was chosen as co-chair of the program because she also successfully made the long journey from intern to summer staff to contract, to part-time, to full-time status, so her expertise in this area is invaluable, particularly in talking to students at their schools and in mentoring them while here as interns,” wrote Sheppard.

O’Hanlon also remembers starting at CP as a summer intern in 1990 before working his way up to become parliamentary editor at CP.

Internships at risk

Aspiring journalists are at risk of losing these opportunities to become better journalists, though, as media companies such as Postmedia and Torstar continue to cut jobs in order to reduce organizational spending.

Nevertheless, O’Hanlon said that CWA Canada would continue advocating for paid internships and helping the next generation of journalists get training.

“We strongly urge pay of some sort, even if it is just an honorarium. Many students have a lot of debt and most companies can afford to pay them at least a little.”

This piece was originally posted on Story Board, and is republished here with the author’s permission.

Errol Salamon is a freelance writer. He is also co-editor and contributor to the forthcoming book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press).

Errol Salamon is a contributing editor at J-Source. He is a senior lecturer in digital media and communication in the department of media and performance at the University of Huddersfield. He taught in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Salamon is also co-editor of the book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016).