The Eternal Intern-al Debate

Are internships fair? Were they ever?

Intern season is here, reminding us of the perennial ethical hazards attached to this rite of journalistic passage. Unpaid internships have always been problematic, considering the advantage given to those with resources and connections, but they were also a reliable pathway to paid employment in the media business. Today, the promise of landing a job after a successful internship or two seems like a mirage as the journalism industry sheds jobs and loses publications.

So a few weeks before universities empty out for the summer, and bright-eyed interns show up in your office, let us reflect on this annual phenomenon. A traditional journalism career is becoming more uncertain and amorphous every day, while growing numbers of college students are eager to work unpaid internships as a down payment on that very elusive thing. Given everything that we know about unpaid internships—and full disclosure, CJR has unpaid interns, too—is this practice fair now? Was it ever? And who is excluded from the industry because of it?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.