Photo: AP

Can’t afford an unpaid internship? Help is here

August 14, 2015
Photo: AP

Landing your first real journalism job is a lot easier if you have one or more internships on your resume, but many of those temporary positions offer no pay. That’s an obstacle for students who can’t afford to work for free, many of whom are minorities.

But efforts are underway to help even the playing field. More news outlets, especially digital natives, are launching paid internships, fellowships, and stipends intended for minorities and other students from modest economic backgrounds. Professional groups and journalism schools are also working to help pay for such positions, in some cases raising money from large donors or crowd-funding websites.

BuzzFeed, which offers several paid internships and fellowships in its news and entertainment departments, is launching a $12,000, four-month Emerging Writers Fellowship for people “traditionally locked out of opportunities in the media.”

“I’ve long been concerned about the lack of diversity,” says Mark Schoofs, BuzzFeed’s investigations and projects editor. “It really hurts coverage of the news.”

For similar reasons, ProPublica has always paid its interns and fellows. “We want people to earn a living wage while working for us in significant part because it affects who gets the opportunity to do it,” says Assistant Managing Editor Eric Umansky.

The non-profit news organization is one of several that have partnered with the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and the Knight Foundation in a new summer diversity initiative. CUNY’s J school hosted 20 students this summer from historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions, and organizations of journalists of color. During the two-month training and internship program, ProPublica paid its fellows $700 per week; if the fellow had an unpaid internship, the Knight grant provided a $3,000 stipend and paid for travel expenses to and from New York, MetroCards, and dorm housing, said Joanna Hernandez, the school’s director of diversity initiatives. The top five students from this and future summer sessions will also be offered full scholarships to CUNY’s journalism school if they apply and are accepted.*

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In addition to its collaboration with Knight, CUNY says it is the only journalism school in the country that guarantees its students an 8-week summer internship that pays them each $3,000. “If the media employer doesn’t pay, we do,” says Andrea Stone, the school’s director of career services.

The most desirable internships and jobs—paid stints at big-name organizations—have typically required experience at a smaller media employer, where an internship is more likely to offer no compensation.

At California State University, Northridge (CSUN), the student Latino Journalists chapter tackled this challenge by starting a crowd funding campaign this year on Indiegogo. The group raised $2,500 from individual donors, and a donation of $3,000 from local Telemundo 52 reporters Duna Elvir and Julio Vaqueiro, which helped pay for two students to work in their first newspaper internships at the Filipino-American-focused Asian Journal and the Spanish-language Impulso de Oaxaca, both in southern California.

Dayanis Lopez-Reyes, a 27-year-old married mother of a 3-year-old and the recipient of the Impulso internship, graduated from CSUN in May. While going to school full time and caring for her daughter, she worked from home selling items on eBay to help make ends meet. An unpaid internship wasn’t financially feasible, which she found was a big disadvantage in job hunting “The first thing [recruiters] ask is, ‘What’s your experience? Have you done an internship?’ I hadn’t. It was hard because I was a full-time student and a parent,” she says.

The newsrooms at the vast majority of general market newspapers and broadcast stations don’t reflect the communities they cover. Minorities make up 37.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to Census figures. Yet in 2014, minorities accounted for just 13.4 percent of daily newspaper editorial employees, 13 percent of radio journalists, and 22 percent of television journalists.

That disparity is even more marked at smaller newspaper and television outlets, where many journalists start their careers. Only 12 percent of first-time hires at newspapers with circulations of 5,000 or less are minorities, according to the Pew Research Center. The figure is 14 percent for TV news operations that aren’t in the top 150 television markets.

Given this employment landscape, it may be no surprise that finding that first journalism job is harder for minorities. According to a recent CJR analysis of data from the University of Georgia’s Grady College, 49 percent of minority graduates specializing in print or broadcasting found full-time jobs within 6 to 12 months after graduating, compared to 66 percent of non-Latino white graduates.

Some journalism educators say that while more employers are offering paid internships, the overall number of available internships has decreased, making the competition fiercer than ever. This is partly the result of a federal ruling in a 2013 lawsuit brought by two unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures, in which the judge found that the studio had violated labor laws by not paying them.

An appeals court ruling last month found that unpaid internships might in fact be legal if the interns’ schools oversee them. But many educators and media outlets oppose the practice of requiring internships to graduate, then charging students for credits they earn while working for free as interns.

“At universities like ours, a student who is barely making it is paying a high tuition per unit for the right to act as free labor for a large corporation,” says José Luis Benavides, a faculty member at CSUN and the advisor for the Latino student group that launched the successful crowd funding project. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

As the legal questions around unpaid internships evolve, news outlets, professional organizations, and schools are finding that donors are often willing to help fund student journalists.

Tim Griggs, publisher of the non-profit Texas Tribune, says donations from individuals have helped the company pay its interns over the past couple of years. “It’s a fairly easy ask,” he says. “We think of ourselves as a lab for digital journalism innovation. This is really appealing to someone who often will fund higher education programs. It strikes a chord.”

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists Bay Area chapter has used a grant from Pacific Gas and Electric Company and funds it raised on its own to help pay for a summer intern at The Sacramento Bee, says chapter president Claudia Cruz. “This really helps students who might otherwise not be able to pick up and move to Sacramento without funding for housing or transportation,” she says.

For the past four years, an alumna of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, where I teach, has funded a paid 10-week business reporting fellowship at the Los Angeles Times. The school this summer also arranged for 17 paid positions for its graduate students at media outlets such as ABC’s Good Morning America and The Wrap. Annenberg helped fund three of the internships, but there’s no guarantee that will continue. For the other 14 positions, the school curated a list of employers that offer paid internships, then selected qualified students who applied, based on their interests and skills. The companies made the final hiring choices.

“It was a highly customized experience for both the employer and student,” says Willow Bay, director of the school. “It was attractive to a very diverse group of students, including many from underrepresented groups.”

Brigham Young University offers housing grants for students interning in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The journalism departments at California State University, Chico, Rutgers University, and Stony Brook University, have created funds from alumni giving to help offset living and/or travel costs into San Francisco or Manhattan for journalism interns, not all of whom are minorities.

Rutgers has raised enough money to help about 20 students annually with roundtrip train fare from New Jersey to New York, which currently costs about $26 a day and will soon rise. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you can help students save that much money over the course of a semester, that’s wonderful,” says Steven Miller, the coordinator for undergraduate studies in Journalism and Media Studies.

To be sure, many white students who come from modest financial backgrounds also find it difficult to take unpaid internships. But so far, there is no research that looks at the socio-economic backgrounds of journalism students or professional journalists, and how newsrooms filled with members of the mid- to upper classes may impact news coverage.

“The reason minority students are less likely to take unpaid internships is primarily socio-economic, not racial or ethnic,” says Barbara Selvin, a faculty member and internship coordinator at Stony Brook. “In this, I include unfamiliarity with the workings of the professional world and lack of familial connections in that world – both of which apply to many white students – and discomfort at being a minority in a majority workplace.”

For some financially pressed students, even putting in a substantial amount of unpaid time at their campus media outlets is difficult. To address that, ProPublica has launched an Emerging Reporters Program with the help of a donor that will award stipends of $4,500 each semester to five students to work at their college newspaper, website, or broadcast station; all recipients must be members of an underrepresented group. “We’re trying to wrap our heads around how we could help with diversity issues at every step of a career, everything from high school to college to early professional to mid-career,” says ProPublica’s Umansky.

*This paragraph has been updated to clarify the relationship between ProPublica and CUNY in regard to the journalism school’s summer diversity initiative, and the amount and source of participants’ stipends.

Laura Castañeda is a Professor of Professional Practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.