I want to finally pay my interns. I still can’t pay them enough.

In June, the Washington, DC chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists surprised me with their Robert D.G. Lewis Watchdog Award, for an investigative story I wrote about one man’s journey through the mental-health and criminal-justice systems. It was the chapter’s only award to include a cash prize. What to do with it was a no-brainer.

I work at Street Sense Media, a small, nonprofit “street paper” that heavily relies on intern labor. We’ve always done what we could to support our interns in other ways, such as helping them pursue grants and scholarships; still, we’ve never paid them directly. Now, that’s finally about to change: with the help of individual donations, we have begun to offer a needs-based stipend to one student per semester. This step, while significant, moves us only inches towards justice.

Street Sense Media began paying staff in 2005 when an executive director/editor role was created, two years after the organization was founded. We’ve been fighting for years to fund more paid positions and expand our programmatic support.

But, until last year, our newsroom relied on what amounts to a single full-time journalist—supplemented by many volunteers, including unpaid interns—to get the paper out. That was the system I was hired into and that is the system I have worked to expand: creating more unpaid positions to grow and refine our output, converting general-assignment reporter positions to beat reporters who consistently produce deeper stories, and partnering with professional journalists to provide training and networking opportunities for interns. Alumni have gone on to work for notable local and national media companies, as well as to careers in related fields. It’s a fantastic program doing meaningful work—if you can afford to work for free.

Unfortunately, we all know the facts: Unpaid internships are racist and classist structures that exploit less-experienced workers. They exclude a broad range of low-income people from opportunities and favor advantaged applicants. Distressingly, unpaid internships will remain competitive for as long as employers and universities favor or require internship experience from young people at the start of their careers without footing the bill. 

As nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms alike struggle with sustainability, paying for work you could otherwise get for free can be a hard sell. But relying on any gains achieved through unpaid labor is shortsighted. In the end, budgeting for inclusive pathways into your newsroom and the field at large is absolutely critical for adequately serving a diverse audience.

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Since 1978, the American Society of News Editors (now News Leaders Association) has tracked newsroom diversity through an annual survey, with an initial goal of shifting staff diversity at media outlets to match the demographics of the US by the year 2000. It pushed that deadline back to 2025 due to slow progress and the industry is still on track to miss the mark. Survey data from recent years shows that not one major newsroom has reached racial parity with the census yet—a goal post that shifted again with the new 2020 Census data.

Our newspaper covers homelessness and poverty. While poverty intersects with all identities and subpopulations, race is particularly relevant to our coverage. Eighty-six percent of unhoused people in DC identify as Black or African American, five percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, and one percent identify as Asian. Meanwhile, 41 percent of DC’s overall population identifies as Black or African American, 11 percent as Hispanic or Latino, and five percent as Asian. The racial diversity of the people writing stories in our newsroom should consistently include people of similar backgrounds.

However, of the more than 150 students I have trained, fewer than 20 were Black. Fewer than 10 were Asian American. I could count the number of Latino students on one hand. Only two interns were Arab American. And those numbers are a direct result of a dearth of applications.

“We talk about diversity and inclusion a lot, almost to the point where it’s a canned phrase. But how many interns, how many low-income folks, are you just going to turn off of journalism because they’re actually compensated if they just go to Google?” Katlyn Alo, a newsroom developer with the San Francisco Chronicle who completed a 2016 summer internship for Street Sense Media, told me in an interview. “We like to treat young folks like we’re doing them a favor. And only certain young folks can’t afford that illusion.”

Alo, a first-generation college student from a low-income background, earned both her bachelor’s and her master’s in communications and media from Stanford University. She discovered journalism halfway through undergrad, and pivoted from biology. She was eager to find an internship that summer to help cement her relatively new path, and received a stipend to support an internship in DC writing articles for me. There was just one problem: the stipend would not be paid until the end of the term, once she could show her clips to prove she had done the work. (The program she participated in was recently changed; now, in cases where students face financial constraints, they can request and receive their stipend earlier in their internship.) 

She accepted it anyway, a move she says was not a wise financial decision. She worked as a live-in nanny, looking after three children who were elementary-school age or younger, in exchange for free housing, and maxed out her credit card to pay for Metro fare and groceries. She was committed to making it work, and she did—but at significant personal, emotional, social, and financial costs. 

Alo later told me she pretended to be busy, one of “those things that you do when you’re ashamed,” to avoid social engagements with other friends who were interning in DC because she could not afford dining out with them or transportation to meet up. “I just never wanted to bring it up. And I don’t know if that was pride or if it was some sort of commitment … just being like, ‘You said you would make it work, so make it work,’” Alo explained. “There was one day that my grandmother sent me a money order out of the blue, just because sometimes grandmothers do that sort of thing. I think it was $50, and I almost cried because I would not have been able to get food that week.”

According to a 2018 study published by Georgetown University, close to 70 percent of students work while attending college; of those, more than half have no other option. The same study found that students who work more than 15 hours per week are more likely to drop out—even as they incur debt—and nearly half of students working more than 15 hours per week had a grade average of C or lower. The type of work is just as important: If a student must work while juggling classes, doing so in a position related to their degree enables them to build professional contacts and refine skills relevant to their industry of choice. Paid internships are the best way to guarantee relevant work. 

 

When people complain about industries like journalism and publishing being incredibly white or incredibly financially privileged, unpaid internships are how that starts.

 

STREET SENSE MEDIA’S NEW STIPEND is modeled after work done by student journalists at the Georgetown Voice, a student-run news outlet at Georgetown University. The Voice’s fiftieth anniversary brought an unexpected influx of donations. Sienna Brancato, the Voice’s former editor-in-chief, said in an interview that the publication wanted to do something significant with the windfall. An editorial-board member suggested an internship stipend; the paper had recently published an editorial about the importance of paying interns. Once their colleagues heard the idea, there was no debate; it was an issue they had all faced personally. As a result, after additional fundraising, the Voice distributed four Steve Pisinski Student Journalism Grants last year, named for a Voice founder. Each was worth $2,500.

The Voice’s new stipend is an extension of the paper’s approach to student journalism, Brancato told me. The paper welcomes anyone who is interested in reporting to join, and makes training a significant part of its operations; likewise, the grant was open to all students—not just those in the journalism program—and gave preference to younger applicants, to provide experience and success from as early a point as possible.“People can be deterred from pursuing a field if, repeatedly, they’re unable to take advantage of certain opportunities,” Brancato said. 

Brancato, like Alo, said unpaid internships support an unhealthy workplace culture that tells interns and employees they should feel lucky to be there instead of valuing their labor. When a person is selected for an unpaid position, that says, “I see the value of what you can contribute to the team but not so far as that I’m going to compensate you for that,” Brancato explained. 

During the past year, I attended more internship fairs than I ever have before, because the pandemic had forced all of them to take place online. While digital equity and access issues can still limit participation, the registration fees for employers were reduced, and I could make it to two separate universities in a single day without running across town between them. This led to our first-ever internship fairs with Howard University, Trinity Washington University, and Bowie State University. For the first time, I spoke with dozens of students of color in a single semester who were enthused about working for our organization—until, that is, I told them that our positions were unpaid. 

This detail was made clear in our position postings, but was often and understandably overlooked in the rush to sign-up for one-on-one conversations. When I raised the lack of pay, one student asked me for advice on housing assistance—something we cover closely—to help avoid eviction when the moratorium was lifted. Another student—a mother with a toddler—had an impeccable resume, experience, and passion, but needed any work commitment to be compensated with income. Ultimately, only one of the students I spoke with applied. They were hired, but then withdrew from the internship before the semester started, after their advisor warned against becoming overwhelmed by keeping up with school, working to pay their bills, and taking on the internship. We lost talent.

“When people complain about industries like journalism and publishing being incredibly white or incredibly financially privileged, unpaid internships are how that starts,” Brancato said. “When an industry is homogenous, the content that they put out is less likely to be as diverse and all-encompassing of and reflective of the society that it’s reporting on. And so then people consume that, then that shapes and influences the way that people see the world. And so it’s just this self-perpetuating loop.” 

 

Paid internships are not a silver bullet for fixing journalism’s long struggle with diversity, but they are an essential piece of the puzzle.

 

PAID INTERNSHIPS continue to gain traction. The average hourly wage for undergraduate interns—now $20.76—has increased steadily for the past seven years, according to a 2021 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). While many internships were canceled due to COVID-19 last year, employers surveyed by NACE anticipated that internship hiring would fall by just 0.5 percent this year. 

But the number of students seeking an internship is far greater than the number of available positions, and between 30 and 40 percent of all internships are still unpaid. While employees with internship experiences are more likely to be retained by their employer, the majority of interns hired last year were white men, which “suggests a disconnect with employer priorities around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” according to NACE. Paid internships are not a silver bullet for fixing journalism’s long struggle with diversity, but they are an essential piece of the puzzle.

“We have a number of firms that still practice unpaid internships, which, that’s neo-slavery,” Esther Odejimi-Uzokwe, program director for 10,000 Black Interns, told The Talent Revolution podcast in June. “If you don’t have the funds for an intern, then you don’t hire an intern. Increase your capacity as a team.” This summer, 10KBI recruited hundreds of investment firms to commit to hiring paid interns this summer—selected and vetted by the campaign—who would be paid a minimum of “the local living wage.”

Journalism has seen a few like-minded efforts. The Emma Bowen Foundation has placed more than 1,000 students of color in multi-year media internships over the past three decades. Through its Emerging Reporters program, ProPublica provides $9,000 stipends and mentorship to five college juniors and seniors who are pursuing investigative journalism. The New College of Florida is partnering with employers to provide funds for humanities interns. 

We’re starting small, providing $2,000 to one part-time intern for each of three semesters—a total commitment of $6,000 for one year. That amount was roughly copied from the Voice’s Pisinski grant, because it had proven to help journalism students in our area and also because the $6,000 total cost seemed like an achievable crowdfunding goal, with my $1,000 prize as seed funding. Still, it should be only a starting point; a decade ago, a low estimate for holding a three-month full-time internship in Washington, DC, was $4,050, and housing, tuition, and transportation costs have only climbed in the years since. 

After a few semesters, I hope to have improved diversity among Street Sense Media interns and that we’ll bring in new funders to expand the stipend. Paying all five interns in our newsroom at this rate would cost $30,000 annually—less than the cost of a salary for a single full-time employee. (This estimate doesn’t account for the interns we hire in other departments each semester.) If the amount proves insufficient to make our positions accessible to low-income students, we’ll need to consider increasing how much is paid per student before expanding the number of recipients. 

If paid in advance, Alo said the stipend she received for her part-time 2016 internship with Street Sense Media would not have been enough for housing. She still would have had to work as a nanny. But it would have covered most of her food and transit expenses. “It was definitely designed to be more supplemental than it was to be something that you could live off of,” Alo told me. “It would have been enough for me to not carry a balance on a credit card.” 

Street Sense Media is playing catch up. But that’s what any news outlet still offering unpaid internships ought to do—and what their audiences, including potential funders, should demand of them.

Industry-wide, progress towards paying interns remains frustratingly slow. “We’re basically inching there,” Alo, who is now working to unionize her department at the San Francisco Chronicle, said. “And it’s never gonna be fast enough, because we’re talking about really fundamental human needs.” Still, she added, “we’re gonna get there.”

The viewpoints in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent those of Street Sense Media.

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Eric Falquero is the editorial director for Street Sense Media, where he got his start as an unpaid intern, taking out additional student loans to cover food and transit while living in Washington, DC, for a summer.

TOP IMAGE: Cassidy Jensen (right) interviews the director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency during her Street Sense Media internship in 2017. Photo by Rodney Choice/Choice Photography