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For decades, magazines have relied on unpaid interns to staff their offices, edit and fact-check their copy. These interns are usually aspiring journalists or students seeking entry to the industry. Last week, the Ontario Ministry of Labour ruled that these internships, as practiced by the magazines Toronto Life and The Walrus, are in violation of labour laws which forbid full-time work without pay. It appears that unpaid internships have become a thing of the past.
Is this a great advance for fairness and non-discrimination, or is it a boot to the head for young journalists? We’ve invited two recent journalistic interns, Kaleigh Rogers and Andrew Lovesey, to debate the question. Vote for the position you find most persuasive.
Kaleigh Rogers : Blame it on my student newspaper. I put in a year there during undergrad as a volunteer, learning and writing for free a few hours a week. But the next year I won an editor position and for the first time in my life I was paid to write. It wasn’t much — an honorarium supplied through student fees that amounted to about $2.50 an hour — but it was compensation and it taught me that the work I was doing had value. Since then, I haven’t worked a single unpaid day as a journalist and I’ve become somewhat of an evangelist against the alternative: unpaid internships.
Last week, the Ontario Ministry of Labour launched a crackdown on unpaid internships in journalism, starting with the programs at two of the country’s most prominent magazines, The Walrus and Toronto Life. While I have the utmost respect for both publications, I had no respect for their practice of exploiting eager young journalists for free, full-time labour for months at a time. I celebrated the ministry’s move and was keen to have the other publications with similar practices pulled into line as well. I assumed my colleagues in the industry would rejoice with me: this potentially marked the end of journalists working for free, the beginning of fair compensation at all publications that wanted to hire interns.
To my surprise, many journalists actually defended unpaid internships. These very programs provided a great learning experience that helped launch their careers, they said. They worried if publications weren’t paying their interns, it meant they couldn’t afford to have them at all, and the crackdown would lead to the end of internship programs altogether. Surely an abundance of unpaid opportunities is better than a handful of paid ones, right?
But they’re missing the bigger picture.
I understand personally the value of interning. No journalism program can match the experiential learning gained at an internship. With entry-level positions in the industry few and far between, internships remain the best way for new graduates to get the hands-on experience they need to jumpstart their careers. I graduated in 2012 and have yet to land a full-time gig, so instead I’ve strung together short-term contracts with paid internships and bouts of freelancing, as have most of my peers. It’s the reality of the current job market in journalism.
But learning experience or no, asking new journalists to do work for free — work such as copy editing, posting web stories and writing short pieces that would otherwise be paid— exploits their naiveté for the benefit of the publication. It’s not only wrong, it’s illegal. Few if any of these interns turn their stint into a full-time paying gig at the same publication. Instead, they’re sent out the door after as long as six months with a handful of clippings and an earnest “good luck” as the next lot of free labourers files in behind them.
Proponents argue that the interns are only doing extra work commissioned for their benefit, but as many as 30 internship positions will be lost at St. Joseph Communications, the publisher of Toronto Life, due to the crackdown, according to president Doug Knight. It’s impossible to argue the outflow of that many workers — St. Joseph only employs about 200 paid staff — won’t result in an increased workload for the other employees. There’s simply no way the stories being written, the copy being edited, the photo galleries being posted are all gratuitous content for the sole benefit of those doing the work. If the publications earn even one cent as a result of the free labour of their interns, they are being exploitative and disingenuous in their intentions.
And this is all ignoring perhaps the most egregious flaw with unpaid internships: the selection bias that inevitably occurs when you only offer opportunities to those who can afford to work for free. Aside from my idealism, I never pursued an unpaid internship because I simply couldn’t afford it. I’m not from the Toronto area, so mooching off of my parents while working for free in Toronto wasn’t an option. Flogging frappuccinos at Starbucks was out of the question, too; most unpaid internships require interns to work a full-time schedule for at least four months, leaving no room for additional paying jobs to cover the bills. This system creates a limited pool of largely affluent, privileged, urban applicants and it chokes out the voices of diverse journalists trying to break into the industry.
I can see where my colleagues who defend the practice are coming from. An unpaid internship worked for them in a highly competitive industry with few opportunities. If the choice is between unpaid internships or no internships at all, the former seems like an obvious choice.
But there’s a third option: paying interns for the work they’re doing, valuing their contribution and, for goodness sake, maybe even allowing them a humble apartment and something other than ramen to eat. The only way paid internships will become the norm is if we take the first step of eliminating the unpaid option, even if it means sacrificing a few opportunities along the way. As one colleague of mine pointed out, the number of full-time, paid journalism jobs doesn’t increase with more unpaid internships. We’re still all fighting for those few brass rings; eliminating unpaid internships just makes it a fairer fight.
Andrew Lovesey : Whose interest does the Ontario Ministry of Labour’s crackdown on magazine internships really serve? Surely not the scores of young journalists who have had their best shot at a job in the industry taken away from them.
The result of this action will not be the creation of new paying internships at Toronto Life or The Walrus, or at any of the other magazine titles soon to have their programs shuttered by the bureaucrats. More likely, the former interns will have to settle for something worse than an unpaid internship: McJobs. Some will probably never get as close to being in the industry again.
Does the government of Ontario really think that denying young people the opportunity for an on-the-job apprenticeship is a good thing? And who do they think they’re protecting? I didn’t feel exploited when I returned to live with my father for a couple of months, in Ottawa, when I volunteered to work as an intern at Canadian Geographic two years ago. I felt lucky. I thought it was a way into an industry that is notoriously difficult to break into. I saw it as an opportunity to gain skills that would be far more valuable to me than anything a vocational college could offer.
And I was right. My internship led to a full-time contract as the magazine’s social media editor, and after that ended I was hired as digital editor at Flare magazine. I have since moved to a job at a communications firm in Toronto. In other words, a few months of volunteerism resulted in permanent employment. I know a handful of other people at Canadian Geographic who also found paying jobs at the magazine. What vocational college gives you those kinds the odds?
Bizarrely, the Ontario Ministry of Labour thinks it is okay for students to accept unpaid work at magazines, as long as it applies towards some sort of course credit. So young journalists are apparently only being exploited if they manage to secure an internship outside of some regimented, cookie-cutter journalism-school program sanctioned by government workers. This does not sound like Canada. It sounds like North Korea.
It certainly threatens to make for a more homogenized journalism in this country.
Meanwhile, the internet is bursting with blogs and websites filled with content written by unpaid aspiring journalists. These blogs and websites (Huffington Post comes to mind) would not exist without this free content. Of course, they are not being targeted by the Ontario Ministry of Labour. They are new media. It’s only old media, apparently, that has to adhere to Ontario’s labour standards.
There are so many other steps the Ontario government could have taken if it felt young journalists were being exploited. They could have imposed rules to limit the lengths of such internships, say to four months, or they could have limited the number of interns working at a magazine — although I don’t think either of these measures were necessary. These interns, remember, volunteer for these positions. In fact, those positions are hotly sought after. Nobody is forcing people to apply – with the possible exception of vocational colleges.
There’s something else I find confusing. I had thought The Walrus was published by a non-profit foundation. Certainly Canadian Geographic is one. Can people in Ontario no longer volunteer their work at a non-profit organization? Does that mean all those who lick stamps for charities or sit at tables at bazaars are also exploited workers? Or do labour standards only apply where there is a prospect that your volunteer work could end up in a paying position?
Obviously not all magazines are like The Walrus. Some, and I think of Flare (which also has used unpaid interns), are run by big rich companies such as Rogers. But the reason companies such as Rogers got to be big and rich is because they know when to shut down marginal or unprofitable divisions. The magazine business is not like the banking industry. It is not a license to print money. It will be interesting to see what sort of impact the Ontario bureaucrats will have on Canada’s already struggling magazine industry. While I don’t think any internship program is vital to the health of the magazines that operate them, Ontario’s Ministry of Labour did just make them incrementally less viable.
Maybe they want to put us all in McJobs.