Absolutely. I wouldn’t have gotten my paid, “prestigious” internships had I not taken unpaid ones beforehand.
My first paid summer internship was for Entertainment Weekly. Fortunately, Time Inc. paid me. Probably not enough to, you know, live on my own and move across the country and stuff, but fortunately I live on Long Island so I was able to commute to work every day. (I have to pass through Penn Station, which in a way negates all the privilege I have, but that’s another subject.)
When the EW editor offered me the internship, I asked her what about me impressed her. The first thing she said was that I interned at Interview magazine and transcribed a lot of stuff there, which I would also have to do at EW (it’s true — and by G-d I never want to listen to an actor talk about their role in The Walking Dead ever again).
My internship at Interview was unpaid. (As was my freelance work after I graduated college, it seems. I’m still waiting for a check, guys! It’s been a year!) They paid for part of my transportation, but only the subway, not the LIRR, which cost about four times as much as the subway.
Halfway through my six weeks there, Brandt Publications ended their internship program. My situation was in flux. My editors decided to keep me off the books and pay for my transportation out of their own pocket, bless them.
But they ended their internship program because it was unpaid, and thus probably illegal. And, well, that’s a question: is it better to have unpaid internships that are good for some people, or no unpaid internships at all?
Obviously the answer is “pay your interns,” but what if a publication can’t do that? Take Harper’s, for example. They’re a liberal, borderline socialist publication. I would have loved to apply to their internship program, but I didn’t bother because it was unpaid. I imagine they’ve done the math and would pay their interns if they could, but it looks like they can’t. What then? Would all the excellent writers who got their start as Harper’s interns just not have the careers they did? Would they be worse off?
I also want to address the issue of working for a college paper, and whether that should be lumped together with unpaid internships on the subject.
My take: it’s complicated. Every college has a different way these things are structured. As I understand it, sometimes the college paper works in affiliation with a journalism school. Sometimes they have paid advisors that do things. And some have editors in chief for different days, splitting up responsibilities.
In all cases, the most important thing is that an independent body of journalists do journalism on the school and the community. That’s an incredibly valuable thing, and yes, there isn’t always a sustainable business model for it if you want to pay contributors, but we can’t forget that.
At Pipe Dream, the student paper at Binghamton University, I was the assistant editor of the arts and culture section for two years and the editor for one. I worked between 20 and 30 hours per week, which is maybe a lot but not the most. I didn’t have another job that paid me.
But some people did and, well, it worked. My editor-in-chief my freshman year worked 50 hours per week on the paper and also worked 30 hours per week for Sodexo on campus, which couldn’t have been fun. He also volunteered for a few hours at a local kitchen, which I also did myself after he graduated. Oh, and he had three majors. Whenever I thought about skipping my volunteer shift because I had a lot of work to do, I remembered him and didn’t.
The editor in chief after him also had a job as a campus tour guide, in addition to her two majors. When I became editor of the arts and culture section, the assistant editor I hired had two jobs in addition to her two majors.
But then — there were so, so many writers on my staff who were excellent and who I would have loved to write more. But they had jobs and school work and were busy and maybe — but not always — just didn’t love Pipe Dream as much. So they didn’t. And that’s a shame.