Ask any journalist if they’ve ever worked for free and the answer is most often yes, and it was most likely at an unpaid internship.
As a journalism student, an internship is practically as important — if not more important — than your diploma or degree. Professors and industry veterans will tell you over and over that it’s the best way to get your foot in the door. And that much is true, you will meet professional journalists, build relationships, make an impression, and gain hands-on experience.
However, chances are you won’t be paid for your time. Post-secondary journalism programs have integrated internships into course curriculum, so students must complete at least one internship in order to graduate. That has opened the door for media organizations to accept interns, have them work full-time hours, and offer them no payment in return because they are receiving course credit. Imagine working 40 hours a week, and not taking home a paycheque?
Using the reasoning that students don’t need to be paid because they are receiving school credit just isn’t good enough. Students don’t typically spend 40 hours a week in school. And whether they are receiving school credit or not, that doesn’t change their expenses such as tuition, groceries, rent, and transportation. This means that the students that can easily opt-in for unpaid internships are the ones who can afford to work for free — creating a gap between them and the students who experience financial barriers to access the same types of opportunities.
Is it true that many newsrooms can’t afford to pay interns an hourly wage? Sure. But there are also multiple grant programs that these companies can apply for. For example, a newsroom can hire an intern at minimum wage, have them work 40 hours a week over the course of four months, and apply for a grant to cover 75% of that cost. Sure it will still involve some financial cost on the newsroom’s end, but it’s the right thing to do.
When a grant is denied or not available, the simple step of offering an honorarium is definitely better than nothing. It could be enough to cover groceries or a transit pass for those four months, and most importantly, it’s a gesture to thank the student for their time and hard work, showing them that their work is valued and should be paid for.
Here at OMG, we are making an effort to build relationships with post-secondary journalism programs in the local communities our outlets serve in order to provide compensated internships to journalism students.
Most recently, I reached out to Mount Royal University (MRU) to look at opportunities to have a student intern with our Calgary Citizen team in 2022. Journalism students at MRU are required to complete a four-month professional work experience term, and the university states that it must be paid. MRU took a step to protect its students, because if the publications are not going to willingly offer compensation, schools can help mandate it even when the internships are for school credit.
While there is a reckoning against unpaid internships, we still see it run rampant across our industry. We need to end this unfair practice and pay interns for their work.