Four years of Ivy League school. Three unpaid internships in the country’s most expensive city to live in. Peter Sterne, 22, just hopes the next journalism outlet to publish his words will pay for them.
Befuddled in his search for a paying internship, the Columbia College senior last May started Who Pays Interns? – a Tumblr filled with scoops on which magazines and websites compensate. Recently, the site has seen an uptick in submissions.
That’s no surprise. When two former interns who worked on the film “Black Swan” sued Fox Searchlight in September 2011, most people – especially in Hollywood, where pricey dues are unduly expected to be paid – scoffed with the usual, they’ll-never-work-in-this-town-again disdain.
But in recent months, the movement against unpaid internships has picked up steam.
Condé Nast was sued in June for paying interns less than $1 per hour and decided in August to stop paying altogether.
And the Fair Pay Campaign, which promises to fight to end unpaid internships – from the bottom-wrung media companies to the White House – has been gathering more signatures.
“If you want to work at the New Yorker and not get paid, that’s fine,” Sterne told International Business Times. “But I think it’s important for people who are doing that to know they could work at Time magazine and make $15 an hour.”
Sterne spoke to IBTimes on Thursday afternoon. Some responses in the interview have been condensed.
IBT: You were most recently working an unpaid internship at the New York Observer. Is that where the idea for this blog came from?
Sterne: I finished the unpaid internship at the Observer at the beginning of August. The idea for the site – I had this at the beginning of the summer – it was after I learned I’d be doing an unpaid internship. The summer before, I worked at the Columbia Journalism Review unpaid. Before that, I worked at the National Memo, a liberal politics site, unpaid. The reason I started up the site is that I was inspired by Who Pays Writers? It’s run by Manjula Martin. That is essentially a site for listing how much publications pay for freelance work, based on anonymous submissions. I realized something similar could work for unpaid internships. I personally had done unpaid internships, but as I was searching I didn’t really know which ones would pay, or how much they would pay. I decided to start Who Pays Interns? as a resource for people looking for paid internships.
IBT: How have your former employers – maybe that’s not the right word, given the topic at hand – reacted to the site?
Sterne: I don’t know if they’ve seen it. I know that my immediate editor, I told her I’m doing this. They said, that’s fine, just do it on your own time and don’t associate it with the Observer. It’s not an observer website. It’s entirely separate. It’s a personal blog essentially.
IBT: You’ve posted mostly media jobs. Will you include more internships from outside the news media?
Sterne: I’ve kind of gone back and forth on that. The site, I wanted it to have a certain focus. I decided to start with media internships. They also tend to be unpaid in many cases, or they offer a small stipend. I know people who’ve interned at media companies, I’ve worked media companies, and I’ve done a few unpaid internships in media, so that’s really the focus now. Also, I try to stick to larger brands. There are tons and tons of small websites, small publications that hire people as interns and don’t really pay too much. I don’t think it’s a good use of my time to research every small publication. I’m trying to focus on Condé Nast, Hearst, Time Inc., the New York Times, cable networks and major websites and blogs. But I will take any submissions.
IBT: Do you think young journalists are more sympathetic to unpaid internships, given the financial struggles in the industry?
Sterne: In a sense, yes. People in media certainly feel that they need to do internships, and in many cases unpaid internships just to get their foot in the door. Obviously, if they can afford it. I think that many interns are sympathetic, especially when you’re looking at startups and other companies where there’s not a lot of money. But there is some resentment, especially if you don’t get hired. You’re sort of wasting your time.
IBT: Is this culture of unpaid internships bad for journalism, since it basically only allows kids with wealthy parents to do them?
Sterne: Absolutely. I think that’s very bad for journalism. You want people who have diverse backgrounds and diverse perspectives. If you only have people from the middle class writing, there are going to be blind spots. It’s unfair for people who cannot afford to do unpaid internships. It also harms the affluent kids who can do unpaid internships. The normalization of unpaid internships leads them to just take one unpaid internship after another. You just become a serial unpaid intern. In addition to that, we’ve seen all these lawsuits. My personal opinion, having read the law and looked at some of the court cases, the vast majority of unpaid internships are almost certainly illegal. The Fair Labor Standards Act says you need to pay people minimum wage with a few exceptions.
IBT: How do you feel about unpaid internships for college credit?
Sterne: The first problem is the idea that if you offer college credit, that makes the internship legal. I don’t think that’s the case. The internship in order to be legal … it needs to be similar to an educational experience. Just giving people college credit is not enough. I know many universities, particularly the Ivys, allow people to get nonregistration credit, which is credit but it doesn’t actually count toward your degree. Other universities, particularly less elite ones, actually make people pay to get credit for unpaid internships. You’re essentially paying to work for a company. I don’t think offering college credit is the solution.
IBT: If companies start paying interns as a standard rule, don’t you think you’ll see fewer positions open? Is it worth it to deprive those that can afford to go without pay of the opportunity?
Sterne: I don’t think you’d see all internships disappear, first of all. Right now companies are using interns in order to do work that needs to be done. If they were told they need to pay their interns, you might see fewer interns, but you would not see internships go away. You’d see people doing labor for companies and being paid for it. There’s a debate about raising the minimum wage. There’s a fear that they’ll raise the minimum wage and lay people off. But they won’t lay people off when that work needs to be done.
IBT: Anything in the works for you right now, in terms of another internship or a job out of school?
Sterne: I’m trying to focus on my last year at Columbia, and I want to make sure I have a decent GPA. I don’t want to distract myself by doing an internship during the school year.
Alexander C. Kaufman is a reporter at the International Business Times covering companies, retail and media. He joined in May 2013. Previously, he was an editor of...