Editor’s note: The newspaper industry has a long history of offering internships, and many of our finest employees first learned their trade while working as interns. However, in recent years a strong backlash has developed against unpaid media internships, with the government and courts holding unpaid internships to increasing scrutiny in some jurisdictions. The outcome of several pending court cases could have great impact. If your paper offers unpaid internships, you should make note of the following article and, if needed, consult with your legal counsel.
The unpaid internship. It’s a rite of passage in the media industry. Every year, communications/journalism majors dust off their résumés and apply for the few highly coveted positions at newspapers, television stations, radio stations and movie studios.
So highly coveted are these positions that, more often than not, the intern doesn’t get paid. Oh sure, you might get some school credit, a chance to network, and an extra line on your résumé – but no cash. (In my book, the most valuable benefit is the opportunity to discover over a couple of months what you may never want to do again for the rest of your life.)
I was one of those interns. For two summers during college I worked two nights a week and Sundays at the Washington, D.C. Fox affiliate, doing mainly sports.
It was a sweet gig: watch some games, tag some highlights, write some copy, go to the occasional sporting event location shoot. My stuff got on the air. One summer I was the World Cup guy. My job was to watch all the Cup games. I’m a soccer fan (if you didn’t already know). This wasn’t work; it was a dream.
So I didn’t get paid. Big deal. I got school credit. That was enough justification (as if I needed any justification to do what I got to do). Back in my day, that’s how it was. Nobody complained. (Now get off my lawn, you kids – it’s my ball now!!!)
Recently, interns have challenged the no-pay condition of their servitude in a number of cases percolating through the U.S. District Courts in New York. And while the legal issues have yet to be finally resolved, there’s reason to believe that the “credit in lieu of payment” system may be at risk.
So now’s a good time to take a look at the questions being raised about unpaid internships, how the courts have addressed those questions so far, and what might be on the horizon.