How Unpaid Internships and a Culture of Privilege are Sabotaging Journalism

Rolling Stone magazine drew the ire of journalists across the country last week when the owner, Jann Wenner, named his 22-year-old son, Gus, the head of the magazine’s website. Naturally, this move has been seen as blatant nepotism. Gus has been working on the website for a whopping six months and is, by most accounts, grossly underqualified for his position. Apparently, privilege has no place in journalism, where the playing field is even and journalists are given opportunities based on merit and hard work alone.


If you’re a journalist nodding along with that last paragraph, then answer this question: does your publication use unpaid interns as the prevalent mode of determining full-time jobs? If so, then I’m sorry to inform you that your publication is perpetuating a privilege-based upward mobility, and it’s ruining journalism.

As my classmates and I were finishing up our studies at Northwestern’s graduate school of journalism, we were naturally bombarded with stories and speeches from people who were actually successful in the field. Nine out of 10 had the same story: in order to succeed, you have to take an unpaid internship in New York for months or years; you build your resume and eventually land yourself a job.

One senior member of a leading national magazine when asked how someone could pay the bills to affording life in New York while working a full-time internship famously told us that if we couldn’t pull an unpaid internship off, then we didn’t want to succeed badly enough. When we asked how he pulled it off, he told us about how he lived in his parents’ spare apartment upstate while working his internship.

And therein lies the issue with unpaid internships. The practice of asking recent graduates to spend their days working for free while paying rent and living in a city like New York is a barrier for entry to students from mid- to lower-class backgrounds.

Take these two hypothetical examples: two students, one from a single-parent, lower-class household in Gary, Indiana, and another from a wealthy family living in Worcester, Massachusetts whose parents are willing and able to support. An unpaid internship is much easier to work through for the kid from Worcester, who doesn’t have to worry about earning money with a night job on the side. So many of my classmates decided to just get paying jobs outside of journalism in lieu of slaving away for a couple of years, hoping they’d get a shot at a magazine or website of repute, while classmates with deeper pockets went straight to New York to eat up internships.

All of my classmates were qualified to work in any newsroom or publication in the city, but those who could afford the lifestyle got their feet in the door with internships. Sure, it’s possible for someone to work 40 hours a week without pay while also waiting tables at night, but it sure is easier when you don’t have to worry about earning a living – or paying student loans.

But it’s not like even these “lucky” enough chosen to be unpaid interns have it easy or fair. Oftentimes they work full-time hours without earning any money or receiving any benefits. Even if they perform well at their jobs, there isn’t a guarantee they’ll actually get hired, so there’s no end in sight for their unpaid labor. Basically, publications employ slave labor for people with degrees.

So why should you, the reader, care about unpaid internships for jobs you don’t want? These practices have gone a long way to damage the fabric of journalism, and have changed the way issues are reported and the quality of the product you consume on a daily basis.

Recently, I wrote about how stories of crime in New Orleans or Chicago’s Southside are under-reported on the national level, and one of the reasons is the fact that voices from these areas aren’t making it to the national conversation to influence the direction of national discourse. Media workplaces are becoming populated by those who can afford the jobs. Those who can’t are being shut out.

After the Boston bombings, it seemed like every news station had someone present who could talk about the Boston suburbs. How many outlets had employees at the ready to explain a New Orleans second line, or what it was like growing up during those scary Chicago summers?

As a consumer, I find opinions or perspectives reflecting my own come few and far between. How many journalists can say they have firsthand knowledge of the mentality of someone from the inner-city? Many of these voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.

The journalists who can tell my story – the story of urban or inner-city America – have taken a job in marketing while disseminating their opinions on blogs, which only small portion of the general public ever see. This is a loss to the art of journalism and its ability to tell the whole American story.

Until publications find that more well-rounded reporting is more important than cutting financial corners, they’ll continue to alienate a large portion of the American population, and the stories that lay in the shadows of America’s dark corners will never come to light.

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