It’s abundantly clear that unpaid internships harm young journalists, as well as the industry itself. [Read: Critical early-career opportunities exclude low-income students]. Still, students and recent graduates apply. As full-time newsroom positions dwindle, connections gained during summer programs can be the key to securing a job, if and when one becomes available.
The coronavirus pandemic presents another obstacle. Newsrooms across the country have decided to cancel their summer internships, including the Boston Globe, whose editor Brian McGrory recently pledged in a memo to “reframe [their] summer internship program, beginning in 2021, to a diversity internship and training program in which all participants will be students or recent graduates of color.” NPR, The Seattle Times, and NBC News have also canceled their programs. The Washington Post has suspended “most summer internships” and is only hiring students who have already interned in its newsroom.
Though 17% of its current staff members are former interns, NPR’s newsroom remains over 70% white. Even if their summer internship was taking place, it’s unlikely that the organization would retain students after the fact. Similarly, cancelling summer internships will not help NBCUniversal News Group meet its 50% challenge, a plan which aims to make 50% of their staff people of color and 50% of their staff women. Internships won’t fix newsrooms’ problems, but they’re a good start.
Many organizations are continuing their programs, albeit remotely. Arianna Horton started an internship with Cosmopolitan this summer and speaks positively about her experience, but her original plan—a broadcast journalism internship with the Columbus Clippers—was canceled.
“This opportunity came along pretty late in the summer and I was like, ‘Well I’m not doing anything, so I can just apply,’” said Horton. It’s the rising senior’s first journalism internship, she explains, but she’s still impressed by the experience. “Even though it’s remote and we can’t all be together in the office, they’re doing a pretty good job—like, better than what I expected it to be—to make sure that we all feel included and we all feel like we’re being heard.”
Jake Kincaid, a current intern at the Miami Herald, is in a similar position. Though he’s currently comfortable in Florida, the future of his fall internship with Reuters is uncertain. If that falls through, he’s unsure where he’ll go next, since many deadlines for alternative internships have already passed.
“I’m really glad that [the Herald] didn’t bail on people who had been depending on doing the internship like a lot of other people had because that would have really messed up my plans,” said Kincaid. “You miss a lot of application deadlines for other stuff once you have one set up … they lock you in back in spring or fall and then to just cancel is—I think—not really doing right by the students.”
Each journalist I spoke with is getting paid, which is a relief, but it’s apparent that more could be done to support these undervalued employees. Sydney Czyzon, who’s currently interning at the Chicago Tribune, told me an editor reached out when things went remote to make sure she had a laptop. This was not the case for the other journalists I interviewed. All, including Czyzon, are using their own equipment.
This self-sufficiency doesn’t stop at unprovided laptops. While working from home, interns use their own internet or Wi-Fi. Furthermore, the journalists said they had not been offered reimbursement plans or hot spots from management.
“That’s something crazy that I’ve never thought about,” said Horton, when I asked if she was compensated for her expenses. “I am working from home and I’m using my own Wi-Fi, but I’m using it to do work for them. I don’t know. That’s actually a great point.”
To some, a laptop and internet seem like an easy lift. After all, don’t most college students already own a computer and pay for Wi-Fi? Though it’s often true, working in an office environment with communal workstations could reduce the strain on one’s laptop, extending the lifespan and postponing an expensive purchase or repair. And, if video calls are regular or roommates compete for bandwidth, upgrading to a better internet plan may be necessary. (If we really want to get technical, check your recent utility bills. If you’re working from home, there’s likely to be an increase).
Aaron, an intern who asked The Objective to use a nickname, said this lack of resources and other remote work shortfalls are a sign of larger problems.
“In some ways, I suppose the pandemic and the experience of working remote has amplified a number of problems that I think existed prior to social distancing and that, in many respects, just reflect some of the more endemic and pervasive inequalities that exist within our industry.”
Still, according to these testimonials, the programs are living up to (slightly lowered) expectations.
“You can only do so much on Zoom calls or on Slack to make the internship feel worthwhile, and I think that they’re doing everything that they can—Hearst and Cosmo—to make sure that we feel like we’re getting everything out of this internship,” said Horton.
Czyzon agreed, stating that the Tribune’s “internship is surprisingly very comparable to her other internships.”
This doesn’t mean newsroom leaders are off the hook. All of the interns I interviewed are just that: current interns. This piece does not include the perspectives of journalists who are out of work—either by the cancellation of their program or because they were not in a place to continue their internship once it became remote.
As upper management winces at newsroom cuts, should we not also be dodging harm done to interns? Though restricting the latter is often viewed as an effective preservation tactic, it simultaneously shuts out those who may one day revive the industry. I encourage those who have voices in their newsrooms to make a case for interns’ needs in remote work discussions. Moreover, rather than wait for those with the least amount of seniority to suggest changes, propose resources and poll for responses proactively.
No one is sure what newsrooms will look like in the next few months. But, at the very least, we can do our best to make sure we’re not leaving key individuals out of the conversation.
“I’m grateful that, in spite of everything, [my employer] has managed to keep us on when other publications have been unable to do that,” said Aaron. “But at the same time, I do wish that they had done more early on to ask what we wanted and needed and to seek our input in building a better remote work environment and, in particular, a remote internship experience.”
Was your newsroom internship canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic? We want to hear from you. Message the author on Twitter: @hollypiepenburg.