Paid journalism internships are often the best chance to build a career. Are they enough?

Aria Gerson thought she just had mosquito bites. After all, Massachusetts, where her paid summer 2019 sports internship at the Cape Cod Times was located, has plenty of those. Besides, constantly covering baseball games, writing features and co-hosting a podcast meant that she didn’t have too much free time to think about the issue. 

However, Gerson soon learned that they were far more serious: The condo she was renting a room from for the summer had gotten bed bugs. When Gerson told her landlord, he insisted that she pay for pest control to come. Massachusetts state law requires that landlords pay for pest control in rooming houses, however, Gerson moved out and stayed in a house her boyfriend’s family owned and a hotel room her mother paid for. 

“I had to throw out a lot of stuff,” Gerson said. “Some of it was monetarily pretty worthless, but it had a lot of sentimental value. So that sucked.”

Gerson found the condo through the editors at the internship, who provided her with the landlord’s contact information after she had difficulty finding housing on her own. Gerson was ultimately responsible for finding her own housing, as well as transportation and moving to Cape Cod from Michigan, where she lives and attends school. Gerson was lucky to have connections in the area to fall back on, as well as the help of her parents, who chipped in. For many interns, this is not the case.

Unpaid internships allow the same voices to write the same stories year after year, ignoring or harming minority groups within the community in the process. Lack of pay has long held  the most talented journalists back from entering the field, as students who can depend on their parents or have their own funds are able to afford expenses others cannot, allowing them to take these unpaid jobs.

“Journalism already doesn’t pay well at all,” said Samantha Bushman, who works in a ski shop and as an image editor contracted with Microsoft. Bushman had several internships in college, paid and unpaid, worked for her college newspaper, and freelanced in the Seattle area. 

“Out of college, I didn’t get a journalism job,” she said. “But honestly, a lot of the ones that I’m looking at don’t pay me enough to live. That’s a huge problem to begin with. Having expectations on interns to have these things that are considered a privilege automatically knocks down the people that are going to apply for that.”

However, while many journalists now agree on the necessity of paid internships, the specifics of what paid student internships look like are often murky. Most paid internships don’t offer their own housing or transportation, and put the burden on the student to find and pay for it on their own. This moves the responsibility of creating a comfortable living situation from the institution hiring them to the student, who may have no resources or connections in the area. 

Transportation is a key example of how privilege can affect the applicant pool for paid internships. Many internships require students to have their own transportation, often noting that it should be “personal” — meaning that these interns should have their own cars. However, research shows that lower-income people, as well as people of color, are less likely to have their own car. Making the issue more complicated is that, in order to cover some communities, such as rural areas, it’s almost impossible to reach and tell their stories without having a reliable car.

When Bushman was looking to apply for internships, she noted how The Boston Globe, located in a city with relatively extensive public transportation, specifically mentioned cars in their application. (The Boston Globe’s website dedicated to its internships and co-op program currently states, “Applicants must have a driver’s license and should be comfortable driving as our interns cover stories from all over New England.”) She also said that getting around became easier once she had a car, and understood why publications wanted their interns to have access to a vehicle.

Other students face these same challenges. Gerson did not have her own car but needed one for her internship, as she often had to drive for several hours to games with no other ways to get there. Her mother, a college professor,  allowed her to take her car for the internship, since she said she didn’t need it as much during the summer. 

Aiyana Ishmael, a former Dow Jones intern who currently works for Tampa Bay TimesWriteLane podcast, said that even a bus pass could help make things easier.

“Just not putting things [in the internship description] that could harm minorities, or people that just don’t financially have a car,” Ishmael said. “Because it’s not even just minorities when it comes to cars at that. There are people that are white that financially probably can’t do that as well. It’s just being aware that certain parts of internship applications could deter really talented journalists.”

Some internships also give their interns access to “personal transportation,” keeping it from becoming an issue in the first place. The Oregonian does so, providing its interns with “news cars” during business hours. 

Paid journalism internships have also tended to go to students from highly selective and expensive schools. Last year, Theodore Kim, now The New York Times‘ Director of Early Career Journalism Strategy and Recruiting, tweeted a “super unscientific list” of schools he thought were the best at making the best journalists. These schools included Harvard, Northwestern, and Columbia – all schools with firmly established journalism programs or student newspapers that can leave their students in hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt after they graduate.

This led to reporting from the Voices student program, affiliated with the Asian American Journalism Association. The piece looked at seven top national newspapers across the country and examined the schools that summer 2018 journalism interns attended. They found that about 75 percent of The New York Times’ interns came from the most selective four-year colleges across the United States. The Washington Post had about 70 percent come from these schools, while about 56 percent of The Los Angeles Times’ interns attended these schools.

“It’s really sad to see this kind of percentage, and this large of a percentage,” said Michael Lee, one of the authors of the article. Lee recently graduated from Northwestern’s journalism master’s program, attending the school on scholarships and loans. He is currently finishing up an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times. “But at the same time, I was kind of like, ‘Unfortunately, I’m not surprised.’ It’s one of those things where you kind of just… you take a deep sigh, and you’re just like, ‘Yeah, this sounds about right.’”

The reliance on expensive, highly selective schools can mean that students from more affordable universities, HBCUs, community colleges, or other schools are overlooked for these opportunities. This affects the amount of diverse perspectives in the newsroom, which can harm the types of stories or coverage the paper produces.

“We know that who’s in the newsroom shades the coverage,” said Carlos Mark Vega, the executive director of Pay Our Interns, a national organization working to increase the number of paid internships offered in every industry. “If you actually have people from working class backgrounds, you’re probably gonna have more accurate reporting of the stories that have to do in working class areas.”

These factors can lead to interns leaving the industry before their careers have even begun. Luis Gomez, a journalist based in San Diego, published a series on Medium last year focusing on journalists who were leaving the industry. Out of 160 workers, 58 percent of workers said they have left news and journalism in the past three years, and 18 percent have left news/journalism in 2019. Carla Murphy, a journalist and essayist, conducted a similar survey  of 101 former journalists this year: the typical “leaver” in her survey left journalism mid-career, spent 4-8 years in journalism, and is an African-American or Black woman. 

Leaving journalism, voluntarily for some interns and out of necessity for others, is an option as well. 

“I am a journalist, yes,” Ishmael, the former Dow Jones intern, said. “But I’m also a Black woman first. I can never change that like I can change my career. I am always very much aware of that. I love journalism and everything, but I’m not going to sit idly by and allow things to just keep going on.”

Izz Scott LaMagdeleine is a contributor to The Objective. They are currently an ElectionSOS fellow working with WRAL reporting on the 2020 election. When not writing, they are probably listening to Carly Rae Jepsen, Kehlani, or You’re Wrong About while scrolling Tumblr. This piece was edited by Marlee Baldridge & Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Gabe Schneider. Image sourced from Google Street View.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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