Unlivable wages shouldn’t define journalism internships

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Alvin Buyinza is no stranger to unpaid journalism internships. A Black journalist based in Massachusetts, he participated in a 10-day fellowship for Politico’s intensive training program in 2019 and interned at the Investigative Reporting Workshop in the summer of 2020. A previous intern at On Point Radio and the Christian Science Monitor, Buyinza acknowledges the value of these unpaid programs — but he said this doesn’t often reflect the needs of interns.

“You can’t live on $15 an hour in one of the most expensive cities in America,” he said about his time living in Washington, D.C. in late 2019 and early 2020. “The D.C. rats were living better than me.”

Internships are the most common pipeline to full-time journalism jobs. These programs offer training, mentoring, and on-the-job experience — but they are plagued with inequities. While Buyinza says unpaid work undoubtedly helped his career, he acknowledges that he could only take opportunities without pay because he received stipends from his university.

Cheap or free labor is a defining characteristic of journalism internships, and the ripple effect this has on the actual interns in these roles doesn’t go unnoticed. Low-paying internships often trickle into entry level positions with a low-paying salary, and the salary disparity is striking and exploitative — considering many of these roles are filed with people of color.  Many emerging journalists have sacrificed their mental health, overworked themselves as a display of commitment, and shouldered the burdens of having little to no pay — all in the name of the journalism industry’s unhealthy expectations. 

For several months, I surveyed newsrooms across the country and spoke to fellow emerging journalists of color. I found a throughline that I was already personally familiar with: Internship programs are reflective of industry-wide disparities. The Objective contacted more than a dozen nonprofit and for-profit newsrooms: some never responded, others only provided half of the information after multiple specific requests. Ultimately: the newsrooms that did respond in full unfortunately proved the point of this story — the industry at large and internship programs that lead to full time gigs need to change.

The Objective reached out to 25 of the largest for-profit and non-profit U.S. newsrooms to learn about the structure of their internships, the number of interns hired per season, along with their pay, and benefits. A little more than half provided responses. Out of those newsrooms, the majority offered a pay between $13 to $17.50/hour for a 40-hour work week. Many provide no benefits.

“I don’t have the luxury to stay silent”

Giulia Baldini is a Black Brazilian and Italian student journalist studying in New York. As an international student, she says the industry is often unaware of the challenges of maintaining a visa. 

When COVID-19 first hit in 2020, she accepted unpaid internships to keep her visa valid. An internship doesn’t have to be paid for her visa to be validated, but with little to no income coming in, she said she often had to rely on her family back home in Italy for financial support. 

“Being an international student is almost being forced to accept whatever comes … because you have no other choice,” she said. “There is always a choice to go back to your country, but for me, as a Black Italian mixed woman, going back to Italy — it can be kind of traumatic.”

Baldini has interned for the Garnette Report, Beyond Archetype, and Boss Babes Do Brunch, with some roles paid and others not, but she said the price of taking any internship she was offered was only the beginning of the challenges she’s faced. 

As a fashion journalist, she said she oftentimes struggled to understand how her identity as a mixed woman could translate to her writing.

“I identify myself as Black, but I’m not necessarily familiar with Black American culture,” she said. “So when are the times I can report certain stories or be a spokesperson to certain cultural or sociological aspects?”

Baldini said her ability to speak Italian, Portuguese, and English has helped her to connect with a larger community of people, but she questions what kinds of communities she wants to serve or feels best apt to serve. 

The inequity she’s experienced is part of the reason she’s building her own business, focused on networking and building relationships through fashion journalism. She said her mission is to be holistically inclusive to young girls in underrepresented communities and to help prepare writers and creatives to follow their vision. 

Part of her uneasiness stems from newsroom leadership’s ignorance of the obstacles international, immigrant, undocumented, and DACA recipient students face when entering the journalism industry. Baldini said that if industry leaders were more knowledgeable about those barriers, there would be better access to resources and paid positions for these groups.

“I don’t have the luxury to stay silent,” Baldini said.

Angelica Arinze is a Black journalist based in Texas who interned for The Daily Dot during fall semester of 2021 and the Texas Tribune in spring 2022 during their final semester of college. (Photo courtesy of Angelica Arinze).

Self-preservation is key

Angelica Arinze is a Black journalist based in Texas who interned for The Daily Dot during fall semester of 2021 and the Texas Tribune in spring 2022 during their final semester of college. They said the experience was professionally supportive, but felt the wage given during their internship was not liveable.

As a recent college graduate, they said well-paid internships are important, especially with inflation and the economy plummeting. Unpaid and low-paid internships exclude low-income and predominately marginalized people who can’t afford to take on an unpaid role, they said. 

Arinze was one of those people. 

When they calculated their stipend during the Texas Tribune internship, it was about $15 an hour, something they said wasn’t enough. 

“It’s really hard to pay rent on that kind of stipend,” they said. 

Keeping in mind groceries, out-of-state expenses and transportation, a minimum-wage paying internship can easily become more stressful than necessary, Arinze said. 

“I always had to have a part-time job in addition to doing those internships. It was really, really hard,” they said. “When I was free on the weekends I would do DoorDash or Uber Eats … to make ends meet and support my family.”

This ultimately took a toll on their mental health and the stress of juggling multiple jobs didn’t allow them to give it their all during these internships. Early-career journalists and interns are particularly susceptible to burnout, Arinze said. 

“A lot of early-career journalists enter the workforce with a lot of enthusiasm and then they end up getting overworked … and they end up leaving journalism for a bit,” they said. 

Internships can be plagued with problems, but Buyinza says journalists shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate more pay and consider how a program may benefit you in the long run: Getting more clips, learning to write on deadline, and juggling multiple stories at a time, although tough, advances your skill level and makes you more impressive, he said. 

Entering the journalism industry can be daunting for a journalist of color and surveys show a clear lack of diversity in industry newsrooms. Buyinza says many young non-white journalists feel these internships favor white journalists over them, but he encourages emerging journalists to use the professional network available to them to stand out. 

As a journalist of color, I would not have the skillset and knowledge that I have today without internships. But the structure of internship programs and pay overall paint a telling portrait — those who have access to these opportunities are often those who can afford them.

Buyinza adds that unpaid internships give participants a sense of how invested a newsroom is in their professional growth; if they’re not willing to pay you, it’s unlikely they are investing in you after completion of the program. 

That can look like reviewing resumes and cover letters and helping with job applications during and after an internship, Buyinza says.

“It’s definitely really tough. And as a young journalist of color, you really do have to work twice as hard to get a shot,” Buyinza said. Online spaces like Writers of Color on Twitter and professional organizations like NABJ, NAHJ, AAJA, and NAJA allow journalists of color to find the investment they need, he says.

Arinze proposes that newsrooms cultivate an environment where an intern or worker can feel comfortable enough saying they need more professional support — they said they understand how difficult this can be for interns to ask for help. 

During their time at the Texas Tribune, despite the low pay, Arinze said they felt adequately supported for the work they did and this helped them feel more confident in their skills and abilities. 

Arinze says newsrooms need to have more conversations with interns and fellows about how to set boundaries in an attempt to prevent burnout. Conversations around pay equity are also necessary, particularly regarding how to negotiate a salary, they said. They noted how Black, Indigenous, and other nonwhite journalists often feel pushed out in terms of support and equity. 

“The work BIPOC journalists do is so important and valuable to the journalism industry,” they said. “A lot of newsrooms still have a lot of work that needs to be done to adequately support them.” 

The idea that accepting an internship requires an unequivocal amount of gratitude and zero criticism is a myth that needs to die. Oftentimes the sacrifices journalists make to attain and keep these internships are praised as a rite of passage, but in actuality, this only further perpetuates the ever-existing issues with the structure of these programs. 

Baldini says of networking that “closed mouths don’t get fed.” Arinze added that it’s just as important for reporters to learn when to walk away, when to say no, and when to focus on other things given systemic barriers in the industry. 

“Stick to your values and don’t compromise your mental health, your sanity, or your dignity for a job,” Arinze said. “Self-preservation is really important.”

This piece was edited by Curtis Yee. Copy editing by Janelle Salanga.

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