Paid internships don’t need a defense

You can’t please everyone.

That’s what I learned this with an opinion piece I wrote earlier this month defending unpaid internships. In fact, I was thrilled to get my first official “rebuttal” from Intern Justice entitled “In Defense of Paid Internships.”

I must say that I actually enjoyed the counter-argument, but that I left out a few points in my original piece and would like to offer those points now as well as my response to Intern Justice‘s rebuttal.

First, Intern Justice disagrees with my analogy that an internship is like an education and attempts to “educate” me by looking into how much money my employer, USA TODAY — the Garnnett Company — makes.

Nice red herring, Intern Justice!

It’s nice to know that the “Gannett reported a 57% increase in earnings over the previous quarter on revenue of $1.24 billion” and that “the company’s improved profitability was in part due to revenue from its online content, some of which David and dozens of unpaid interns just like him produce for free.”

But how much online content do the unpaid interns produce compared to the paid staffers? I bet that the paid staff produces a vast majority of that content. But regardless, it’s off point. I’ll be the first to rail against the problems of capitalism (see Bloomberg’s Top CEO Pay Ratios) and wealth inequality, but it’s unrelated to whether or not unpaid internships are unethical or should be illegal.

For the record, USA TODAY pays both its collegiate correspondents and its Washington D.C. interns. It’s not much, but it’s something (and I would wager in most cases it’s better than student media outlets).

In my initial defense of unpaid internships, I said that it was ironic for someone to get paid while paying their dues. Intern Justice tells me that it’s “lamentable” that I (and other young people) have “degraded the value” of our work that we expect to give it away.

“Getting paid for our work shouldn’t be some will-o’-the-wisp on the horizon, or the occasional reward for exceptional work, it should be the norm,” says Intern Justice

Tell that to J.K. Rowling — it took her five (unpaid) years to write the first Harry Potter book.

Side note: In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he talks about the requirements to becoming an expert in any given field equates to 10 years or 10,000 hours experience in that specific area. He notes that the success of Bill Gates came in part because of his advanced access to a cutting edge computing terminal at his school before anyone else. He utilized this learning opportunity — working hard for free — to get his experience early. And by the time the consumer market was ready for computers, he was an expert.

The value of hard work cannot be determined by any dollar amount.

To emphasize my point, the recently departed Michael Hastings had 10 tips for young journalists and I’ve pulled three bits of advice that I think are highly relevant (and true).

You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it’s medical school or law school.

Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it’s unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it’s also the reality.

Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it’s more important to you than anything else in your life–family, friends, social life, whatever.

Intern Justice, if you’re not saying people shouldn’t pay their dues, then what are you saying?

I couldn’t put it better than a commenter on Intern Justice‘s post:
“… for those that want to reach the top of an interesting career vertical, for those that want more than a McJob, and who can’t afford Harvard, the unpaid internship can build that expertise and equal the playing field.”

And it’s not a “dismissive attitude towards the value of our own labor.” Let’s face it, the college experience basically consists of jumping through hoops (some on fire) to prove you can finish what you’ve started. Intern Justice says it would “be surprised if anyone actually learned how to do their job in the classroom.”

Once again, why would a company pay an intern for something they don’t know how to do?

Sure, there is paid training for a “McJob,” but chances are that if you’re going to school, you’re looking for more. And that requires more on the part of the individual. Whether it’s an investment of your time, your money — or both.

And, though there have been no studies on the ratio of unpaid to paid internships that are available, I suspect that for every unpaid internship, there’s a paid one. There’s no proof to the critics who claim that it is becoming the norm.

College journalism legend, Chelsea Boozer, echoes my sentiments with her comments to my original opinion in a Facebook group.

“I chose to never go after an unpaid journalism internship because there were so many great ones available that did pay,” she says. “I never made it an issue for me because plenty of paid options are out there.”

Intern Justice concludes:

If only the true requirement for success was “dogged perseverance.” As blogger Sarah Kendzior writes, if an employer will not hire someone for lack of the kind of experience an internship provides, then “privilege is recast as perseverance,” and everyone suffers as our economy of prestige produces mediocre results.

No. Those who are privileged — silver spoon fed, never have to work a day in their life, rich kids — don’t perserve. If anything, perseverance is recast as privilege because it gives those willing to put it all on the line for their career a way to stand out.

What it comes down to is individual choice.

You don’t have to take an unpaid internship. You don’t have to take a paid one. All you must do is pursue your career like no one else.

Why should we think about the odds against us when chasing our dreams?

And it doesn’t matter how bad the odds are, when the jackpot is high enough — like your dream job — everyone gets in line to buy a ticket.

One comment:

  1. It’s funny — Intern Justice isn’t so much a group as it is the webpage of trial lawyer.

    I’m no attorney, but he might want to be careful using the wordmark IJ — since it’s registered by another group and not him.

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