The Exploited Laborers of the Liberal Media
Progressive media outlets talk a lot about economic inequality and diversity, but many of them are still relying on unpaid interns while their top editors and star journalists make six figures a year.
Photo courtesy of Intern Labor Rights
Editor’s note: For years, VICE used part-time unpaid interns—a practice that we recently halted. We currently pay interns $10 an hour and limit them to 20 hours a week during the school year and 25 hours a week during the summer.
I was 21 years old when I took out my earring, combed my hair, and tried concealing my distaste for power and Washington, DC, in order to ask questions at press conferences. It was the summer of 2006, and I had just left college to work for a small, do-gooding nonprofit that covered Capitol Hill for public radio.
I went through the whole experience of being a journalist in the nation’s capital: attending deadly boring policy luncheons, interviewing near-dead lawmakers and dead-inside lobbyists, and dying a little inside myself every time I saw my work “edited”—turned into shameful garbage—before going on air.
Like any other reporter, I pitched stories at morning meetings and then did the legwork to put them together, in the process learning the job. While my gut impulse at first was to righteously confront the powerful with strident questions highlighting their logical inconsistencies and factual errors, I soon found it was often smarter to affect an earnest demeanor just a hair shy of sarcastic. You need to let the person being interviewed explain why he is terrible, which is more easily done when he thinks you are stupid or on his side.
What I did looked and felt like an entry-level job in the media. And I enjoyed it—I liked going up to any old white guy in a suit and asking him to explain in his own words why he’s destroying the country. I felt as if I had sort of made it, as much as an English major can. I wasn’t living at home, I got to carry a microphone, and my work was broadcast over the radio. To an outsider looking in, I almost looked like a respectable person.
The problem was I wasn’t being compensated for any of that work or my veneer of respectability. What I did every day might have appeared to be a job, but I was labeled an “intern,” meaning I got paid in experience and networking opportunities, not anything tangible. I made rent by taking a part-time job serving mediocre Mexican food across from the National Press Club and asking Washington Post columnists if Pepsi was OK instead of Coke. Periodic calls to Mommy and Daddy also helped. That was what was expected of me—I’m part of a generation conditioned to believe that if you just work for free hard enough and long enough, you can become president some day.
I was fortunate, all things considered. My labor was being exploited by a boss who took in $100,000 a year, but I was privileged enough that I could afford the exploitation for a few months, sort of. I had parents who could kick me some cash every now and then with only moderate-to-severe grief. And it hadn't yet hit me that I had to pay back all those student loans.
The problem with unpaid internships is that interns are people, and in capitalist economies people generally must work for money in order to obtain food and shelter. While I managed to pull it off, a lot of those who want to become journalists aren’t lucky enough to be born white and middle class. My family had enough money to support my stupid “dream,” while others, many no doubt more talented and deserving than I, were barred from even trying because they were too poor to work for nothing.
America’s leading liberal periodicals are aware of the obstacles to advancement the less privileged face in our decidedly not meritocratic society. Indeed, they often provide excellent coverage of the class war, from union-busting at Walmart to the fight for a living wage at fast-food chains. At the same time, though, many of them are exploiting workers in a way that would make corporate America proud: relabeling entry-level employees “interns” and “fellows” in order to dance around US labor laws.
Paying people little to nothing because you can—a practice aided by the awfulness of the job market and the desperation of people trying to make it in “glamour” industries like journalism—is both exploitive and discriminatory, but many good liberals do not appear to recognize it as such, even as they decry that behavior elsewhere.
Photo via Flickr user Joel Gillman
Do as I Say, Not as I Pay
Robert Reich served as labor secretary under Bill Clinton and is outspoken in his support for a living wage. But when I asked him about the trend of entry-level jobs being relabeled “internships” and being stripped of the pay, benefits, and legal rights they once offered recent college grads (by some estimates, half of the estimated 1.5 million interns in America are unpaid), he professed ignorance.
“This is not a topic I've given much thought,” said Reich.
Reich is a busy guy, but he should think about the issue more. His political advocacy group, Common Cause, is only one of the organizations he has a hand in that relies on free or near-free labor. In a recent listing, The American Prospect, a magazine founded by Reich and other veterans of the Clinton administration, announced it was looking for editorial interns to assist “with fact-checking and research.” The interns will be “encouraged to contribute editorially and participate in meetings in addition to pursuing their own projects.”
Sounds good, but, “This is a full-time internship and comes with a $100 weekly stipend,” according to the listing. That comes to about $2.50 an hour, or “not nothing” if you are a glass-half-full type. However, there is a catch: “Interns who receive full course credit are ineligible for the weekly stipend.”
The American Prospect did not respond to a request for comment, but a writer for the magazine explained the inequality-compounding problem with unpaid, for-credit work in 2010: “If you can't afford to work for free, you certainly can't afford to shell out money for tuition on top of that.” That, of course, is what the Prospect is asking from its interns. And that publication isn’t the only one exempting its own interns from its concern over exploited workers.
“Be Our Hero”
Last year, progressive magazine Mother Jones, named for a 20th-century radical who campaigned against child labor, rechristened its internship program. Editor Clara Jeffery had previously written that the magazine “couldn't live without our interns,” but using unpaid and low-paid labor was rapidly becoming controversial in the media world, so the magazine decided to be proactive. No longer would young people be expected to work long hours for crumbs as lowly “interns”—they would now be “fellows.”
“We used to call some of these positions internships,” the magazine explains in a job listing. “But in late 2012 we changed the title because this is no entry-level internship… You should be ready to drill down into complex research, fact-checking, and strategic projects and have the reporting bona fides or other relevant experience to show you're ready.” And you should be prepared to do it full-time for six months.
“We'll work you hard and demand your best,” the magazine says. “And in the end you'll learn a ton, and be our hero.”
The fellowship offered by Mother Jones isn't an entry-level menial gig—“No coffee or laundry errands here!” says the magazine—but the compensation could fool you: “Fellows receive a $1,000 monthly stipend.” Assuming a 40-hour workweek (many journalists work much longer hours than that), that means a fellow at Mother Jones earns less than $6 an hour in a state, California, that just decided to raise the minimum wage to $10. In San Francisco, where the magazine is based, $1,000 a month isn’t enough to pay for both food and shelter.
“It's not easy, but our fellows… make it work,” said Elizabeth Gettelman, a spokesperson for Mother Jones. “Some supplement their incomes with freelance work, and they find shared housing in the Bay Area that they can afford. But we are very aware of the financial challenges they face.” She added that the magazine is always looking for ways to “improve the level of financial support.” After six months, she noted, a fellowship at Mother Jones can be extended the rest of the year at a rate of $1,400 a month. (See update below)
That's a raise, but it's still not enough. In California, a single adult needs to earn more than $1,900 per month “to make a secure yet modest living,” according to a living wage calculator on the Mother Jones website. Work a full year as a fellow at the magazine and you will make $14,400—or put another way, about $11,000 less than you will need to support yourself in a place that enjoys the highest rents in the nation. When it's all over, you may get a better title on your resume, sure, but you will also lose the title to your car.
One former MJ intern who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity told me they “slept on an air mattress for six months while I worked there because I couldn't afford a real one.” Another former intern said, “During our first meeting with HR at Mother Jones, we were advised to sign up for food stamps.”
It must be said that MJ appears to treat its nonfellowship workers pretty well—about half of their employees, including some editors, belong to the UAW union. And as with most major publications, the names at the top of the masthead are very comfortable. Editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery each make more than $167,000 a year, while chief operating officer Madeleine Buckingham makes $159,000.
Photo via Intern Labor Rights
Are You Experienced?
Employers will usually say they offer internships as a form of training to those who lack the experience to get hired. They say this because they are legally required to in order to justify paying people below minimum wage. But at the liberal online news magazine Salon, internships are not for those just starting out.
“Some professional experience is required,” says a listing for an editorial internship at Salon. If you get that job, you’ll be helping “research, report, write and produce our news and culture coverage,” which sounds a lot like a job. The position, based in New York City, is unpaid.
Though it does not pay its professionally experienced interns a dime, Salon (which has published my work in the past) has had the chutzpah to run a number of stories on the plight of unpaid workers, such as, “'Intern Nation': Are We Exploiting a Generation of Workers?” and “Unpaid and Sexually Harassed: The Latest Intern Injustice.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The New Republic is another liberal outlet with a problematic labor record. Owned by a co-founder of Facebook worth more than $600 million, the magazine is currently hiring interns whose responsibilities include “conducting research for editors,” as well as “pitching and writing blog posts and web pieces.” Previous experience in journalism is “preferred, but not imperative.”
TNR used to advertise that its internships “are full-time, unpaid, and based in the DC office,” but that language was removed soon after the magazine became aware of this story. Spokesperson Annie Augustine told me that despite the change in language, “there has not been a change in policy.” However, she added that “interns are given the option to work flexible hours so they can take part-time jobs.” She also pointed out that the magazine offers a separate “reporter-researcher” program that comes with benefits and a $25,000 salary, though that is still a couple grand short of a living wage in Washington, DC.
Augustine did not explain why the magazine does not pay all its full-time employees, but the publication has written about the issue before—in a piece published this past summer, TNR editor-at-large Michael Kinsley mocked the idea that uncompensated interns supplant paid employees and deserve to be paid themselves. “Right,” wrote Kinsley. “Why, just the other day we saw Rupert Murdoch wielding an allen wrench over the pieces of an Ikea desk,” which the intern who copy-edited his piece probably found uproariously funny. (Another piece recently published by a paid contributor to the magazine: “Yes, Young Writers Should Give Their Work Away for Free.”)
TNR has the money to pay interns but doesn’t, likely because there is an established culture in the media world that treats working for free as the cost of admission. And when everyone else is doing it, why not? And so Harper's is looking for interns to “work on a full-time, unpaid basis for three to five months”; the Seattle-based YES! magazine is hoping to hire an “online reporting intern” to work up to six months for free (though it does offer housing); and the Washington Monthly, which claims to be “thriving” thanks to “generous long-term support from foundations and donors,” is offering internships that are “unpaid and can be either part-time or full-time.”
“The reason we don't pay interns is that we're a small nonprofit operation and we can't afford it,” explained Paul Glastris, editor of the Washington Monthly. “We think it's a valuable experience—it certainly was for me, having started in this business as an unpaid intern at the Washington Monthly.”
That internships provide interns experience is not in doubt; so do most jobs. And there's no disputing that internships can lead to more lucrative work down the line; so do most jobs. The issue is that asking people to work for free is exploitive—and no one would do it were they offered a paying gig elsewhere. When left-leaning outlets in particular refuse to provide a living wage for the people producing and editing their content, it’s not a good look. In These Times, which has published work by left-wing icons such as Noam Chomsky and Barbara Ehrenreich, is currently hiring interns to do everything from editing to fundraising—but none of those funds are set aside to pay those raising them. On its official Twitter account, the publication has said, “Interns must unite to stop the trend toward free labor becoming the norm,” but it did not reply when asked if such a campaign should include its own employees.
Meanwhile, Democracy Now!, the venerable progressive broadcast hosted by journalist Amy Goodman, requires interns at its new, LEED Platinum–certified office in Manhattan to work for free for two months, for a minimum of 20 hours a week, after which “a $15 expense allowance is provided on days you work five or more hours.”
“They really held that $15 over us,” said one former intern, who added that “they told us pretty explicitly on our first day that the internship wouldn't lead to a job.” According to the source, who requested anonymity, interns were required to fill out daily accounts of the “results” they achieved each day. (“Wrote headline tweets for the day, monitored stream from last night, listened to interviews for quotes”; “Got a retweet from Lupe Fiasco (rapper).”)
In 2011, Democracy Now! asked its $15-a-day employees to work the program’s 15th anniversary gala, a major fundraiser. Interns were asked to “greet and thank guests, check their coats, make sure the event goes smoothly, and help clean up,” according to an email obtained by VICE. “We will provide you with a delicious pizza dinner, but ask that you refrain from eating the catered dinner at the event.”
Back then, interns did not have to wait two months to get their $15 stipend, which probably made the Domino’s go down easier. But while entry-level staffers at Democracy Now! are paid less than ever, not all have shared in the sacrifice: Goodman made more than $148,000 in 2011, twice what she took home in 2007—and that doesn't include income from book sales or speaking engagements.
Requests for comment were not acknowledged by Democracy Now!.
Raising the Bar
“When one restricts internships to people who can afford to work for free, you institute a form of economic-based discrimination,” said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, an outlet that focuses on investigative journalism. ProPublica pays all of its interns $700 a week for the simple reason that $700 a week (which works out to around $35,000 a year) is “what we thought was a competitive wage” for an entry-level journalist in New York City.
ProPublica does not claim to be liberal or progressive. But Tofel, a former assistant publisher at the Wall Street Journal, appears to believe—sort of radically for his industry—that people who work should be paid a wage, even if they are in their 20s and haven’t yet suffered through a crucible of unpaid internships. The experience these internships offer is great, he said, but not enough.
“I don't think there's any question that unpaid internships can be enormously beneficial to interns,” said Tofel. “But that's not the issue.”
Experience is great and can open doors, but unpaid and low-paid internships can also slam doors shut. Failing to pay young journalists a decent wage is effectively a way of saying that those too poor to work for nothing need not apply. That socio-economic filter leads to a pool of journalists—even at good, upstanding progressive publications—that is wealthier and whiter than the public as a whole. And that hurts the final product.
“Any time you have a more diverse workforce, you get better coverage,” said Tofel. “Any time you have a less diverse workforce, you get worse coverage.”
Liberals should know all about the virtues of diversity and providing ways for poorer people to climb into positions of influence. Yet maddeningly, they continue to exploit the idealistic people who are willing to give their labor away for free, which isn't just wrong, it hurts the mission of a liberal news organization.
Money is not an excuse. If you set out believing you are obliged to pay your employees, you find a way to do it. The progressive Utne Reader manages to pay its interns minimum wage. Dissent magazine just started paying their college interns $2,000 a semester, which comes out to about $7.80 an hour by my calculations. And the left-wing Truthout.org pays every intern $10 an hour. None of these places are rolling in money.
Other publications have had their hands forced by an increasingly emboldened class of young journalists who have presumably taken their employers’ liberal rhetoric to heart. Earlier this year, interns at The Nation penned a letter to their bosses lamenting the fact they were asked to work full-time for five months while receiving a measly $150 a week, “an impossible prospect for many who are underrepresented in today’s media.” The magazine was sufficiently shamed that it announced it “took their concerns seriously” and would soon start paying minimum wage.
That's a start, paying people the bare minimum required under US law. But try living off that anywhere in America, much less the ultra-expensive cities where most of these publications are based. You can’t, even if you turn to the generic cat food.
So here's a challenge to the liberal media: If you are in favor of a living wage and oppose discrimination against the poor, let's see that reflected in your newsrooms, not just on your blogs. Support workers, including the young ones who work for you, by insisting they get a fair wage for a fair day's work. There is no justification for not paying people for their labor—that’s why so many lefty publications did not even offer a defense when I asked for one—and failing to do so means failing to live up to one's stated liberal ideals. It also just sets a bad example. If the bleeding hearts aren’t ashamed enough to pay their workers, why should anyone?
UPDATE: After the publication of this article, Mother Jones announced that it had increased its budget for interns/fellows in 2014. "Entry-level fellows will then be in line with the equivalent to California's minimum wage (actually it's above the current minimum wage slightly, $1,500 per month)," Gettelman wrote in an email, "and we plan to keep it that way." She also reiterated that the magazine's interns/fellows aren't employees. We've changed some of the language in the above piece to reflect that a fellow is the same thing as an intern.
Charles Davis is a writer and producer in Los Angeles. His work has been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, the New Inquiry, and Salon.
More on interns:
- The national
- income inequality
- Vice Blog
- the new republic
- Mother Jones
- The American Prospect
- Pay Your Interns
- Democracy Now!
- exploited young people
- unpaid interns