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Bad Online

Banish Unpaid Internships Straight to Hell

We could just stop having this conversation altogether if this practice wasn't an industry standard.

Jane Slater, who is white blonde hair and in a purple top, speaking at the camera during a Zoom interview

I thought that we had settled the question of whether unpaid internships are bad a long time ago, but alas, time is a flat circle, and here we are again.

This week’s unpaid internship narrative has been kindly revived by Jane Slater, a reporter for the NFL Network who, like me, went to the University of Texas at Austin (though decades before I did), and caught flack yesterday for promoting unpaid work on Twitter.

You can find more of Slater’s flame-fanning and later Notes app apology on her Twitter account (“to be very clear, I don’t think you should ever work for free … but …”), but this discourse is less about her (and the financial support she received from her Wolf Brand chili grandfather) than it is about the fact that so many people rushed to her defense while also defending all the weeks of overworked, unpaid labor they did when they were younger, and all the experience they gained, and how much they didn’t miss the $180/week from where they are now eight years later.

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Her tweets brought out droves of “pick me” sports media people who couldn’t believe that critics were daring to take issue with unpaid labor, or with Slater’s decision to attribute high turnover in an industry that expects unpaid labor to people “who don’t understand grind ✌🏻.” How noble of these people, that you worked in sports journalism for free for months (years?) before getting paid what you should have been getting paid in the first place, because you could afford to live without the $180/week! Here is your cookie!

Perhaps people cling to these narratives because they want to convince themselves that they had to work free for a reason, and not because companies that could afford to pay them just chose not to. They weren’t exploited for their labor, because they got where they wanted to be, so no further questions are needed.

Because when you start to think about it, you realize just how silly it feels to have worked for free.

“I would not do an unpaid internship LOL,” my younger sibling texted me late Tuesday night, after I asked them if they, while getting a degree in hotel and restaurant management less than a decade ago, ever worked unpaid. After telling them that I worked through three unpaid internships while in journalism school, they reasonably reacted with, “Three???” then provided the following highly graphic description about working unpaid in hospitality:

“Doing an unpaid internship in hospitality is like paying someone to shit in your mouth. Eww, that was kinda gross but it’s true. I’ll stick with what I said. Like worse than getting regularly shit on. Bc you’re already getting paid to get shit on in general if you’re in a paid internship. For hospitality at least.”

I am disgusted at the simile, but I get it. I cannot imagine working as a Disney Parks “cast member” and getting yelled at by angry parents on a regular basis, and not getting paid for that work. I lived with a lot of engineers in college, and I know their internships were paid, too. It makes sense — it was work. It’s all work. I’m not sure I can look at any other industry and think to myself, no, it makes sense that someone’s internship or apprenticeship not be compensated, especially the work that people tend to undervalue because it’s traditionally unpaid and often done by women. It’s a no-brainer. This is all work, and should be compensated as such (and for more than it’s currently compensated, at that).

And yet, I did work for free, several times. I did it because it was what was on the table, and because it seemed like that’s just the way things were in the journalism world, and that was that. When I try to justify why I wasn’t paid for my many, many months of content management and transcription services and research and literally anything else you’d get paid to do while working a full-time job in journalism, I come up empty. There is no justification for it. I didn’t get paid, and I should have been. It is as simple as that.

Actually, in maybe all of those cases, I pretty much paid my school to work those internships. Two were in Los Angeles, with Los Angeles magazine and a studio ran by a big early 2000s commercial director that posed itself as an A24 competitor. Another was a big white whale for Texas journalism students: Texas Monthly. At the time, both LA and Texas Monthly were owned by the same media company, Emmis Communications, and required unpaid interns to be earning college credit (in lieu of getting away with totally uncompensated labor, I assume). And it wasn’t until I got to the “college credit” portion of my degree that I realized that meant I needed to pay my school money for internship credit hours in order to graduate.

Of course, this was normal across the school. I asked other communications school friends if they also worked unpaid internships, and they named companies including South by Southwest (an institution that practically runs on volunteer labor in exchange for festival credentials), Front Gate Tickets, which was bought by Ticketmaster in 2015, C3 Presents, which is owned by Live Nation, and KGSR Radio, another Emmis-owned operation at the time.

At LA Mag I worked full days, and my intern manager often reminded me that I needed to take lunch, because the publication would get in trouble if I didn’t. At Texas Monthly, I drank a Topo Chico at every shift (I still have my bottle cap from my last TxMo Topo, that is how much that shit mattered to me) and picked at what was left over of newsroom-wide lunches. At the studio, I snuck away from my desk every few hours to refill my coffee and my napkin of yogurt pretzels. Eating anything more felt like stealing. I’m five years removed from that world and now realize I at least should have added entire meals to their grocery lists.

It’s a great grift if I’ve ever seen one. Publications get free labor, while colleges get to ring out more tuition money, and if you don’t have college credit to fulfill, then sorry, no internship for you. And no one asks any questions because in communications, unpaid internships are still an industry standard.

It’s a sore reality, but it doesn’t shake me personally as much as it makes me think about the likely thousands of people who wanted to do this work but couldn’t afford to work for free. So often economic barriers run along racial and gender lines, with other journalists of color and Black journalists unable to work for free. I was able to — my parents paid my tuition, something that drained them physically and mentally to do. I took out loans for my housing and food and other expenses, got a few scholarships, and worked part or full time through college, and that’s where paid internships came in. I worked for the school, a lot, but I was also paid to work at Austin Monthly doing basically the same thing I did at LA Mag (it was only the first semester the Austin publication started paying interns), and at the Daily Dot. It was more than minimum wage, and much better than not getting paid at all.

And after all that, I am still firmly on the side of the unpaid internships debate that says all unpaid internships should be banished to hell.

Perhaps I’m really just trying to understand the gap between the jobs we value with money and the ones we don’t. I am sure we wouldn’t expect future hospice care workers or lawyers or commercial kitchen technicians to work for free, so I am trying to understand why we still believe that it’s a rite of passage for future journalists and writers and film industry workers to work for free.

And it’s not even about people like Jane Slater wondering aloud why media Twitter is kicking her ass for suggesting that young people work for free. I doubt Slater makes the budget and intern decisions at her workplace, but her attitude is indicative of entire industries that thrive upon unpaid labor, sports journalism interns the least of it. This is what allows these practices to continue. It’s about the people who make these decisions to not budget for interns, but hire interns anyway. Publications and outlets that make deals with universities to offer college credit for free labor, and universities that require their students to pay them to work for free just to graduate. Labor laws, like the one that would have gotten LA Mag in trouble if I didn’t take lunch, allow for this shit to happen. Yes, far more publications are paying their interns compared to previous generations of management, but it’s still a popular practice.

We continue to keep having this same conversation about unpaid and underpaid labor in journalism because publications and editors and all these people in power continue to make these same shitty decisions. And this is just one corner of this hell industry that must be toppled if we ever want to expect anything different.