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Intern or Die

Why internships in journalism are bad for young people, and bad for the industry.

Beware the intern you just sent on a coffee run. And not just because she may use the yellow sweetener instead of the pink. No, beware the intern because as easy as it is to punk her around now, this pleasure, like smoking or drinking, is likely to come back to bite you later, when she rises to a position of power. Which is quite likely, as one of the fundamental truths about post-millennial working life is this: Ex-interns run the show. And like many banal workforce realities, this one’s pernicious.

The field of journalism offers a prime example of the power of the internship. At policy magazines like TNR, at glossies like Vanity Fair and Vogue, and at daily newspapers and television news programs, a couple months of grunt work for no or low pay is virtually a prerequisite for future employment. An inexperienced recent graduate, English major though she may be, is not going to waltz into a job in The New Yorker’s mail room—let alone as an editorial assistant—just because she’s a longtime fan of the magazine whose term paper on the avant-garde was one of the most insightful that her English professor had read in years.

In contrast, the successful applicant to an entry-level magazine job (a position that often consists of filing expenses and answering phones for a more senior editor) is likely to have had more than one internship under her belt. All magazine internships involve clerical work, but they probably allow for a bit of fact-checking—maybe some writing and reporting, too. And even the grunt work is (at least marginally) illuminating. Transcribing interviews, for instance, is sheer drudgery, but it’s also an intimate view into the reportorial process. And most internships also provide ample opportunity for the intern to pick up many unspoken rules of the field: She learns, for example, what went into the slush pile (the lowly name for stacks of unsolicited manuscripts), and she sees how successful writers craft their story pitches and get awarded assignments. Magazine internships often function as a sort of finishing school for rough-edged college students; they don’t always create better editors and reporters, but they certainly teach them the journalistic equivalent of knowing which is the salad fork. (For more elaboration, check out this Salon article by a former Harper’s intern.)

Newspapers—once seen as less snooty than magazines—are no less exacting. There are basically two ways to get a job as a big-city newspaper reporter. One is to start at a small-town paper—step one—and from there work your way up to a slightly bigger paper—step two—and go on to progressively bigger and better papers, so that in five to ten years, you’re covering school board meetings in a major metro area, like Denver or Philadelphia. The other common trajectory is to do a summer internship at a newspaper in a big city and wind up with a job offer when you graduate, bypassing the preliminary steps altogether. This is, for example, what disgraced New York Times reporter Jayson Blair did, and it’s what I did, too: I was offered a job at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland after I interned there.

On its face, journalism’s reliance upon internship experience seems to be perfectly reasonable, an essentially merit-based system that rewards young people who’ve put in time above and beyond what their schooling required. But it’s not that simple.

For one, most journalism internships discriminate on the basis of financial wherewithal. Rare is the internship that doles out more than minimum wage, and who can afford to spend a summer working 40 hours a week for peanuts? Probably not a college student with a typical financial aid package. (At Swarthmore College, for example, the average student with financial aid was expected to contribute $1,890 over the summer, according to a recent article in the student newspaper.) On top of that, college students not lucky enough to be from internship meccas like New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, or Chicago are at an even greater disadvantage—unless their parents can help them out with the money to live for the summer in one of these places. Of course it’s possible for a really determined young intern without means to work a job on the side—waiting tables or the like—to pay her way, but that’s not the norm because … well, you try living in a city like New York or D.C. on a few hundred dollars a week. The rule of thumb, when it comes to internships, is that only the well-heeled bother to apply. (Newspapers may be a bit exceptional in this regard, as historically they have paid more.)

The other big problem with the internship culture is that it rewards young people who know exactly what they want to do and immediately begin strategizing about how to get there. Why? “The best internships get hundreds of applicants for just a few positions,” says Joe Grimm, the recruitment and development editor for the Detroit Free Press and a recruiter for Gannett. Successful applicants are likely to have worked on the school newspaper or magazine, first in high school and then in college. In other words, they started laying the groundwork for their careers in journalism before the braces came off their teeth. Selecting for such single-mindedness might make sense when seeking out, say, tomorrow’s astronauts or professional athletes. But is it sensible to, by default, select for those qualities in journalism, a field that requires its practitioners to observe and comment upon the world at large? Wouldn’t it make sense to do the exact opposite? That is, create incentives for people who have wider experience in the world?

There’s a social good problem at play when news is delivered by people who harbor such similar ambitions and come from such similar backgrounds, people who have spent their summers in the same cities and have worked at the same types of organizations. Naturally, they are likely to keep spotting and writing about the same types of issues—and keep missing different ones. What would it be like to have more education reporters who’d spent time teaching in struggling public schools or metro reporters who’d been cops or social workers? But while it’s not impossible to break into journalism at an advanced age (such as 24 or 25) with little but intelligence and drive and non-journalistic life experience to recommend you, the chips are certainly stacked against you.

Take the case of Bethany McLean. McLean is the Fortune magazine (soon-to-be Vanity Fair) reporter who questioned Enron’s viability more than six months before the company’s implosion. “[T]he company remains largely impenetrable to outsiders,” McLean wrote in March of 2001. “How exactly does Enron make its money? Details are hard to come by … the numbers that Enron does present are often extremely complicated.” It’s probably not a coincidence that she did such a thorough job of breaking the company’s financial information down since McLean, unlike many business reporters, had spent three years reading similar reports as an analyst for Goldman Sachs before deciding to segue into journalism. But if it weren’t for a personal connection—the guy she was dating had a friend at Fortune, where she was hired as a fact-checker and gradually moved up the ranks—McLean probably would never have had the opportunity to write the story. She’d spent months applying to newspapers for business reporting jobs and hadn’t landed a job. Most likely because her résumé, filled with business experience, did not look like that of the typical applicant. And that was 13 years ago. “It’s probably even harder to break in now,” McLean says.

Of course, there are institutions that are ready to profit off your predicament—er, I mean, help you get your foot in the door—if you’re a late-comer. Shell out more than $40,000 to attend, say, Columbia University School of Journalism (again, like I did), and you can apply for the same internships as college students. In fact, you are strongly advised to do so. It’s rather a lot of trouble—and a pretty penny—just to get an internship and by extension an entry-level job, especially in a profession where the average starting salary is about $32,000, but that’s the nature of journalism today.

Of course, none of this is the interns’ fault. It’s easy to disparage them for being strivers; the implication is that other young people, who are truly intellectually curious, are out there grooming dogs and smuggling immigrants, Augie March-style. But that’s not fair. When we set up a system that rewards young people so disproportionately for behaving like strivers from the age of 14 on (or whenever they grasp the highly fraught imperative to get into college), it’s mean-spirited to then find fault with them for doing so. It’s probably safe to assume that many of this summer’s interns would rather not be photocopying expense reports. But the ones who opt out—the ones who work minimum wage jobs and learn firsthand something about how the other half lives, something more than what they learn just from reading How the Other Half Lives in American History class—well, check back in a few years. They probably won’t be working at a liberal magazine that covers poverty policy. That job went to someone who’d done an internship.

Adelle Waldman has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New York Observer, and The New York Sun.