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Interns: trainees or coffee-fetchers?

Are internships taking advantage of a vulnerable generation or teaching skills necessary for success?

by Rachel Bloom

 Are unpaid internships taking advantage of a vulnerable generation or teaching skills necessary for success?  Photo Wikipedia
Are unpaid internships taking advantage of a vulnerable generation or teaching skills necessary for success? Photo Wikipedia

K'JIPUKTUK, HALIFAX - The newsroom is humming. Colin Chisholm is surrounded by reporters chowing down on pizza, watching the results of the 2009 provincial elections flow in. The adrenaline pumping in the room is palpable and for Chisholm, this moment is more akin to “something out of The West Wing” than everyday life.

In later weeks, one of his stories will be splashed on the front page of Metro, and go on to be included in The Toronto Star. Chisholm may be on the bottom of the proverbial journalism food chain, but he feels on top of the world.

“[It was] One of those big realization moments that even though I’m an intern, you can still make a really big impact and your writing is still just as important as everyone elses,” says Chisholm, reflecting back on his time at Metro Halifax.

Chisholm was an intern the summer after his third year at the University of King’s College. At the end of his internship, the staff gave him a card and a gift card to Future Shop. That was the only compensation Chisholm received for the work he did.

“Would it have been great to have received minimum wage? Absolutely, but at the same time I don’t regret my experience, I don’t wish I could go back and do something for money,” says Chisholm.

Fast forward four years later and unpaid internships like the one Chisholm did are on the rise. A CBC story published online in July 2013 estimated this year between 100,000 to 300,000 young Canadians were unpaid interns at any given time.

With the recent economic recession, employers are using unpaid interns to fill in gaps in the workforce and with 16.5 per cent of Canadians younger than 24 unemployed (StatsCan), there aren’t a ton of other options right now for young people.

Due to the impact of the recession on journalism organizations, internship programs are becoming widespread across the industry. From larger, well-known publications like CBC and Vice Canada to smaller papers like The Coast and The Grid, many news organizations are taking on unpaid workers, allowing young journalists to learn the ropes while they wait for full-time paid positions to open up.

“A lot of circulation went down, a lot of newspapers, a lot of people laid off, not a lot of hiring. The bigger impact is the whole upheaval in the media in general with newspaper sales way down, ad revenue way down for newspapers. It’s a tough time for print, specifically,” says Lars Osberg, an economics professor at Dalhousie University. With the hits taken by newspapers, its no wonder editors are happy to have extra help with no additional cost.

Employers of interns don’t have to pay taxes on uncompensated labour, so in the economic scale unpaid interns are invisible, witnessed simply through the traces of hard work and eager networking they leave behind in the workplace.

Interning is a good way to get practical experience but some internship programs are problematic. Recent media coverage has publicized complaints and lawsuits filed by former interns for Bell, Fox Searchlight, and Gawker, after they used interns to do menial tasks and replace employees, instead of giving them vocational training.

Seen on Craigslist recently: “I inherited four large plants. I think they may be ficuses but am unsure. I’ve been watering them semi-regularly. I am looking for an unpaid intern to arrive at my apartment at 8:30 every morning to water my plants. Also make coffee, sweep, mild cleaning, walk my two beagles.”

This ad strikes at the heart of this issue. Are interns getting valuable job experience or are they just go-fers?

For Chisholm, it was the former.

“It’s invaluable, being an intern, whether it’s paid or unpaid. It allows you to get into the workforce without being, you know, this is your full time job. You’re testing it out, your testing the waters, you’re finding out what’s right, what’s wrong, you’re meeting all these people, its like you’re trying out the profession and I think that’s absolutely important,” says Chisholm.

“It gets you out of the classroom and out into the real world, doing real stories that a whole lot of readers are going to pick up and read the next day.”

But for other interns, interning means fetching coffee, running errands and doing photocopies.

“The term “intern” has allowed people to use it as a map to undervalue the skills of young people,” explains Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association. Seaborn is a third year University of Ottawa law student, who has completed two legal internships, one for the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC and one for the Office of the Attorney General.

Seaborn, currently on an academic exchange in France, says via Skype, that she formed the association in June 2012. After speaking to friends who had interned, she realized interns need representation of their rights.

One of the main goals of the Intern Association is to get provinces that have not yet amended their provincial employment legislature to include interns, to do so (the only provinces to have done this so far are Ontario and British Columbia). This is specifically an issue in Nova Scotia, says Andrew Langille, a youth and employment lawyer in Toronto.

Nova Scotia’s Labour Standards Code mandates a minimum wage of $10.30 for employees and says an “employee” is a person employed to do work. In cases seen in Nova Scotia, it’s been ruled that “interns/mentors” who Langille would consider to be employees under the law, were considered volunteers and awarded no wages.

With the lines between volunteers, interns and employees blurred, internships that would be illegal under Ontario or British Columbia employment law, are permitted in Nova Scotia.

Internships are also becoming commonplace in academic curriculums. Most journalism students are required to intern at some point in their program. Amanda Hawkes, a second year student majoring in Radio Broadcasting at the Nova Scotia Community College, says hanging out at radio station Lite 92.9 this past May helped her improve her writing.

During her time at the station, Hawkes wrote commercials and got on air, a welcome change from her more “old-fashioned” style learning in the classroom. Her only complaint about her time there was that an office manager frequently tried to get her to take over reception duties. Hawkes spent academic hours manning the front desk so the office manager/receptionist could duck out for smoke breaks.

But others, like Chisholm, apply to internships independently from their schools to supplement their classroom learning. Chisholm’s previous editor at Metro, Philip Croucher, takes on these interns, saying it would be wrong, as a community paper, to turn away young people eager to learn.

Croucher gives interns helpful tips on how to finesse their writing, gives them the chance to build up their portfolios and gets them out in the field doing real-life reporting.

“I remember having an intern here and on her first day there was a shooting and all my other reporters were out. I said ‘We’re getting in a car and going over there’ [and] you don’t get that in a classroom. And she was from small town P.E.I. and had never been to a shooting before and I wasn’t going to throw her out into it by herself but I thought it was great experience for her to come with me,” says Croucher.

Croucher gives interns a taste of the real world in the form of expectations as well. He requests interns write the same number of stories per day as full-time staff, with the same strict deadlines and set hours. Croucher has even let an intern go for consistently not showing up for work.

For most interns, abiding by these deadlines and hours isn’t a problem.

Eager to learn, Chisholm bused in to work everyday from Lower Sackville. He worked from 9 a.m. to “around suppertime” before hopping on the 80 for the long bus ride home.

On top of his hours at Metro, Chisholm also worked two to three shifts a week at Empire Theatres, a job he still holds, on top of his freelancing position with The Community Herald.

Chisholm admits he could afford to work for free because he lived at home and didn’t have any rent or additional bills to pay. Living with his parents allowed him to intern for a month and a half, the maximum amount of time Croucher says he lets interns stay.

In addition to a time cap, Croucher has a few other guidelines for interns to keep things fair. Croucher covers transportation costs (taxi chits, parking costs, gas money), assesses their abilities before letting them go out in the field and primarily aims to bring in students currently enrolled in journalism programs.

Having completed two internships himself, one at Halifax Daily News and another at a The Weekly Press, before becoming editor of Metro Halifax, Croucher says unpaid internships do lead to opportunities.

“I’ve actually just hired a reporter, my last two, two of my last three hires were through internships, so they came here working an internship and eventually worked into freelance work and then eventually made it to full time work,” says Croucher.

Chisholm is not one of those former interns and though he does not contribute to Metro, if he has any hard feelings, he doesn’t show them. He speaks enthusiastically about his internship.

Though Chisholm says internships are a good practice, some of his peers don’t agree. For fellow King’s journalism grad Bethany Horne, unpaid internships are not a career option she is willing to pursue. In her opinion, they are not the only way into journalism nowadays and are not a practical option for most post-graduates.

After writing an anti-unpaid internship manifesto on her personal website in 2011, which was also published on J-Source, Horne went on to build her career in journalism based off of her refusal to work for free.

Currently in Quito, Ecuader, working as part of an economics research team at the local university, Horne is part of a global journalism co-op launching soon, “Important/Cool”. For alternatives to unpaid internships, she lists off starting at papers in non-urban areas and points out the example of Mixtape Magazine, a magazine started up by her former King’s colleagues that launched this September.

“I think you’ve got to find your own path. There’s no right answer,” says Horne, about whether internships are the best gateway into journalism. She says she doesn’t judge those who take unpaid internships.

“They want to learn. They’re just desperate enough to work for free to do it.”

 

Rachel Bloom is a fourth year journalism student at King's. This story was written as her honours project in October 2013

 

 


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Topics: Labour
1774 words

Comments

metro surprise

I was surprised to read about the Metro editor's policy and practice of internship. Surprised because the paper seems to be a cut down copy of the Sun, which is not known for  progressive views on labour or anything else, and even printed full page ads for the Conservative Party as its cover page(s) during the last election.

What Croucher describes sounds quite effective and helpful. Potential exploitation of any one intern seems limited by both the six week term and the evaluation of their abilities to ensure appropriate assignments.  A more comprehensive survey of former interns would be needed to confirm this positive impression, of course.

Missing in this report is a statement of the author's past or present connections with the interviewees, which would help the reader in assessing potential biases.

There are also a couple of minor errors, which leads me to wonder if the copyeditor was an intern (just kidding!).

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