By Simone Sebastian
Journalism student Dallas Wright’s perfect summer job needed two things: hands-on experience and a paycheck.
But when the Northwestern University sophomore found the internship that met his criteria, it wasn’t at a newspaper, television station or news site. He signed on with a marketing company that asked him to shoot and edit video and promised to pay him for it.
“It’s not really technically journalism. But I get to apply the skills that I learned through journalism,” Wright said.
The weekly paycheck that the internship offered sealed the deal.
“That was priority number one,” he said.
For students like Wright, summer internships have long been a critical part of burgeoning journalism careers. But as media outlets struggle with declining revenues, future journalists are facing fewer paid job opportunities.
Students and career services directors at journalism schools say it’s getting harder to find newsroom internships that feed the need for experience and the need for cash.
“In our field, students are finding more unpaid opportunities. It is frustrating,” said Phou Sengsavanh, assistant director of career services at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“What makes it problematic is during the summer students can’t get financial aid,” she said. “They either have to find income somewhere or take out another loan.”
The shift to unpaid internships has been most drastic in the newspaper field, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit that offers professional development for journalists.
Many newspapers offered paid internships in the 1990s, Edmonds said. Unpaid internships were criticized for thwarting diversity efforts and favoring students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Those objections have arisen again, he said.
“It’s a concern,” Edmonds said of the impact on diversity. “There have been periodic questions of, ‘Is this exploiting young people and does it favor kids from well-off families?’”
After suffering multiple rounds of layoffs in recent years, the San Diego Union Tribune cut its paid internships this summer, said newsroom operations manager Nancy Wyld. Instead of offering the usual $560-per-week summer jobs to journalism students, the cash-strapped paper now requires its 11 interns to get college-credit and work for free.
Federal law allows companies to use unpaid interns, “when it’s truly connected with the pursuit or attainment of some kind of degree,” said Alison Steele, a Florida labor attorney who represents news media employers.
Wyld said she doesn’t believe the change impacted the diversity of the San Diego Union Tribune’s internship class.
“We had incredible demand” for the spots, she said.
Why so much interest in working for free?
“It may be that there are no paying jobs out there,” Wyld said.
At least not in journalism.
Now entering his junior year, Wright said taking a paid internship outside of the news media industry was worthwhile. His marketing internship allowed him to gain hands-on experience with producing video, a skill that he will need for the full-time job he is aspiring to. And because the internship was paid, Wright said he was able to pay for his own video equipment and work longer hours to perfect his pieces.
If he had taken an unpaid internship, Wright says his summer wouldn’t have been so fulfilling. He said he would have needed a part-time job somewhere else, stealing 20 hours each week from time he could have given to his videos.
With unpaid internships, “they tell you it’s about the experience and that’s the payment you get, which is true,” Wright conceded.
But when there’s a paycheck at stake, “it’s much more rewarding,” he added. “You are working with the expectations of someone who has made an investment in you financially.”
Not all students are turning their backs on the unpaid summer journalism jobs.
Wesley Lowery, a rising junior at Ohio University, said even though his first newsroom job was essentially unpaid (the nominal compensation didn’t even cover the cost of gas, he said), the experience was “priceless.”
While copyediting and covering neighborhood news for 30 hours a week, Lowery had to work another full-time job to cover his bills.
It was “very busy and hectic and stressful at times,” Lowery said of that summer.
But he said having that work experience on his resume has helped him land two paid internships since then.
“Taking an internship like that, got me some solid newsroom experience,” he said. “Having a reference on my resume who can really vouch for my work ethic and for the product that I was able to produce on a professional level was priceless.”