Priceless?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2009

Priceless?   

Fewer newspapers are offering paid internships to journalism students.

By Will Skowronski
     


For journalism students, newsroom internships have always provided essential hands-on training. But in a troubled economy, these lessons may come at a cost.

Many news organizations have eliminated paid internships to save money. Others are depending on interns like never before, giving them assignments that once would have gone to more experienced staff reporters. Others, notably the Philadelphia Inquirer, are asking universities to foot the bill in exchange for reserved slots for their students.

"It's amazing when you look to see how creative newspaper companies are becoming in reducing expenses without cutting their staff," says Joe Grimm, a visiting editor in residence at Michigan State University who writes about career strategies for Poynter Online. "It's only natural that they would go after some internship programs, too."

The Chicago Tribune, which in recent years had several paid interns, will have none this summer. Sheila Solomon, the paper's senior editor for recruitment, says capable interns still apply even though they know they'll be working without pay.

The pro bono approach does not affect the quality of applicants, says Solomon, whose paper's parent company has filed for bankruptcy. "In fact, I've been turning students away because they want to be here so badly that they're willing to come here and try and find a part-time job, or do whatever they think it would take."

Industrywide, there are more internships available, but fewer of them are paid, says Kristin Gilger, assistant dean at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which does not pay for its students' internships. Gilger believes students should be compensated for their work. "Philosophically, I would say that newspapers should pay their interns, and pay their interns themselves," she says. "But good internship experience is so important that we will do what we have to." In many cases, students complete unpaid internships for academic credit.

The best interns will follow the money, says Penny Bender Fuchs, director of career placement and professional development at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "It's that old line, 'You get what you pay for,'" she says. "The most talented students are going to continue to seek the paid positions."

Grimm thinks dropping paid internships could hurt newspapers. "It discourages people from coming in. It breaks the pipeline, and so when these newspapers are looking for people some place down the road, the people won't be there," he says.

The Boston Globe hires 10 summer interns who are paid $700 a week, along with one who is sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, says Paula Bouknight, assistant managing editor for hiring and development.

The paper's staff has shrunk in recent years. "The interns have come and, I think, stepped into that breach," she says. "They've always been a group that was tapped to help out. I think with the way newspapers are now, they're being asked to do more and more. They're being asked to cover stories that they may not have been asked to cover just a few years ago."

When that happens, Fuchs says, a paper loses the institutional knowledge of a veteran writer, but gets the tremendous energy of an eager student. "For the intern, it's an absolute benefit. I think the newspaper realizes that it has a tradeoff there: You know you're putting someone with less experience on a story that you would've normally had a staffer on, but perhaps that intern is going to rise to the occasion and do a great job," she says.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, whose parent company also has filed for bankruptcy, asks universities to pay for internships but has final say over who will be hired. "There is nothing more valuable for a potential journalist than a paid summer internship, basically an on-the-job training program. It would be detrimental to journalism schools and news organizations if funding for the programs [were] cut due to financial pressure," wrote Hai Do, the Inquirer's director of photography and internship coordinator, in an e-mail. "We hope this partnership will be a model for colleges and news organizations across the country to adopt, if they have not done so already."

The paper also accepts interns from schools that don't pay. "We feel strongly that paid internships put all candidates on a level playing field, recognizing that those students from low-income families often cannot afford to work for free and therefore may not be able to take advantage of this opportunity," he says.

Fuchs and Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean of career services at Columbia University's journalism school, say their schools turned down the Inquirer's proposal. "We think the responsibility for funding these internships should come from sources at the paper," Sotomayor says. "We have been asked to participate in the past and we have declined and that will remain what our posture will be... We don't want to be in the position to tell an employer that we'll be willing to bid for jobs."

Fuchs says that although she has been approached by other papers, which she declined to name, she doesn't think paid partnerships will become a trend. "We're not rolling in dough here, and I can't imagine there are many programs that are," Fuchs says.

Jim O'Brien, director of career services at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, says he expects universities � "at least those that have any kind of sense of worth of their program" � will stay away. "It would be a desperation move, I think, on the part of the university. It's one thing to offer an unpaid internship..as painful as that can be for [students], it can still provide an opportunity for them," he says. Asking schools to pay for internships sets "an awful precedent. I can't think of a similarity in other industries outside of the media where this would be done."

Robert Schmuhl, director of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy at Notre Dame, says his program has funded internships at papers including the Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times, but the papers make the hiring decisions. "Given the situation in the news business today, colleges and universities should work together with professionals in the field to develop more opportunities for aspiring journalists," Schmuhl wrote in an e-mail.

Randy Hagihara, the L.A. Times' senior editor for recruitment, says the paper doesn't ask universities to fund interns; the Notre Dame student does the internship as part of a sportswriting scholarship. Otherwise, Hagihara hired 12 paid interns for this summer. The number has fluctuated from 10 to 14 in recent years. "For whatever reason, I've been able to keep the same pay rate, which is $650 a week," Hagihara says. "Our philosophy here at the L.A. Times is if you do the work for the paper, you should be adequately compensated."

And despite the industry's upheaval, "I think we have an obligation to train the journalists of the future, whatever the future might be," he says.

Fuchs believes the outlook for paid internships has gotten much worse the last year or two. "I think that unfortunately students are going to sort of accept their fate and work a lot more unpaid internships, at least in traditional news, unless foundations step up and offer," she says. "I don't think students ever thought they would get rich off their internships; they simply want to be able to afford to go to another city and work at a big paper."

Foundation sponsorship is one alternative that works, says Grimm, former recruiting and development editor at the Detroit Free Press. The Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored an intern, selected by the Free Press, to cover urban health care.

Bouknight says the Globe has benefited from internships sponsored by the Kaiser Foundation and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. She sees a potential pitfall for the industry if schools pay for internships.

"In this economic climate, I can understand why people are going that route, and it might even be where we all end up," she says. "I just think you have to be careful because, of course, it potentially shuts out a lot of people because it shuts out a lot of schools that cannot set aside money. It also means there will be students that you will never see."

Will Skowronski

Skowronski (wskowronski@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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