Friday, April 9, 2010

Time to pay up on internships

Need to be convinced that interns should be paid for their work at media outlets? Consider this:

"I was one of those interns, toiling away 10-12 hour days for six months, surviving off whatever I could garner bartending in the fratastic [sic] D.C. neighborhood of Adams Morgan on weekends. Did my friends and family think I was crazy to work for free? Of course, but I loved it and relished every opportunity offered to me while I was there."

It was penned by a young woman, a former Atlantic Media Co. intern, in response to the news that the D.C.-based publisher had decided to pay participants in its newly constituted internship program, dubbed Atlantic Media Academy.

The company, parent to The Atlantic and The National Journal magazines, said it was making the change retroactively (the academy is just a semester old) based on a story last weekend in the New York Times raising questions about unpaid internships and U.S. labor rules.

Internships are a fact of life in the media and other professions. Some are paid, but many are not. For the media (or at least at newspapers where I've worked), interns from college journalism programs are free labor.

Well, not exactly free. If you're lucky, you get bright but green kids who will quickly deliver on their promise, covering anything and everything with just moderate oversight. If you're not lucky, they're snarly or lazy and you find yourself spending way too much time babysitting or pleading with campus coordinators to get them out of your newsroom ASAP.

For years, the idea that college students would get academic credit for their internships seemed to offset concerns that what they did constituted unpaid work, running afoul of the government's Fair Labor Standards Act. Instead, if the internships met most of the government's criteria for training programs, the students weren't regarded as employees and didn't need to be paid.

It wasn't exactly black and white, but everyone seemed to understand the needed shade of gray.

These days, though, the picture has become murkier.

As newspapers have tightened their belt, we've seen college journalism programs assume greater roles in hyperlocal news initiatives, which has brought some criticism. And, it appears, some journalism schools may be rethinking the usefulness of unpaid internships, especially when they put at a disadvantage students who need paid work to finance their educations.

Atlantic Media hasn't yet revised its website to indicate its internships now are paid. (Interestingly, the six-month Atlantic Media Academy is "intended for recent college graduates" and includes classes, homework and a final exam. "At least by ambition, the course will be rigorous," the site says.)

But the company may have seen the handwriting on the wall: “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” as one government official told the New York Times.

After all, assuming there wasn't a typo in the statement from the ex-Atlantic intern that she worked 10- to 12-hour days, that's a workweek few would want or in fact would work in the real world, absent compensatory time off or a big chunk of overtime.

UPDATE: On April 13 in the Washington Post, Atlantic Media advertised for editorial interns. The posts were listed as full-time and the pay was described as "negotiable."

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