Paid Media Internships Have Come a Long Way — But Have a Long Way To Go

Illustration by Malte Mueller / Getty Images

My first unpaid internship was doable: I was a college kid who lived rent-free with my parents and waited tables in the evening for cash. My second unpaid internship, though, sent me across the ocean.

With college graduation nearing, and hardly any entry-level journalism jobs in my hometown of Honolulu, I applied for internships on the continent. A magazine in Los Angeles responded first. I packed my bags and meager savings, hoping to land another serving job when I got there so I could pay my bills. Friends called me “brave.” But if you came from working-class roots and an island, as I did, you felt lucky just to score an internship at all. You had to take the opportunity.

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Twelve years and many nonjournalism jobs later, I ended up working for one of the glossy New York magazines I had applied to as a college senior. I remember my first editorial meeting, when the incoming interns were instructed to introduce themselves. Most were from Ivy League universities; all were white. For her “fun fact,” the only female intern alongside four young men said she had traveled to all seven continents (she was only 19). When I commented to a co-worker about this later, the colleague told me, “Usually, at least one of them is the son of a rock star.”

Then, everything clicked: This was why it had taken me so long to get where I was. This is also how the media perpetuates its prevailing point of view — white, male, affluent, connected. To get in the door, you have to be able to take an unpaid job; to stay in the door, you need to have spent a lifetime navigating these types of circles, knowing how to feel like you belong. 

“It is unfair to ask people who need to have money to live to take an unpaid internship,” said Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at The Poynter Institute. “As an industry, it’s a bad signal for us to tell people that we value your work, but not to the extent that we want to pay you.” 

Thankfully, some of this “get paid in experience, not dollars” mindset has shifted in recent years. After a very vocal movement against unpaid labor — including thousands of former Conde Nast interns filing a class-action lawsuit against the publisher in 2013 — many high-profile national news outlets now pay interns, supposedly leveling the playing field about who can enter the gates of newsrooms. After eight years without an internship program, Conde launched a paying one last year. In 2019, The New York Times replaced its summer internship program with a yearlong fellowship that pays $76,000 and benefits; its current and incoming classes are predominantly women and people of color. Another major newspaper, The Washington Post, says it paid its 2021 summer interns $750 a week. (For transparency, NBCUniversal pays all of its interns; NBCU Academy’s fellowship is often awarded to documentarians from marginalized communities.) 

Building newsrooms reflective of America’s diverse population came into even greater focus after the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests. Newsrooms pledged to offer more journalistic pathways for minorities. There were fellowships focused on diversity, partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and reporting programs rethinking criminal justice coverage. Add to that the Covid outbreak. The pandemic caused some outlets to cancel their in-person internship programs and sent others remote, which helped alleviate hurdles for candidates who couldn’t just give up their lives to intern in an expensive city.  

But now it’s been two years since Floyd’s death and many employers seem to be treating the pandemic as if it’s over — what’s become of all the promises and adjustments?  

While there is no comprehensive data about the current diversity of journalism interns (a problem in itself) or in newsrooms in general (results from the preeminent survey about journalism diversity have been postponed several times), the overall paid internship picture still leaves a lot to be desired. Nearly a third of media internships listed on Handshake, an app connecting recruiters and students, are still unpaid, as Ron Lieber reported in the Times last month. And when looking at the zoomed-out view of who’s getting any of the paid internships in America, things are downright disappointing. According to the 2021 National Association of Colleges and Employers’ survey of 15,000 students across various majors, Black and Latino students — as well as women and first-generation students — were still underrepresented in paid internships and more likely to have not participated in any internship. For example, while Black Americans made up about 9% of the survey’s student sample, they accounted for only 6% of those with a paying internship. Among those surveyed who hadn’t had an internship, Black Americans made up 12%.   

Nonwhite, non-elite-educated young journalists also face other barriers. Many internships have gone back to in-person workplaces, and hunting down a temporary apartment for 12 weeks and managing skyrocketing rents in the media meccas of New York or D.C. is a job all its own (unless your parents are rock stars). In 2018, writer Nicole Cliffe went viral for offering to give stipends and MetroCards to unpaid interns at Harper’s, an attempt to diversify staff and humiliate the publication for expecting interns to work in Manhattan for up to five months for free. (Today, Harper’s still doesn’t pay interns but does provide unlimited MetroCards.)  

And even if you do land the internship and can figure out the relocation and rent, it’s still not a guaranteed pathway to full-time, sustainable employment. After my internship at the L.A. magazine, I was offered paid part-time fact-checking work, at least until a new editor-in-chief came in and cut budgets. Then, I went back to waiting tables full-time. Other journalists of color have spoken out about how even after getting respected internships and post-college jobs, they were no longer able to stay in journalism because their student loans were too high and the pay was too little, while the rents in cities just kept going up. It can feel almost hopeless.  

How newsrooms can better create and support pipelines for diverse talent

But there are answers, creative and obvious, about how to boost representation in paid internships and ultimately newsrooms — and then retain that talent. While national outlets could use more people from marginalized backgrounds, it’s also important not to strip local outlets from journalists who represent their communities.  

Truong credits her colleague Kathy Lu for coming up with the idea of “inverting the talent pipeline.” The premise is for national publications with a lot of resources to provide students with a high level of mentorship and training, so these new journalists can go back and fill positions at their local news organization — places that often don’t have the bandwidth and resources to provide the kind of training local papers used to.  

Another way to bring up those paid internship numbers for marginalized students is to let interns be remote, or for news organizations to provide them with a place to stay or a stipend to aid with rent and expenses. When she was an intern placed by the Dow Jones News Fund, Troung said she inquired about housing and was put up at a nearby seminary for less than $200 a month. “I would love to see organizations collectively say, ‘We’re going to subsidize this dorm.’ And if you are an intern and would like to stay there, then the housing is either extremely affordable or free,” she said.  

Shawn VanDerziel, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, seconds this idea: “We know that companies who offer relocation assistance had greater diversity in their internship cohorts than those that don’t.” According to NACE’s internship survey of large employers, companies that provided relocation assistance for interns had cohorts that were 12.5% Black and 10.4% Hispanic on average, versus 8.6% and 7.1%, respectively, for companies that did not provide aid. 

He also says it’s important for organizations to cast a wide net when looking for interns. Black and Latino students are more likely to apply for initiatives online, or learn about opportunities from organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, than go to an in-person career fair, he said.    

Noy Thrupkaew, director of the Ida B. Wells Fellowship, which awards emerging journalists from diverse backgrounds $25,000 for a yearlong mentorship, says the organization approaches outreach just as it does investigative journalism: It hunts down sources, combs through networks, solicits referrals, nurtures relationships, scours publications and spends time on research. Recruiting for diversity, she says, “has to be a proactive part of every organization’s mission. If they truly care about creating really rich, diverse, representative, strong, hard-hitting journalism, we need to do the work that we do for trying to find sources and investigate stories, and to find the people who are being impacted by neglect and exclusion. It’s just the same work.”

It also important for employers to build a reputation for acquiring, supporting and retaining diverse talent — not just when it comes to race and gender, but also socioeconomics, sexual identity, disabilities, religion and more. It can’t just be performative for a press release when a national crisis strikes. If you pay interns, if you are actively recruiting talent through nontraditional means, then you are saying employees that represent the wide swath of the  communities are valued.  

“This should not just be the job of people who are subject to racism or who are always finding that they have to speak up about other people’s experiences and why they’re worthy of being covered,” Thrupkaew said about ensuring newsroom diversity. “This is genuine work. And it needs to be understood as work.” 

When I think back on that L.A. internship so many years ago, I remember my manager saying that he looked for diverse intern candidates (aside from me, a mixed-race Native Hawaiian woman, the other intern that fall was an Asian American woman). He advocated for both of us to get paid freelance work after our internships were up. But he is only one person. When I asked him about the status of internships today, he told me: “The magazine does not pay interns, but I’m an eternal optimist.”