Surviving as an unpaid intern

I got an unpaid internship at a newspaper. Now what?

Some newspapers—and a whole lot of television stations and magazines—offer unpaid internships. Why? Because experience is so important that employers can get away with offering it without money. There are always people who will work just for the experience. Of course, unpaid internships favor people whose families have money. While we question media companies that do not pay people, we have to respect people who will work for free if they must. Don’t let the money on internships distract you. These are not, after all, your money years. The prize here is experience. It would be a mistake to pass up an opportunity to work in a newsroom for something that pays better but does not give you any journalistic experience.

Making your unpaid internship worth it

Let’s imagine that Kyle and Terry both want to be newspaper reporters and are equally qualified. Kyle takes an internship at a newspaper that pays just $1,000 for the
summer. Terry, mindful of tuition bills, takes a factory job instead because it pays $5,000. Terry is ahead by $4,000. They graduate and both get newspaper jobs. But, because of that internship experience, Kyle starts at $25,000. Terry, who had no internship, starts at $21,000 a year. By the end of their first year, they are even on money, even given Terry’s high-paying factory job. But it doesn’t stop there.

They do equally well as reporters and each earns a five-percent raise. Kyle is now making $26,250 a year and Terry gets a raise to $22,050. By the end of their second year, Kyle has now earned $4,200 more than Terry. And the wage disparity is growing.

What about money?

A college senior applied for an internship at the Detroit Free Press using clips from a suburban newspaper where she had worked the summer before. We knew that the other newspaper seldom paid interns. She confirmed she had worked for free. “I am paying for most of my college and really need to earn money, so I worked for the paper free three days a week, and had another job, outside of journalism, for about five days a week.” Her strategy proved she could work; her clips proved she could write. The Free Press gave her a paid internship and, at the end of the internship, offered her a permanent job. She would not have landed the internship or the job if she had not found a way to generate the clips that got her in the door. If you’re going to work for low pay or no pay, you have the right to ask for as much opportunity as you can get. Ask for it even if they are paying you.

The rest of the newsroom:

This advice comes directly from my book Breaking In. It contains everything I know about landing and acing your journalism internship. I’ve been a journalist for a long time, and spent nearly 20 years recruiting and editing at the Detroit Free Press. For more tips and strategies for landing journalism internships and jobs, check out these resources:

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