Unpaid Internships

An Excerpt from Joe Grimm’s Breaking In

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.

Some journalists wonder whether an unpaid internship has the  same prestige as one that is paid. And some journalists advise up-and-comers against taking them. While it seems you should get points for  working for free, you just won’t. It all comes down to results. The fact  that a newspaper does not pay you implies that you did not meet the  same standards as people who draw paychecks. After all, the newspaper that does not pay its interns has less invested in them. You want to  be so good they feel either ashamed or sly that they’re not paying you.  The whole point of working so hard on an unpaid internship is to make  damn sure it will be the last time you ever have to work for free. While  the lack of a paycheck demonstrates a lower commitment on the part  of the paper, future editors generally judge the quality of applicants’  internships by the kind of work they did rather than by whether—or  how much—they were paid. Few hiring editors ever ask candidates  how much they were paid in their previous internships. Your résumé  should not say whether you were paid, either.

Try hard to get a paid internship for the obvious reason and because monetary investment is often followed by the more important  investments of mentoring and editing.

Failure to land an internship means you’ll likely pay for it later by  starting at a smaller paper or for less money.

Don’t let the money on internships distract you. These are not, after all, your money years. The prize here, my friends, 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. This shortsightedness could cost you money—and soon.

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 fiirst 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 fiive-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.

Let’s give them each another five-percent raise for their third year.

Kyle moves to $27,562.50 and Terry moves up to $23,152.50. Terry’s  salary is still not where Kyle started—that will take two more years of  five-percent raises. Terry, who took the lucrative factory job while Kyle  was eating macaroni and cheese, is $8,610 behind after their third year,  even taking their internship summer into account. Terry’s factory job  paid more, but Kyle’s experience has been worth a whole lot more.

Getting a newspaper career to take off starts with a succession of  steps. If an unpaid internship is the only way to get professional experience and you can find a way to afford it, do it.

One who did: 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 confiirmed 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, offfered 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.

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