Applicant pools

On several occasions I've criticized the all-too-common practice of using internships as free labor. While unpaid internships are not limited to publishing and media, many firms within our industry have brought on interns to do unpaid work with little or no educational value provided in return.

That's one of the reasons I recently supported a ProPublica effort to investigate internships around the United States. It was successfully funded on Kickstarter and will begin in September. All of those working on the project will be paid, with their expenses covered.

Around the same time that the Kickstarter campaign achieved its goal, Advertising Age published a profile of a law firm, Outten and Golden, that is "driving the intern lawsuits". There's more than a kernel of truth to the assertion. The firm has a blog, Unpaid Interns Lawsuit, that scores well on search. It offers both general advice as well as updates on cases that Outten and Golden pursues.

I'm not inclined to be litigious, but I'm not surprised that a law firm has come to focus on this issue. As illustrated by the DOJ collusion case against Apple and certain publishers, a lawsuit can focus the mind in ways that mere talk does not.

Although one of its associates tried to frame Outten and Golden's interest in unpaid internships as a response to "a social justice issue", many of those commenting on the article didn't see it that way. Someone from Grosse Point Shores (Michigan) asked "how fast do you need to run to chase an ambulance?"

Of course, in the 2010 census, the median household income in Grosse Point Shores was $113,882 – more than twice the median for the United States as a whole. Its residents include several members of the Ford family as well as the owner of the Buffalo Bills football team.

I'd contend that it's much easier to contemplate unpaid work when you have access to other resources to support your pursuits. That's a privilege of wealth.

Not to argue against wealth, but I do worry about the long-term health of our industry. If we're sourcing our prospects primarily from the ranks of those who can afford to initially work for free, how will we come to understand, report on, write about and reflect an increasingly diverse country?

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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