Indentured Servitude

In the past, I've written (and ranted) about the use of unpaid interns in publishing. In today's New York Times, Steven Greenhouse returns to the subject, this time examining the use of college graduates in unpaid positions.

Greenhouse captures Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, explaining the growth in post-college internships:

“The people in charge in many industries were once interns and they’ve come of age, and to them unpaid internships are completely normal and they think of having interns in every way, shape and form.”

As Perlin makes clear in his book, he doesn't support the argument that "just because everybody does it …"

I'm not arguing against internships; I'm arguing against unpaid internships. Greenhouse reports on the case of Diana Wang, a graduate of Ohio State, who worked 11-hour days at Harper's Bazaar, supervising other interns who "ran around Manhattan picking up items from various fashion houses and showrooms."

The current minimum wage in New York is $7.25 an hour (there's an effort underway to create a 'living wage' in the city, but that's not law at the moment). If Hearst, owner of Harper's Bazaar, paid Wang straight wages (no overtime) for her 55-hour week, they would have been out $412.50 a week or $21,450 a year, assuming they never gave her a week off.

This isn't just a case of old media exploiting the opportunity to land free labor. Greenhouse talks about the "success" that Emily Meithner had interning for free at Gawker and Flavorpill before landing a paid job at Sterling Publishing. Meithner credits those internships with providing the skills and experiences that helped her get hired.

The reality is that any good job gives us the chance to gain skills and experiences. That's what makes any of us qualified to do more and better work in the future. It's not a question of whether internships are meaningful. I think people who are doing something of value should be paid for their work.

Brian O'Leary

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.