“My young apprentice”

Over the last three years, I’ve written a handful of posts that called for media companies to stop the all-too-common practice of hiring interns to do work without pay. Those posts (at least one of which is a rant) included:

I’d like to be able to kick off 2013 by declaring the end of unpaid internships, but … I can’t. While companies that include Hearst, Conde Nast and Fox Entertainment have revised their policies (sometimes in response to class-action lawsuits), many more continue to embrace the old.

Over the holidays, the production company for the Charlie Rose talk show agreed to give back pay to interns who had worked for the firm between 2006 and 2012. I’d be encouraged, but for the way the New York Times coverage captured the company’s stance:

“This settlement agreement states that Mr. Rose and his production company “do not admit any liability or wrongdoing” and that they agreed “solely for the purpose of avoiding the costs and disruption of ongoing litigation and to settle all claims.”

“A statement issued on behalf of Mr. Rose and his production company said, “our interns are not employees; they did not perform ‘work’ for the program and none of them ever expected to be paid for their internship.””

Now, I like Charlie Rose. He’s the only reason I watch the revamped morning show on CBS. His eponymous talk show provides a front-row seat for what is often an intimate conversation with some of the most notable and interesting people on the planet.

The settlement agreement between the production company amounts to about $35,000 a year for each of the six years covered by the agreement. The balance goes to attorneys who worked on the claim.

I understand that companies are reluctant to admit they did something wrong, but sometimes that reluctance gets in the way of doing good things. Imagine if a media icon like Charlie Rose stood up and said, “We need to be investing in talent, nurturing them and giving them feedback that helps them understand their ability to contribute to this business we love.”

And imagine if he took a page out of the playbook long used by law firms and investment banks to identify talent through structured apprenticeships. Their internship bargain is explicit: “We’re going to work you hard for several months, and by the end of that time, we’re either going to invite you back or send you packing. You get paid either way.”

Turning media internships into apprenticeships would make them productive for all concerned. Of course, it would require planning and an upfront investment. Creating jobs, structuring tasks, evaluating talent and providing feedback are not trivial exercises.

But the payback, given in terms of real work, meaningfully performed and evaluated, could be enormous. Heck, it might even make old media seem kind of cool again.

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.