Shame on us

A few months ago, The Atlantic changed its policy to require that interns get paid, and I wrote a short piece lamenting the complicity of educational institutions in fostering the “pay to play” nature of for-credit internships.

This summer, my niece has been living with us while she searches for a paid position in publishing. She is a bright, hard-working young woman who graduated last May from a college you’d immediately recognize as quite good.

While in school, she did all the things you’d expect from a person who wanted to work in publishing, including a leadership role at the campus newspaper. She reads voraciously, follows the industry closely and is fun to be around. Really.

Throughout the summer, she has worked as an unpaid intern at two different publishing entities. Neither has shown any inclination to hire her.

In fact one supervisor, apparently dissatisfied with what he was getting for free, pulled her aside recently and suggested that she “wouldn’t want him to be unhappy with her work”. Nurturing, these internships are not.

To be able to live on two unpaid internships, my niece is working nights and weekends as a barista in a downtown coffee shop. Apparently the internship bug has not yet invaded coffee shops.

At dinner last night, she told a joke making the rounds among her fellow interns:

Two publishing executives come back from a nice lunch to find their mutual intern at her desk, sobbing. They ask her what’s wrong and she says, “My dad lost his job and he can’t afford to send me here any more.”

My reaction? “Shame on us.”

Regular readers know that I am almost reflexively data-driven. I want facts, not anecdotes, to underpin what I write.

Take this post as a partial exception. I may be telling a story about my niece, but we all know what’s going on in publishing right now.

The economy is weak enough that bright, motivated people are doing work for free in the slight hope that it will result in something paid down the road. Publishers are more than willing to take advantage.

I’ve heard people I respect say things like “we could get an intern in here to do this (real work) for free”. I’ve seen major copy-editing projects handed over to people willing to do the work for nothing, in exchange for a line on a resume or a possible opportunity at an unspecified date.

I’m old enough to know that people are not drawn to publishing for the money. There are plenty of fields, in New York and elsewhere, that pay much better. As a colleague observed (somewhat tongue in cheek) a couple of weeks back, “We were attracted to publishing because it gave us the chance to have lunch with bright, interesting people.”

Fortunately, publishing still attracts bright, interesting people. Unfortunately, we are treating them with contempt. Unpaid spots at magazine and book publishers are being handed out like door prizes.

This makes no sense. Smart, motivated employees are the lifeblood of publishing. At a time of immense upheaval, the few among us who actually understand how “social” media has become are telling each other jokes about the two executives and the unpaid intern.

Employers wonder about the work ethic of the so-called millennial generation. I wonder about the morality of taking work from people we can’t or won’t pay. I’ll repeat myself: shame on us.

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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