Some Interns Find Payoff Beyond Paycheck

Business Feature

Published February 28, 2014 by The Red Line Project

Melanie Stone broke into the online media industry when she was just 16. Flipping through her family’s daily copy of the Chicago Tribune, Melanie’s mom saw an advertisement announcing that the new ChicagoNow website was looking for bloggers. Stone pitched her idea for a teenage advice column and before long she found herself walking through the doors of the iconic Tribune Tower for the very first time.

Writing her “Ask Mel” column for ChicagoNow could have been a fun side hobby that didn’t amount to more than $20 to $100 a week and some entertaining writing. But Stone had bigger plans. Now a junior majoring in journalism at DePaul University, Stone boasts over 1,000 Twitter followers and has had pieces published in Business Insider, PBS MediaShift, The Huffington Post, and CrainsSocial.com. So how has this budding young journalist managed to put herself on the map and stay there? A heap of ambition, talented writing chops, and a controversial topic: internships.

Unpaid Internships in the Media
Last month media giant Condé Nast made the shocking announcement that it would be ending its internship program. The announcement came four months after two former interns sued the company for being paid below minimum wage.

The controversy around unpaid internships has been raging since early 2010. On April 21, 2010 the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced new guidelines outlining six criteria for unpaid internships at private companies. Non-profit and government organizations are not subject to the DOL guidelines, although recently they too have been receiving increased pressure from groups like the Fair Pay Campaign to start paying their interns, which has produced headlines such as “White House Under Pressure to Pay Its Interns” and “Sheryl Sandberg Caves: After Scandal, Her Nonprofit Lean In Will Pay Interns.”

Unpaid internships have gained considerable attention in the media due to several major court cases similar to the pending Condé Nast suit. Perhaps the most notable case is the one brought against Fox Searchlight Pictures by two production interns who worked on the acclaimed film “Black Swan.” On June 11, 2013, The New York Times reported that Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because “they were essentially regular employees.”

The news coverage of the “Black Swan” and other cases has subsequently produced numerous articles, editorials, and opinion pieces on the validity of unpaid internships. Some pieces, like David Dennis’ article published in The Guardian on May 28, 2013, have gone as far as to claim that unpaid internships are “ruining journalism.”

With the recent Condé Nast announcement, The Wall Street Journal reaffirmed its position against the multiple lawsuits being filed by interns. Assistant editorial features editor Kate Bachelder said in response to the news, “It’s not a win for interns and it really requires some mental gymnastics to call it that.”

Bachelder added that the two interns suing Condé Nast both entered at-will employment agreements that explicitly stated the terms of their internships, including payment. They could have quit at any time but instead chose to file a lawsuit after their internships had been completed claiming they’d been exploited.

“What’s really incredible is that the groups like Fair Pay Campaign are saying that fewer opportunities is somehow a win for young people trying to break into a very difficult industry,” Bachelder said.

The Fair Pay Campaign, a grassroots organization formed in 2012, argues that unpaid internships are unfair because they are accessible only to those who can afford to work without pay, creating a culture of privilege and unequal opportunity.

NACE’s Internship Research
For the past three years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has gathered date about undergraduate student internships by including internship specific questions in their annual student survey. NACE is a professional association that serves as a leading source of employment information for college-educated adults in the United States.

NACE’s 2013 Student Survey found that nearly two-thirds, 63.2 percent, of graduating seniors participated in an internship during their undergraduate studies. Marilyn Nackes, NACE executive director, noted that this was the “highest overall participation rate” since 2007 when the organization first began tracking internship participation.

The 2013 Student Survey results showed that paid interns received more job offers and had significantly higher starting salaries. 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer while only 37 percent of unpaid interns and 35.2 percent of students who did not complete internships received offers.

Of the 9,215 college seniors surveyed in 2013, the average starting salary for paid interns was $51,930—significantly higher than the unpaid interns’ average salary of $35,721. Graduating seniors who did not complete an internship during their college career reported a starting salary of $37,087.

Internships at DePaul
In 2012, DePaul ranked in the top 10 of schools producing the largest percentage of interns by U.S. News & World Report. DePaul students like Stone have the opportunity to earn course credit for their internships through the University Internship Program (UIP), as well as individual programs at the college or department level. Each year approximately 800 students come through the UIP, which fulfills the Junior Year Experiential Learning requirement. Collectively, 2,310 DePaul students received academic credit for internships in 2012.

Carrie McAteer, Associate Director of DePaul’s UIP, believes every student needs internships, no matter his or her major or course of study. “Employers absolutely want that on their resume,” McAteer said. “A student with a great GPA, a great degree, and no internships is not going to have a very easy time getting interviews.”

She recommended that students complete two to three internships before they graduate.

McAteer spends a majority of her time as UIP Associate Director fostering and maintaining relationships with employers.

“We’re fortunate at DePaul in that many employers think of us as the first university to come to, to recruit, because of the students’ reputation,” she said. More than 90 percent of employers report high satisfaction with DePaul UIP students.

Although DePaul does allow unpaid internships, the UIP and individual college and department internship programs maintain strict standards for all internships advertised to DePaul students. For example, the College of Communication internship guidelines specifically state: “The job performed at the internship site should not entail more than 25 percent clerical work.”

Employers recruiting DePaul students must uphold the professional conduct standards outlined in NACE’s Principles for Employment Professionals. All private companies who advertise internships through DePaul’s Career Center, where the UIP is housed, receive a copy of the DOL guidelines.

Over the years DePaul has maintained a very proactive approach when it comes to internships.

“We’ve always very carefully screened internships and if they don’t meet our standards, we don’t allow them to be posted,” McAteer said. “Every employer who says they have an unpaid internship, we walk them through why they should consider paying.”

McAteer said there are many benefits for companies who decide to pay their interns, including more competitive, diverse applicants and more focused interns overall.

“We have such a diverse population at DePaul that’s attractive to employers,” she said. DePaul consistently ranks among the top 20 in the “Diverse Student Population” category of “The Best 361 Colleges,” published annually by The Princeton Review.

Graciela Kenig, director of Internships for DePaul’s College of Communication since 2009, has heard both sides of the paid internship argument.

“Some employers say well when we pay them they just don’t want to do the job, and I completely disagree,” Kenig said. “I think paying gives people a sense of value and it doesn’t mean you have to choose between a paid job and an unpaid internship.” However, many DePaul students struggle to incorporate an internship into their course of study—paid or unpaid.

“I think the challenge is finding the time,” Kenig said. “The majority of [undergraduate] students wait until their senior year. It’s really late in a sense.”

Kenig said that to be the most competitive in the job market and gain a wide range of experiences, students should engage in as many internship opportunities as possible.

Kenig estimates that approximately 50 percent of students in the College of Communication at DePaul, both graduate and undergraduate, are engaged in internship experiences. Every quarter she has 60 to 100 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in her internship courses.

Kenig understands that every individual has their own set of circumstances when it comes to including internships in their course of study. She strives to be extremely sensitive to her students’ needs and limitations.

“I don’t make the choice for people,” she said. “It’s a very personal decision.”

During her tenure, Kenig has seen some students experience the unfair treatment that can coincide with unpaid internships.

“My first approach has always been coaching the student on how to talk about the situation,” she said. “I look for teaching opportunities constantly because you run into this stuff all your life.”

Don’t Forget About Graduate Students
Although a majority of research and emphasis is put on internships at the undergraduate level, internships also play a key role in forging career paths for graduate students.

“Part of the reason I pursued a graduate degree, especially in a big city like Chicago, was to take advantage of every opportunity available,” said Christiana Johns, a 2010 MA in Journalism graduate from DePaul. “I can’t stress enough how important it is in a competitive field like communications to do things to set yourself apart and foster relationships in your chosen industry.”

Johns completed three internships—two for academic credit—while at DePaul, all of them unpaid. While Johns says each of her internships was a “stepping stone” in the right direction, it was her third internship with the United States Olympic Committee that completely changed her career path. Johns worked with the USOC at the 2010 Media Summit in Chicago and afterwards was offered the opportunity to work with the USOC communications staff during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Although all of her internships were unpaid, Johns believes the time she put in as an intern was well spent and critical to her current career in athletic media relations. “If I had a different attitude about taking advantage of internships, I would have never had those wonderful experiences,” says Johns. “There is a difference between affording someone an opportunity to get his foot in the door and gain valuable experience and using interns as a way to get around hiring a full-time person.” After graduating with her master’s degree, Johns took a position with the Allstate Sugar Bowl as a communications assistant. She currently works as public relations coordinator for the United States Professional Tennis Association.

Like Johns, Jennifer McCall, a 2013 MA in Journalism DePaul graduate, also completed three internships as a graduate student—two of which were paid positions. McCall has stronger feelings when it comes to the issue of unpaid internships.

“I think that interns should be paid,” McCall said. “I completely understand that everyone must pay his or her dues, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t get paid for it, even if it is just a small amount of money. Some of these companies really abuse their interns, and the experience alone may not be enough for that individual to stay.”

McCall’s career goal is to become a television producer. She currently works part-time as an audience coordinator at ABC 7 for Windy City Live, where she was previously an unpaid production intern.

The Intern Life
Since her first venture into the journalism world with ChicagoNow, Stone has landed several influential internships, including writing positions at the Chicago-based, lifestyle website The Everygirl and Condé Nast publication Bon Appétit. Stone received a small stipend at the end of her internship with Bon Appétit.

“It was like a little present at the end of the summer,” she said. Stone was one of The Everygirl’s first interns. A startup run by two Chicago bloggers, the now two-year-old website doesn’t generate enough revenue to pay its interns.

While the future of unpaid internships remains uncertain, Stone’s motivation and passion for journalism and online media continues to flourish. Last summer, Stone was a top candidate for internships at Mashable and The Daily Beast, both in New York, but chose instead to stay in Chicago and intern at Crain Communications. She now interns with the Tribune Company’s Metromix site while taking classes at DePaul.

“DePaul students in general are a lot more motivated to get internships than people who don’t go to a city school,” Stone said. “And it’s not that people aren’t talented at other schools, but here they have an opportunity to really make something out of that.” Stone says she doesn’t plan to pursue internships in New York next summer. “I want to put roots down and be a Chicagoan now that I live here,” Stone said. “I’m going to try as hard as I can to get another awesome internship but in the event that I can’t get anything I’m not going to go running off to another city.”