Unpaid News

Are J-schools teaching young journalists to work for free?

Derrick Chow

“Go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV, ” Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada, urged unemployed youth in a widely criticized November 2014 speech. “Volunteer to do something which is at least somewhat related to your expertise.” In practice, following this advice often means doing an unpaid internship.

Although some provincial labour laws concerning remuneration now apply to internships, they often leave out students in programs that require such placements for graduation. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour, for example, states that unpaid internships should “encourage employers to provide students … with practical training to complement their classroom learning.” Such unpaid internships are especially common in journalism schools, but while on-the-job training makes students better reporters, it doesn’t make them any more likely to find employment.

Journalism schools “know that when they take those students’ money, there are no jobs for 90-95 per cent of them,” says Howard Bernstein, who launched journalism internships at Toronto’s Ryerson University in the early 1990s. “If you did away with most places in [journalism schools], there’d be more room for good internships,” he adds, and even suggests that undergraduate journalism programs be eliminated entirely.

Most students working unpaid internships are still paying tuition. And so instead of simply working for free, they are paying for the privilege. “The idea that [students] are paying to work, and that the university is deriving quite substantial profits from their labour, is utterly repugnant and disgusting,” says Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer. While unpaid interns whose programs include a work placement are exempt from the Employment Standards Act, Langille cautions that students receive no protection as workers and that this unpaid work can violate their charter rights.

Opposition to unpaid student internships is coming from within academia as well: despite designing Ryerson’s journalism internship program, Bernstein now believes it should be abolished. “I saw so many places that hire fewer people and replace them with interns that they got for free,” he says. “By providing internships, I made other people lose their jobs. I was sickened by the process,” he adds, naming public broadcasters CBC and TVO as the “worst offenders.” But when he raised these concerns with Ryerson’s administration, they refused to close the program due to its popularity, and Bernstein acknowledges that most students “were exploited willingly, and were learning anyway.”

Ryerson undergraduates are no longer required to complete for-credit internships, but many do as part of the Masthead course. In the fall of 2014, fourth-year undergraduate Lauren Harris interned at Journalists for Human Rights. “It’s tough because … they expect you to put in the hours but they don’t compensate you for it,” she says. Nevertheless, writing weekly journals and a final essay “gave me a chance to reflect on what I was doing,” says Harris, adding that professors ensure students are performing meaningful work.

Suanne Kelman, a retired Ryerson journalism professor and one of the school’s internship coordinators from 2011-2013, agrees that internships completed through schools provide better experiences. “The school ensures that it’s an appropriate internship. You have someone to intervene if the student is placed under intolerable working conditions … There’s pre-screening to make sure they’re doing actual journalistic work,” she says.

Brian Gabrial, chair of journalism at Montreal’s Concordia University, agrees that not all internship opportunities that the school receives are strictly journalistic. “It has been very difficult for us to get news organizations to pay for the students,” he says, noting that communications placements are much more lucrative but “we don’t want students doing that kind of work. We want them to be journalists.” So all postings on Concordia’s job board come with a disclaimer: “It is up to the individual students themselves to investigate and evaluate which positions and opportunities they wish to participate in.”

Kelman and Gabrial’s efforts to ensure quality internships are laudable, but requiring paid internships would more effectively weed out companies that seek cold-call marketers or ever-smiling coffee-runners. At the University of Regina, journalism students must complete a 13-week internship. Working at news organizations across Saskatchewan and Alberta, they earn between $250 and $825 per week. “The rationale is that if you pay [interns], you want to get your money’s worth, and you’ll put them to work as journalists,” says internship coordinator Mark Taylor.

A fourth-year journalism student in Regina, Evan Radford has interned at CBC Regina and Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix, where he earned between $250 and $400 each week, and shared many responsibilities with full-time reporters. “I’ve learned so much that I couldn’t in a classroom, like the newsroom dynamics when breaking news happens, or having a broadcast screw-up and having to own up to that,” he says.

At $250 a week, even Regina’s lowest-paying internships cover the $3,100 tuition for a term at the university, though that leaves no money for living expenses. Taylor stresses that students know the salaries of all available internships before they apply. If finances are a major concern, students can exclusively apply to the more lucrative positions. Furthermore, students whose first internship paid little, as well as industrious interns like Radford, often work at a second placement for which they do not pay tuition.

Geography may play a role in universities’ internship policies. Saskatchewan is experiencing an economic boom, while Quebec has consistently received equalization payments since 1957, and Ontario began receiving those payments in 2009. It may therefore be easier to find journalism opportunities in the oil- and potash-rich Prairies. Furthermore, Concordia students’ opportunities in Quebec may be limited if they cannot work in French. Still, one would expect that if the University of Regina can place each student in a paid internship in the Prairies, a university in Montreal or Toronto, the media capital of anglophone Canada, could do something similar.

At all three schools, students pay full tuition for the semester during which they intern because they receive university credit. Taylor organizes internships for Regina’s 26 fourth-year journalism students. At Concordia and Ryerson, students find their own internships, while staff grade their assignments, and staff at all schools check on students throughout the term and manage any issues that arise. But when a student is interning off-campus, their main instructors are not affiliated with or paid by the university. The students are not filling lecture halls or libraries. While fees are to be expected for finding internships, grading assignments, and completing paperwork, universities could significantly reduce tuition during internship semesters.

Both Harris and Radford are comfortable paying tuition while interning, as long as they are not working full-time and for free. Journalists for Human Rights permitted Harris to work three days a week, which enabled her to continue her jobs as a receptionist and a tutor. Radford’s internships, of course, are paid, and he thinks “it’s fair [to pay tuition] because I’m getting credit for five courses … I equate $1,600/month with what I’d earn during a part-time job, but [I’m working] in the career I want to be in.” Students aren’t asking for a free ride but simply for a fair game.

South of the border, the City University of New York (CUNY) requires its graduate journalism students to complete a two-month internship in the tuition-free summer between first and second years. CUNY encourages students to find paid placements, but should they not, the school will provide a $3,000 stipend, which works out to just over New York’s minimum wage. While students may appreciate the paycheque, this is not a viable solution to unpaid internships in journalism schools. “That’s the school using the students’ tuition to pay the students,” says Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association and an articling student at Torkin Manes LLP in Toronto.

Knowing that schools will finance interns’ labour may also discourage companies from offering paid internships. Langille adds that these stipends don’t solve the systemic problem of employers not paying to train new employees.

Seaborn offers other solutions, such as universities setting “limits on the duration of unpaid internships.” A single-semester course is equivalent to 125 hours, and schools could insist that companies pay interns for additional time. She also urges universities to educate interns on their workplace rights in terms of health and safety, harassment, and discrimination, and to set up complaint and evaluation systems within the school.

Unions can also take measures to prevent students paying to undertake unpaid internships. “Labour unions are actually complicit in this system,” says Errol Salamon, a doctoral candidate at Montreal’s McGill University whose thesis focuses on precarious labour in journalism. While the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Montreal Gazette pay their summer interns, numerous newspapers have collective agreements that don’t prevent unpaid labour. The Toronto Sun’s collective agreement, Salamon explains, explicitly states that the newspaper can hire unpaid journalism student interns for eight-week terms.

Every journalism school structures its internship program differently, and each model has its merits. Regina ensures that students work as paid journalists. Weekly reflections at Concordia and Ryerson help both interns and schools evaluate internships. At Ottawa’s Carleton University, students can intern abroad and receive a $3,000 stipend jointly funded by the Reader’s Digest Foundation of Canada, the provincial government, and the university. What is lacking, however, is an earnest and ongoing dialogue among post-secondary institutions, legislators, and unions about creating internships that address legitimate industry needs without exploiting students. Surely schools of journalism and practising journalists, those professional communicators, could take steps to launch and sustain such a dialogue.

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