Internships: Valuable experience or slave labor?*
Internships are the hot thing on college campuses these days -- not so much among the students as among the faculty. And "hot," as in the debate can sometimes get a little warm.
Look, ever since the first issue of the "Daily Tattler" came out on stone tablets, journalism professors and working journalists have been telling the fledglings about the need to get out of the nest and into the newsroom. There weren't a lot of pretensions -- as a news director at WABC in New York once told me, we know what an internship is, but it at least means you'll walk into your first job and have some clue how a newsroom works and where the wire machine is (OK, so it was a long time ago).
Lately, however, with the glut of journalism/communications students (personally, I blame the Miss America and Miss USA pageants for that**), internships -- and preferably several -- have been held out as not only desirable, but essential to distinguish yourself from the herd. The words "mandatory internship" have been heard in the halls (though merely asking "would you want the bottom 20 percent of our students representing us 'out there'" is usually enough to stop that conversation). Some schools do require them.
Until now, it was primarily the broadcast kids who had to face the ignominy -- or is that opportunity? -- of slaving away in unpaid slots. (My school once told broadcasters they had to pay; all the internships went away faster than the Mets can blow a chance to get in the playoffs.) But, given the tight times in newsrooms everywhere, even the print shops are starting to breathe those fearful words "academic credit."
And so comes this timely column by Ben Yagoda in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Will Work for Academic Credit." (That column now apparently has gone behind a pay wall, but it is reprinted by my colleague Ernie Wiggins in SPJ's Classrooms and Newsrooms blog.)
Yagoda has tracked down what seems to be the root of the unpaid, but you must have college credit, chant: Internships are almost never "similar" to what students would learn in school — nor should they be — but lawyers figured out that tying them to an actual college course would help make that argument if the feds ever complained. Managers usually do what lawyers recommend, if only to get them out of the office, and thus their suggestions became policy.
More seriously, as Yagoda points out, with the cost of college credit (and especially since some schools see their summer enrollments as a revenue stream to be milked as much as possible), we are merely widening the divide between haves and have nots.
Read his column and think about it. We probably can't change it, but damn, we ought to keep raising the questions.
* A little of both, actually. Of course, the reality is that it will be what the student wants to make out of it. I've known very few shops that really have treated their interns like slave labor, which, I think, speaks highly of the industry in that regard.
** Yes, I'm sure there has been a nuclear physics major somewhere in there all these years. And I have heard my share of business majors. But, dang, how often have we heard "she's majoring in communications" or some related field? OK, maybe I'm just sensitive to it.)