Are Unpaid Publishing Industry Internships Unethical?

In Guest Contributors by Guest Contributor

Editorial by Ashley Mosley, InternMatch

Ashley Mosley

Ashley Mosley

Today, unpaid internships are often seen as a rite of passage into the publishing industry. The highly competitive nature of the industry means passionate students and recent graduates are looking to break in any way they can, often foregoing fair compensation in the process. Unpaid internships allow publishing industry employers to cash in on the drive and motivation of students and recent graduates — but at what cost?

For one thing, unpaid publishing industry interns aren’t staying quiet any longer. Both Condé Nast Publications and Hearst Corporation have recently been hit with lawsuits from disgruntled former interns looking to recover minimum wage and overtime pay. While it’s easy to argue that these publishing corporations are doing industry newbies a favor by providing immersive experiences through their internship programs, letting interns work without compensation isn’t just unethical, it’s likely illegal.

Unpaid intern experience isn’t easily swallowed when you factor in mounting student debt, a sluggish job market, and potential legal ramifications. Let’s dive deeper into why we need to turn the page on unpaid publishing industry internships and relegate them to our history books:

Nobody Wants Their Day In Court

Big-name publishing houses like Hearst Corporation and Condé Nast Publications are private sector employers. These corporations are walking a fine line when making the decision to let their interns go without compensation. By law, unpaid internships are only acceptable if an employer is in compliance with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s Fair Labor Standards Act (PDF).

If you’re unfamiliar, these guidelines state that in order to be unpaid, an internship must be highly educational — as close as possible to the educational experience students are receiving in college. The employer must also derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern or have duties that displace a regular employee.

Previously, Condé Nast reportedly offered their interns a $550 stipend — amounting to about $12 per day of work. While the company has revoked this policy, it’s safe to say that regardless of the specific internship role, it’s unethical to consider these as fair wages for completed duties. For instance, an editorial intern may be researching, fact checking, creating various types of content, and undertaking related administrative duties. All of these are responsibilities required of a full-time editorial assistant, so why should the title of “intern” relegate someone to going without pay?

Bringing Down The Economy

It’s no secret that the job market isn’t isn’t in peak shape, and unpaid internships certainly aren’t doing working people any favors. This is due to the fact that millions of unpaid internships in the U.S. every year are displacing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Consider this: Paid internships transform into a job 60% of the time, while unpaid internship experiences offer only a one percent bump over no internship experience at all (37% vs. 36%). It’s upsetting to think that unpaid internships have only a one percent impact on employment. So does the idea of “paying your dues” really amount to more success in the long run? The answer seems to be no.

A Little Thing Called Discrimination

Unpaid internships can be a gateway for discrimination. College students and recent graduates are pinching their pennies more than ever before, so asking interns to go without pay opens the door of opportunity only to those who can already afford it. Today, 60% of the 20 million students attending college borrow annually to cover costs. Why should those interested in breaking into publishing industry careers be forced to take out even more loans or seek out donations?

It’s also important to note that unpaid interns are not employees and thus have no legal recourse when it comes to sexual harassment or discrimination on the job. This goes against the struggle labor groups have waged for the last 100 years — to protect workers from discrimination in both the hiring process and on the job.

You Get What You Give

Internships are mutually beneficial relationships. Bringing in talented interns and paying them squat can dramatically impact an employer’s bottom line. Far too many interns are slammed with non-educational duties as a part of their internships, duties that only serve to help the employer save a buck. Making coffee runs and mastering administrative tasks aren’t acceptable tasks for any publishing industry internship.

Instead, publishing industry internship roles should be project-based, training-focused, and involve strong guidance from a direct manager or mentor. If publishing employers are unwilling to drum up the necessary educational duties for interns to actually learn valuable skills and impact their company, then it would be better to hire a personal or administrative assistant instead.

It’s time to turn the page on unpaid publishing industry internships. Not only are they outdated and unaligned with the times, they’re also damaging on a number of fronts. It’s time for both interns and employers to speak out against unpaid internships.

Ashley Mosley is Community Engagement Manager of InternMatch, an online platform connecting the best intern candidates and employers. Connect with Ashley and InternMatch on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.