Unpaid Internships: Bad for Business, Bad for Interns

Yesterday’s NYT column by David Carr about internships doesn’t just bury the lede, it takes it hostage and heads off in the opposite direction before revealing that Carr thinks businesses ought to pay their interns and will be rewarded for it. Carr starts out by seeming to make fun of young people who think they’re too good to get someone else’s coffee and drycleaning and seems in particular to have no patience for an intern who moved to New York to work for Vogue only to find herself being abused and undervalued—and crying into her pillow at night. He argues that lawsuits enforcing interns’ right to be paid might be ill-conceived.

But the column takes an abrupt turn when Carr describes the experience of The Atlantic Media, which ended its practice of hiring unpaid interns soon after the Labor Department issued a Fact Sheet declaring most unpaid internships at for-profit companies illegal. The Atlantic began paying its interns (Carr doesn’t mention that it provided backpay to previous interns who had been unpaid) rather than doing away with internships altogether. It created year-long fellowships involving mentoring and education, substantive work, and honest compensation. Far from suffering financially, the company has thrived. The fellows are diverse, smart, creative, and bring new energy to the company.

Unpaid interns are usually another story. They’re mostly from the income strata in our society where families have enough resources to support them. As Carr writes, “Unpaid internships typically provide people who already have a leg up a way to get the other leg up.” They also tend to discriminate against minorities. Carr describes his experience at the Washington City Paper in the 1990s, where paid internships and entry-level jobs brought in a talented group of young black writers who might never have launched their careers there if the paper hadn’t been willing to pay them.

Ultimately, Carr argues that the print media companies need to change their ways and treat their employees/interns as valuable assets, “creating meaningful internships and funding them.” Carr makes a good case that “Bringing on young people from all kinds of backgrounds is less a moral nicety than a business imperative.”