Op-ed: To cultivate diversity in journalism, pay interns a living wage


Courtesy of Creative Commons

Maya Homan, contributor

Every fall, news organizations large and small open applications for summer internships. The programs are, for the most part, relatively similar. They want students who are inquisitive, creative, gritty and good under pressure. However, despite the fact that applications are open to all students, the target demographic for these prestigious programs is strikingly similar.

Newsroom diversity, or a lack thereof, has been a persistent problem in the media industry. Theodore Kim, the director of newsroom fellowships and internships for the New York Times, came under fire in March for a Twitter thread listing the schools he said produced the best intern and fellowship candidates. The list included colleges like Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University, which, as commenters pointed out, are highly selective institutions, predominantly comprised of affluent white students. In the professional realm, a 2018 Pew Research Center study found that more than three quarters of U.S. newsroom employees are white, and men account for more than 60 percent of newsroom workers. 

For journalism in particular, diversity — whether it’s based on gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or political leaning — is vital. Newsrooms are agenda setters. They influence what the public sees and deems important. They have the power to make people pay attention and too often, issues affecting marginalized groups do not receive a sufficient level of awareness and concern. A culture of offering low-pay or unpaid internships, often as a necessary stepping stone for aspiring journalists, only perpetuates the problem.

It’s no secret that the newspaper industry is undergoing a transformation. More and more papers are struggling to adapt to the shifting media landscape and are forced to lay off staff to stay afloat. For numerous papers large and small, interns are a cost-effective way to fill coverage gaps and produce content. And as many smaller papers do not have the budget to pay interns, they instead market unpaid internships as a chance for students to gain “experience” or “exposure” for their work.

While there are numerous journalism internship programs that do pay, most offer only minimum wage. The vast majority are offered by prominent mainstream publications like the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and NPR, and stipulate that applicants must already have experience in their field, usually in the form of a previous unpaid internship. More accessible opportunities, such as working for a student publication, are not always accepted as work experience.

Even low-pay internships are not always practical for students struggling to afford tuition, rent and food. Students who intern and co-op at the Boston Globe work just as many hours as regular employees and are held to the same standard of quality, but have a starting wage of $12 per hour, which is Boston’s minimum wage. It’s disheartening that despite all the effort and skill that goes into researching, reporting and writing a story, interns are paid less than an entry-level worker at Trader Joe’s. 

This culture of low-pay and unpaid positions effectively excludes students that the news industry needs to hear from the most. The internship system is designed for students with enough financial support to work without pay. For those without that safety net, the lack of pay is a barrier with detrimental effects on their careers that last far beyond college. Students who intern at publications like the Boston Globe are often the first candidates considered for full-time positions, meaning affluent students typically have a distinct advantage from the moment they graduate. Unpaid internships, intentionally or not, perpetuate the already-problematic culture of elitism in journalism.

It’s time to dispel the myth that experience or exposure are adequate compensation for 20 to 40 hours of skilled labor each week. Experience does not pay the bills. Only when journalism is accessible to everyone will it fulfill its purpose. And to become accessible, publications everywhere need to start paying interns a living wage. 

Maya Homan is a second-year journalism major.