Intern Nation is Bankrupt

The Baffler   May 13, 2014

Is there any hope for the lowly media intern? Is there any hope for the working stiffs whose wages are being driven down by an unending stream of upstarts who are ready and willing to work for free?

Maybe. ProPublica, for one, is in the midst of a long-running investigation into the internship economy, and is staying true to its service-journalism ethos by explaining how people can seek back pay for an unpaid internship, through a Labor Department complaint or a lawsuit. (That’s what a real explainer looks like.)

Fighting back does bring results. Condé Nast recently settled a lawsuit brought by two former interns, and protests-from-within have kicked up at Hearst, and others. The New York Times, after hypocritically paying its interns in “academic credit” only, while condemning unpaid internships in its editorial pages, was finally forced to listen to itself and pay a minimum wage.

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“Valuable experience.” / Photo by US CPSC

Yet still, the relentless competition among applicants for low-paying or non-paying gigs continues. And just yesterday, Gabriel Arana catalogued and condemned “The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media” for The American Prospect, pointing to unpaid internships as one of the contributing factors to liberal media staffs’ lack of diversity. That “whiteness” in the media isn’t just doing a disservice to those members of minority communities who are being shut out of the conversation, either. It’s also affecting what topics those media outlets choose to cover, and how—so it’s doing a disservice to all of the readers, too, who will all ultimately be less informed as a result.

For all of those reasons, and more, it’s as good a time as ever to revisit Jim Frederick’s classic “Internment Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust,” which explores the overall economic impact of the rise of internships. The Baffler ran the piece in Issue 9, in the spring of 1997, and the spine of that issue bore the slogan, “Interns Built the Pyramids.”

Frederick wrote about his time as a head fact-checker at Men’s Journal, where one of his responsibilities was to hire interns. He never lacked for applicants, since “glamour industries” like magazine publishing and fashion will always have a strong pull:

It is not a coincidence that the industries offering youngsters an unending parade of subversive cartoons, daring advertising, and rebellious photo spreads are also the ones most likely to strip their earning power from them. It’s almost their duty, as the institutions that have taught us to value style over substance, to take advantage of people’s resulting faith that working someplace cool is better than getting a paycheck.

But as Frederick interviewed each starry-eyed kid after another, he knew they were getting “royally screwed.” He also knew that his whole industry was getting screwed in the process, too:

Businesses, obviously, have a real, bottom-line incentive to encourage the trend toward labor that is not only free, but without any type of obligation whatsoever. In other words, interns are restructuring the labor market. Thanks to those who can afford to win the labor auction with the lowest possible price—I’ll work for free!—those without outside (read “parental”) support are forced to take tremendous real-dollar losses to stay competitive, or they are simply priced out of competition entirely. This ensures that the glamour industries remain the land of the rich and privileged, for they are the only people who can absorb a short-term loss to get an imagined long-term gain.

But why stop there? Left unchecked, a labor market knows no boundaries when it comes to exploitation. Although the intern price floor can’t go any lower dollar-wise, it can go lower by the amount of time served, or by the size of the labor segment drawn into the swindle. As more people do internships, the supply of intern-alums increases, driving the value of that “experience” down even further—a phenomenon you could call “intern inflation.” So college kids feel pressure to do more of them, or for a longer stretch of time. And those previously thought of as obvious employee potential, like college graduates, grad students, and career-changers, are increasingly told, “Have you thought of doing an internship?”

Read the entirety of “Internment Camp,” which is just as relevant—if not more so—today, here.

We proudly stand by the promise printed below the masthead of every issue of the magazine: “No interns were used in the making of this Baffler“—and the same goes for the website.

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