After five months of interning at WNYC for about 24 hours per week, Ben Ellman had drained every dollar in his savings account. He was working part-time at an Italian restaurant and living with his parents in Yonkers in order to stay afloat on the $12-per-day travel stipend he received from WNYC.
Ellman commuted on the Metro-North train from Yonkers to New York City on the days he was scheduled to intern for The Brian Lehrer Show. On his days off, he worked at the restaurant. Looking back, he says he wishes the show would’ve been more receptive to his story pitches while he was working there and earning less than $40 a week.
“I can’t intern forever, and that type of exposure would’ve been great,” he says.
Ryan Kailath had a career as a software developer before he made a pivot into media in 2014. It was only his full-ride scholarship to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and his accumulated savings that enabled him to pursue an internship at WNYC.
“Roaming the hallways at WNYC, shaking hands, and networking with everybody I met there has helped me get my career started,” says Kailath, who now reports for WWNO, New Orleans’s public-radio station.
But what happens to young journalists who can’t afford to jump-start their career by working for free? Christine Trudeau, a recent graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and a citizen of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, was accepted to the WNYC internship program for the summer of 2016. She tried negotiating with WNYC and applying for various supplementary scholarships, but eventually she was forced to decline the offer because she couldn’t survive on the $12-per-day stipend. “Not a lot of Natives go into journalism or go to Columbia and receive offers for internships at WNYC,” she says. “It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t get the experience.”
WNYC isn’t the only media outlet facing controversy about intern pay. Around the same time Ellman was interning at the station, in 2013, a slew of lawsuits were filed by unpaid interns at places like NBCUniversal, Hearst Corporation, Fox, and Condé Nast. Some judges ruled that the interns should’ve been paid minimum wage, which encouraged NBC, MSNBC, and Fox to change their policies to compensate interns for their work. But other outlets eliminated their internship programs altogether. (The Nation previously paid its interns a stipend of $150 a week; in 2013, interns began earning minimum wage, and in 2015 their pay was increased to $15 an hour.)