The Columbia University library. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
The time has come for the unpaid intern to rise up.
Or so argued David Dennis several weeks ago in a Guardian column, proclaiming that “unpaid internships and a culture of privilege are ruining journalism.” Most strikingly, Dennis argued that the proliferation of unpaid internships has done more damage than merely privileging the affluent and well-connected, who can afford to work for free. By affecting how news is covered, the practices have eroded the quality of journalism itself.
Dennis’s timing could not have been better. This month a federal judge ruled in favor of two former Black Swan production interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, who sued Fox Searchlight for backpay in a much-publicized 2011 lawsuit. The two coffee-fetchers “are ‘employees’ covered by the Fair Labor Standards (FLSA) as well as New York’s labor laws,” wrote federal judge William Pauley in a ruling that set strict criteria for how unpaid interns may—and may not—be used by employers in the future. Clearly the ruling has implications beyond Hollywood; already two former Condé Nast interns, represented by the same lawyers, have sued the magazine company for back wages, while a former Atlantic Records intern has filed a similar lawsuit against the record label.
As focus turns to the murky legality, exploitative nature and class privilege of many unpaid internships, here’s one way to improve the system: stop requiring that interns receive academic credit for their labor. In so doing, interns might more often receive actual compensation for their work rather than its illusion.
In the journalism sphere particularly, it has become increasingly common for publications to require academic credit as a prerequisite for internship opportunities. The practice seems innocuous. “Interns must be enrolled at an accredited college or university, and the internship must be completed for academic credit,” reads one such listing, by Time Out New York. A listing by the San Francisco Chronicle repeats the statement nearly verbatim. An overview of Vice’s internship program asks that interns provide a “letter from your school indicating you are receiving academic credit for the internship.”