Recently, Deborah Ng of Freelance Writing Jobs discussed the difference between an internship and unpaid labor on her website for freelance writers, both current and aspiring.
Ng makes the important point that interns aren’t–and shouldn’t be–slave labor. Internships must offer something in return for the intern. “Interns don’t work for free. They gain something valuable in return,” she wrote. They may get a small stipend, or college credit, or on-the-job experience, or all three. But they’re not professionals who work for nothing for the glory of working…for nothing.
I’ve had my share of journalism or publishing internships in my lifetime. I was or had recently been a student for all of them. As a high school student, I spent three years working as an unpaid student reporter for the Birmingham News in Birmingham, Alabama. I interned at Memphis magazine in Memphis, Tennessee, as a college junior. I interned at (the now-defunct) Towery Publishing, also in Memphis, as a college senior. I interned at Over the Mountain Journal, a community newspaper in Birmingham the summer between my junior and senior years. During graduate school, I worked as an intern for the Maryland/Delaware/DC Press Association and then as an editorial assistant for American Journalism Review. Finally, I interned at The San Diego Union-Tribune just after graduation.
I learned something important from each and every one, too. Just as an example, I can tell you that I worked like a dog the summer I interned at OTMJ in Birmingham. I wrote stories and briefs and Q-and-A’s and took photos and proofed copy and learned to edit photos with Photoshop. I loved every second of it. I got so much experience, and I had a great time. Many years later, at AJR, I learned the value of precision in reporting and writing. I fact-checked a number of big feature articles that later appeared in the magazine, and I learned that if you’re not careful and accurate in your work, people are going to find out, one way or another. It’s better to ask a stupid question when you’re doing your reporting than to write something stupid and imprecise in your article. I got the experience to work under some very knowledgeable people who truly cared that I was having a good experience: Michael Finger at Memphis magazine, Rem Rieder at AJR, Carl Larsen at the U-T, and many others. They took seriously the responsibility of making sure that I was really gaining something from the experience.
The bottom line is I learned something from each internship I had–something that I’ve carried with me since. I’m past the stage in my career of having internships, but I look back on the ones that I did have with great fondness and gratitude. I just hope that the people who follow me can say the same thing. And I hope that all those people out there offerning interships remember that an internship really should be a learning experience for the intern–and not just learning how lousy an internship can be if no one takes it seriously.