I’m a junior in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. This summer, I got ‘fired’ from my unpaid editorial internship after The Atlantic published an article that I’d written.
That’s the lead. The full story is a little more complicated. I spent this summer writing for a small weekly paper with a tiny, fiercely dedicated staff, downward-spiraling circulation and five editorial interns, all unpaid. Now that print journalism is on its last legs, working for the weekly felt a little like pushing an old lady in a wheelchair. But I liked the creative and autonomous nature of the internship, which meant that I could walk into the office, write about anything that interested me and publish it on a legit site. Could I write about Nicolas Cage and Disney Princesses? Sure. Walk to a park an interview homeless guys about philosophy? You betcha.
My sense of freedom increased alongside my confidence in publishing. After several weeks, I began freelancing. The first time I got paid for something I’d written was for The San Francisco Examiner; the editor there gave me $50 and my very first byline in a daily newspaper. I remember stealing glances at the paper all day, feeling that something profound had changed even as I knocked elbows against Jill and Joey in our intern closet, each of us hacking away at the keys.
One Monday in August, I decided to pitch a story I’d written to The Atlantic. The only problem: I’d received my original source for the story through my editor at the weekly, and he’d already slated it for next week’s issue. The story was my work alone, but as any good journalism student can tell you, double-pitching is pretty sketchy; even The New York Times and The Washington Post would look pretty stupid if they published the same story by the same dude on the same day. To be honest, though, I thought it astronomically unlikely that The Fucking Atlantic would respond to a baby 20-year-old like myself. So I called my query a “practice pitch,” shot it into The Atlantic’s garbage heap (i.e., the place where unsolicited pitches go) and promptly forgot the whole thing.
But then the statistically unlikely happened. The next day, en route to a short vacation in Maine, I checked my email – and clapped my hand over my mouth. An Atlantic editor had asked to see the piece. Quickly, I G-chatted my editor at the weekly a rambling pseudo-apology and request for permission:
“I pitched [the story] to the Atlantic,” I typed. “I totally would’ve told you before, but I never thought they would respond. Let me know if you don’t want me to send them the story, and I totally won’t.”
I received a confusing set of G-Chat messages back. “Well, yes,” he said. “It would be rude to yank the story from us, but stories can always be repurposed, sources added.”
And: “It’d be great to have an Atlantic under your belt.”
Sounded like a green light to me. “Okay,” I typed back. “What’s your deal?”
“Let me know what their deal is,” he replied. I sent the story on.
The next day I got an email from the Atlantic (THE ATLANTIC!!!!) with the deal: Yes, they’d love to publish the story, and please, sign these forms so we can pay you. I was understandably and justifiably thrilled. After all, I was a 20-year-old with one year of journalism school and barely two months of professional experience. My college is scary competitive and the industry I’m entering is even worse. So, to succeed, I had done exactly as Cheryl Sandberg and so many powerful women had advised; I’d leaned in. And I’d leaned into the powerful hands of national news. Elated, I signed the tax form with a shaky flourish and hugged my mommy.
That’s when I went wrong – well, not exactly. You should always hug your mom first. But RIGHT AFTER THAT, I should have told my editor about the Atlantic thing. His G-Chats were vague, admittedly, but they pointed to the idea I should keep him in the loop. But it was all so sudden. Plus, I had had a sinking feeling my editor would snatch this golden opportunity from me by invoking the inexplicable binds of my internship – binds which remain legally and practically unclear to me, even now.
So I waited 24 hours. And though my decision paid off, I paid dearly for it as well.
My story went live the next day. It netted me $100 – not much, but more than the $0.00 I’d earned from my unpaid internship – and a lot of social media love, which money cannot buy (actually, it can). I watched as my article rapidly outgrew me, getting 1,600 likes on Facebook, 276 Twitter shares, and at least 10 copycat articles on sites like Buzzfeed, the Guardian and Jezebel. My article became the kind of trendsetter I could never be.
The ensuing glow of accomplishment lasted five hours; from when I saw my byline at noon, to when I received an email from my boss at 5 p.m., giving me the boot:
“You didn’t realize the story was ours, not yours, to give. If you were a staff writer, I’d fire you. If you were a freelance writer, I wouldn’t work with you anymore. My inclination is to end your internship. You have some talent, but don’t let your eagerness to get ahead ruin your relationships with editors.”
After reading the email, the atrocity of my conduct hit me like a hammer to the gut. I spent five days feeling like a slimy, crooked exhibitionist. I felt like a total hack, an insult to the integrity of the paper. My editor had taken a gamble on me, a college sophomore with no professional experience to speak of, and I’d fucked up big time.
Yet even while I was busy hating my own guts, I couldn’t shake a niggling feeling that the headline “demonic intern run amok” didn’t quite fit what I’d done. In fact, after about a week, I began feeling used. This feeling increased every time I told my story to a new person, because every single one thought my editor had exploited me. Some even suggested he’d acted out of jealousy. While I’m not sure whether that is true, I know now that my actions were far less odious than he’d claimed originally, especially in light of how frayed the ethical guidelines of unpaid internships are already.
Unpaid internships are all over the news, and Medilldos are getting drilldoed by them. Did you see the ProPublica article? Right now, most journalism internships are unpaid – which, given the flood of articles slamming them, makes us all filthy hypocrites, but there you go. But it’s not just journalism – According to Bloomberg, 48 percent of all interns work for free.
Though sites like InternJustice.com are popping up as of late, most unpaid interns still lack the knowledge and legal recourse to claim maltreatment – I took this internship knowing it was unpaid, they think – so editors haven’t seen incentive to buck the trend. But that doesn’t make it okay. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the rubric for unpaid internships is as follows:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
While my responsibilities at my weekly paper may not have been as ironclad as those of a salaried employer, over the period of a month and a half I published six stories in print and 19 online, most of which were my own ideas. 25 stories over 45 days isn’t shabby for someone who received nothing for generating them.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Based on clauses #2 and #4, my internship shouldn’t have been unpaid. I was creating content for professional use – content equally publishable to the work of salaried employees – but asking nothing in return but a byline. To my knowledge, I impeded no one, and my editor certainly derived immediate advantages from my free labor. The relationship felt as mutually beneficial as a free-labor arrangement can; I got experience, he got free shit.
The stakes were an entirely different story. I soon realized that my editor hadn’t taken a gamble on me at all; I’d taken a gamble on him. After all, he had nothing to lose when he took me on, and my mistake on the job cost him nothing but first rights to one piece of my intellectual property (which he published anyway, the same day he deleted my email account.) On the other hand, I lost my credibility, the reference I’d spent two months working to attain and two more weeks of experience.
Though my conduct might’ve left a bad taste in my editor’s mouth, it was utterly guileless – the kind of youthful blunder through which he could have guided me as a mentor. As clause #4 states, unpaid internships should exist for the benefit of the intern. They exist to open doors and to provide a learning experience, and hopefully to allow the kinds of mistakes that accompany all learning experiences. If the company isn’t paying, the least it can do is give the intern a crash course in company expectations – the intellectual property rules, freelancing guidelines, etc.; and they should expect interns to fuck up periodically even after they’ve explained everything.
If an unpaid internship is mistake-free, it shouldn’t be unpaid. If it isn’t a learning opportunity, it shouldn’t exist, and we college students would be much better off earning actual money at McDonald’s.
And this is where I make my point.
College students, from marketeers to musicians to researchers: think twice before you take an unpaid internship. The idea that we should simultaneously be as competent and generative as salaried staffers with little to no job training and receive nothing in return makes no sense, and you’re selling yourself short by tossing your hard-won intellectual property to grownups just because they’re older and fatter than you.
Take it from somebody who fucked up. I got my ass kicked for working my ass off, which makes me question the idea that these kinds of internships exist to jettison intrepid youngsters into successful careers and instead come to the cynical conclusion that they exist to fill out tired staff bodies by exploiting our free labor.
“You should’ve at least gotten a second chance!” said my roommate, shocked, when I finally confessed to her my embarrassing failure, the one that meant early termination of our lease – an admission made all the more embarrassing by her internship in computer programming, which pays $30 an hour.
“Yeah, but it was stupid,” I said. “It was a dumb mistake.”
“But you’re an unpaid intern!” she said. “You’re supposed to make those kinds of mistakes!”
Now that I’ve given myself a month to think about my experience, I’ve decided she’s right; and furthermore, my dumb mistake turned out to be the best thing I did this summer. I’d dipped my toes into the professional world and gotten them burned off, and I had to learn how to tell people I’d fucked up in a graceful, honest manner, which is a lifelong skill no matter what you do. But more importantly, by denying me the last two weeks of my “learning experience,” my editor inadvertently provided me with some new ones. I learned that the professional world deals in shades of grey; not everyone follows the rules, even when they expect you to. Unpaid internships epitomize this corrupt racket. I will never take one again.
Instead, I will work for myself. I will ask for guidance from my employers and a thorough explanation of the rules, so I won’t break them inadvertently. And I reaffirm the position that led me into this unglamorous, experience-heavy internship in the first place: Nobody becomes a writer by working various unpaid internships until the Writer God sends them an expensive piece of stationery conferring the rank of Writer upon them. Full-time writers work for themselves. And with that autonomy comes the responsibility for believing in yourself and taking risks, which I did and will continue to do. I’m young and versatile, the future of journalism writ large is a lot brighter than the future of the dying print weekly, and I want to be a part of it.
 Names have been changed
 The correspondence with my editor is paraphrased, because he deleted my email account before I could review the contents of his email message and our G-Chat.
 Medilldo (n): a (questionably) affectionate nickname for a member of the Medill School of Journalism, an institution notorious for its obnoxiously overambitious student body.
 Whether or not the requirements of this rubric represent reasonable expectations for unpaid internships, however, is a question for another day.