Canadian journalism schools and the internship issue… Work for pay or pay to work?
by Sara Tatelman
“Volunteer to do something which is at least somewhat related to your expertise,” Stephen Poloz, governor of the Bank of Canada, urged unemployed youth in a widely criticized November 2014 speech. More often than not, following this advice would mean undertaking an unpaid internship rather than helping at a food bank, and these internships are hugely problematic for the young workers who accept, or who are forced to accept, them. Many journalism students can’t graduate without interning, and numerous factors ensure their work will remain unpaid.
For starters, provincial labour laws concerning internship remuneration often exclude students in programs that require placements for graduation. Ontario’s Employment Standards Act states that unpaid internships should “encourage employers to provide students … with practical training to complement their classroom learning.” Such internships are especially common in journalism schools, but while on-the-job training makes students better reporters, it doesn’t make them any more likely to find employment.
Howard Bernstein instituted journalism internships at Toronto’s Ryerson University in the early 1990s. Journalism programs, he says, “know that when they take those students’ money, there are no jobs for 90-95% of them.”
In a recent phone interview, Bernstein suggested that undergraduate programs be eliminated entirely. “If you did away with most places in [journalism schools], there’d be more room for good internships,” he says. Moreover, most students still pay tuition, so instead of only working for free, they are paying for the privilege.
“The idea that [students] are paying to work, and that the university is deriving quite substantial profits from their labour is utterly repugnant,” Andrew Langille, a Toronto labour lawyer, said in a phone interview. While unpaid interns whose programs include a work placement are legal under the Employment Standards Act and similar legislation across the country, Langille cautions that students receive no protection as workers, and that this unpaid work can violate their charter rights.
Opposition to unpaid student internships is coming from within academia as well: Bernstein now believes that Ryerson’s internship program should be abolished.
“I saw so many places that hire fewer people and replace them with interns that they got for free,” he says.
“By providing internships, I made other people lose their jobs. I was sickened by the process.”
But when Bernstein raised these concerns with Ryerson’s administration, they refused to close the program due to its popularity, and he acknowledges that most students “were exploited willingly, and were learning anyway.”
Ryerson undergraduates are no longer required to complete for-credit internships, but many do as part of the Masthead course. In the fall of 2014, fourth-year undergraduate Lauren Harris interned through this course at Journalists for Human Rights.
“It’s tough because … they expect you to put in the hours but they don’t compensate you for it,” she says.
Nevertheless, writing weekly journals and a final essay “gave me a chance to reflect on what I was doing,” says Harris, adding that professors ensure students are performing meaningful work.
Suanne Kelman, a retired journalism professor at Ryerson and one of the school’s internship coordinators from 2011-2013, agrees that internships completed through schools provide better experiences.
“You have the school supervising and ensuring it’s an appropriate internship,” she says. “You have someone to intervene if the student is being asked to perform unreasonable duties or is placed under intolerable working conditions. … You can make it a much more positive experience for [students].”
Brian Gabrial, chair of journalism at Montreal’s Concordia University, agrees that not all internship opportunities the school receives are strictly journalistic. But in a recent interview, he said it has been difficult to find news organizations that will offer paid internships to students.
He added that communications placements are much more lucrative but that “we don’t want students doing that kind of work. We want them to be journalists.”
All postings on Concordia’s job board come with a disclaimer that students are responsible for evaluating each position, placing the responsibility for finding safe and non-exploitative work squarely back in the hands of students.
Kelman’s and Gabrial’s efforts to ensure quality internships are commendable, but requiring paid internships, as opposed to only screening internship advertisements, would more effectively weed out companies that seek cold-call marketers or ever-smiling coffee-runners. The University of Regina undertakes to do just this. Their journalism students complete 13-week internships at news organizations across Saskatchewan and Alberta. They earn between $250 and $825 each week, which can at least cover the $3,100 tuition for a term at the university.
“The rationale is that if you pay [interns], you want to get your money’s worth, and you’ll put them to work as journalists,” says internship coordinator Mark Taylor.
A fourth-year student, Evan Radford interned at CBC Regina and the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, where he earned $250 and $400 each week respectively.
“I’ve learned so much that I couldn’t in a classroom, like the newsroom dynamics when breaking news happens, or having a broadcast screw up and having to own up to that,” he says.
Geography may play a role in universities’ internship policies. Saskatchewan is experiencing an economic boom, while Quebec has consistently been receiving equalization payments since 1957, and Ontario began receiving those payments in 2009. It may therefore be easier to find journalism opportunities in the oil- and potash-rich prairies. Furthermore, Concordia students’ opportunities in Quebec may be limited if they can’t work in French.
At all three schools, students pay full tuition for the semester during which they intern because they receive university credit. But when interning off-campus, students’ main instructors are not paid by the university, and students aren’t filling lecture halls and libraries. While fees for finding internships, grading assignments and adding credit hours to transcripts are to be expected, it can be argued that schools should significantly reduce tuition during internship semesters.
Both Harris and Radford say they are comfortable paying tuition while interning, as long as they are not working full time and for free. Although most Masthead placements are full time, Journalists for Human Rights permitted Harris to work three days a week, which enabled her to continue her jobs as a receptionist and a tutor. Harris finds part-time unpaid internships for credit acceptable, since she can then hold a paying job as well.
Since Radford’s internships are paid, he thinks paying tuition in addition to working an internship is reasonable.
“It’s fair because I’m getting credit for five courses. … I equate $1,600/month with what I’d earn during a part-time job, but [I’m working] in the career I want to be in.”
Students aren’t asking for a free ride, but simply for a fair game.
South of the border, graduate journalism students at the City University of New York complete two-month internships, and should they not secure a paid position, the school provides a $3,000 stipend. While it’s good PR, this is not a viable solution to unpaid student internships.
“That’s the school using the students’ tuition to pay the students,” says Claire Seaborn, president of the Canadian Intern Association and an articling student at Torkin Manes LLP in Toronto. Langille agrees, saying that these stipends don’t solve the systemic problem of employers not paying to train new employees.
Seaborn suggests that universities limit the duration of unpaid internships. A single-semester course is equivalent to 125 hours, and schools could insist that companies pay interns for any additional time worked. She also urges universities to educate interns on their workplace rights, and set up complaint and evaluation systems within schools.
Unions can also take measures to prevent students paying to work for free.
“Labour unions are actually complicit in this system,” says Errol Salamon, a doctoral candidate at Montreal’s McGill University whose thesis focuses on precarious labour in journalism. While the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette pay their summer interns, he says numerous newspapers have collective agreements that don’t prevent unpaid labour. The Toronto Sun’s collective agreement, Salamon explains, explicitly states that the newspaper can hire unpaid journalism student interns for eight-week terms.
Union-sanctioned exploitation of young workers is objectionable, says Salamon, and offering stipends or the minimum wage isn’t enough.
“Some kind of minimum payment is certainly one step in the right direction,” he says. “But another step would be to demand for a guaranteed minimum income, determining somehow what students should earn in order to sufficiently survive.”
Every journalism school structures their internship program differently, and each model has its merits. Regina ensures that students work as paid journalists. Weekly reflections at Concordia and Ryerson help both interns and schools evaluate internships. At Ottawa’s Carleton University, students can intern abroad and receive a $3,000 stipend funded by the Reader’s Digest Foundation, the provincial government and the university.
What is lacking, however, is an earnest and ongoing dialogue among post-secondary institutions, legislators and unions about creating internships that address legitimate industry needs without exploiting students. Surely practicing journalists and schools of journalism, as professional communicators, could take steps to launch and sustain such a dialogue.
This article was funded by Media Works, a project of CWA Canada, in collaboration with the Canadian University Press and the National Campus and Community Radio Association. For more original labour stories and a handbook on media worker rights and labour reporting, visit www.media-works.org