The Unpaid Internship Conspiracy
Why Toronto Life’s first intern backs the Ontario labour ministry in shutting down the magazine’s twenty-one-year-old internship program and others that don’t pay
by Derek Finkle
I won’t lie: when John Macfarlane called me in May of 1993 and offered me a four-month internship at Toronto Life, the magazine he then edited, I was overcome. I said yes as calmly as I could, hung up the phone, put my head in my hands and stayed like that for a long while, paralyzed by a mixture of relief, gratitude and elation.
Six months earlier, I had graduated from the University of Toronto with a master’s degree straight into the recession of the early 1990s, an “economic downturn” similar to that of 2008 minus the additional disruption to the publishing industry of the Internet and the digital revolution. The six months that followed the pomp of receiving that rolled up diploma were probably the six most difficult, angst-filled months of my life. I’d (perhaps naively) expected my entrance into the workplace to be a lot less challenging than it was.
There wasn’t much left of my savings and a five-figure mountain of student loans loomed. With no parents in Toronto to move in with while I looked for a job, I instead occupied my grandmother’s basement in Thornhill, a suburb north of the city. Determined to pursue a job in publishing, I bought a stack of stamps and envelopes, mailing out about a hundred resumes across the country. In the weeks to follow, I received a total of three replies.
What my resume said about me was this: I had graduated from an Ivy League university; I had written a novel for my senior thesis and had Joyce Carol Oates as an advisor; my thesis had won a prestigious award; I had worked at a student magazine; and, finally, I had been published in several magazines and journals while pursuing my MA.
One of the responses resulted in a meeting with the editorial director of Penguin Canada. She told me she was impressed but had no paid work available for me. The best she could offer was to give me a sort of all-access pass: I could hang around the offices, sit in on meetings, sift through files, you name it.
My second meeting was with John Macfarlane. He also told me that he was unable to hire me. I asked him if Toronto Life had an internship program. He told me it didn’t; he said he had an issue with people working for no compensation. He seemed to assume that internships were unpaid, and I hesitated to point out that many did, in fact, pay.
About a week later, Macfarlane called me. He said he’d mulled it over and had decided an unpaid internship was okay as long as it was for a confined period of time. I was to start the following week.
When I showed up for my first day at Toronto Life, I don’t think the staff really knew what to do with me. I got the tour, did some fact checking, made phone calls, did a few administrative tasks one would expect as an intern, but I ended up with a bit of spare time on my hands.
In the second week of the internship, I went to Macfarlane’s office with a newspaper clipping in my hand. There was a conspiracy to murder trial that had just got under way involving a fairly prominent Bay Street figure who’d been swindled out of about a half-a-million dollars in scam investments by a few men he’d befriended through a city squash league. The two men had allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill their mark when he started pressing them to return his money. The hit man turned out to be an undercover cop. He arranged to rendezvous with the pair in a remote parking lot in a seedy part of the lakeshore and handed them a Polaroid of the Bay Street guy, blood trickling from the fake bullet wound in his temple courtesy of a CBC make-up artist. He also tossed the dead guy’s wallet at them, in case they had any doubts.
I told Macfarlane that I thought it was a great Toronto Life story. He agreed. He then surprised me. He told me to go down to the courthouse for a few days, listen in, make some notes, and report back.
Not too long after, Macfarlane agreed to let me write about the case. A veteran crime writer, Jack Batten, would work with me as a freelance editor. Attending the trial took up a couple of weeks of my internship.
The two men on trial were convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. Much of the work involved in writing what turned out to be an eight-page, 7,000-word feature was done after my internship had ended in September. In the end, Macfarlane was so happy with the story that he told me he was going to put it on the cover of the February 1994 issue of Toronto Life.
By this point, the luster of having written a cover story for one of the best magazines in the country was being tarnished by the reality that I was in my mid-twenties, still living in my grandmother’s basement and flat broke. I was so desperate that I did something I almost certainly wouldn’t have considered months earlier. I sent Macfarlane a letter and asked him to consider paying me a few thousand dollars, less than what the magazine would have paid an experienced writer for a feature story like mine.
Macfarlane wrote back the week my story hit the stands and said he had no money to pay me. (Coincidentally, Macfarlane had disclosed around this time in one of Toronto Life’s “Who Earns What” issues that his salary was $120,000 plus bonuses, a sum that seemed beyond unattainable then.)
“I realize you put a lot of your own time into the piece,” Macfarlane wrote in his reply. “That was your initiative. Mine was giving you the opportunity to take it on. Plus the experience of working with a writer of Jack Batten’s caliber. I got a great piece out of it. You got a terrific head start in a business in which they’re now few and far between.”
While Macfarlane had apparently forgotten that he said he would pay me for any writing done in my own time in my “employment” letter at the start of the internship, a couple of interesting things happened while his reply was making its way to me. One was that I received a death threat in the mail for having disclosed that a friend of the convicted pair “ratted” on them to the police, which resulted in a visit from detectives in the organized crime unit and some free publicity for Toronto Life. The second was that three or four different film producers had contacted me, saying they wanted to option the story.
This led me to sign with a literary agent who eventually negotiated the option, which would net me pretty much the same amount I’d asked Macfarlane for (the movie was never made and that was all the money I would receive). To formalize the option deal, Macfarlane was asked to sign a release form, officially relinquishing any ownership of the story by Toronto Life. Before Macfarlane signed it, he asserted that the magazine could make a legitimate case for taking a percentage of the option money. I thought to myself, “Are you fucking kidding me?” He wasn’t. Without a hint of a smile, he said, “But I’m not going to do that.”
He handed over the signed release. “Good luck with your movie,” he said.
* * *
Last week, twenty years since my volunteer magazine feature, “The Sting,” was published, the Ontario Ministry of Labour decided to finally enforce the employment laws of the province by shutting down the unpaid internship programs at both Toronto Life and The Walrus. Apparently, other unpaid programs are in the ministry’s sights.
Predictably, this started – or rather, continued – a debate about unpaid internships. Douglas Knight, the CEO of St. Joseph Media, which owns Toronto Life, responded by crying poor: He said he would “love to pay our interns” – there were seven of them at Toronto Life – “but we can’t even afford to give our regular staff cost-of-living increases.” He said nothing of the non-regular staff, including himself, who are presumably making significantly more than John Macfarlane was in the early 1990s. That sort of redistribution of funds is apparently not up for discussion; it’s easier to simply pout and cancel the internship program.
Shelley Ambrose, who happens to be Knight’s partner, as well as the publisher of The Walrus, a magazine whose business model outdoes Toronto Life, relying on the services of up to eleven unpaid interns, said that the ministry’s enforcement was “incredibly shortsighted.” Ambrose wondered where these young people were now going to get the required training for the job market.
Well, for starters, how about at Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Azure, The Globe and Mail, or the Toronto Star, to name just a few that have paid internships? How about from one of the many excellent journalism schools and publishing programs and student publications that exist on this continent? Internships are not distinct from entry-level jobs simply because young people are learning or honing skills. Junior editors, fact checkers and writers are constantly learning and gaining experience. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to not pay them.
Ambrose says The Walrus plans to appeal to the Ontario Labour Relations Board. To John Macfarlane, now the editor and Ambrose’s co-publisher at The Walrus, I say good luck with your appeal.
Unpaid internships have been controversial in the publishing industry and elsewhere for a long time. Some might look at my internship and say, “Was it really that bad? You wrote a story that was optioned for a film. You made a name for yourself. You went on to have decent career. What’s the problem?”
Here’s the problem: At the dawn of my career, Macfarlane, a respected editor, someone who was bestowed a lifetime achievement award by his industry, someone I am still grateful to, told me that even though he thought I had talent and a bright future, my work was essentially not worth anything despite the fact that it was enriching the product he was in charge of creating. Not surprisingly then, by choosing this path, I lived on the poverty line until I was thirty-two. No wonder, I eventually concluded, it was a path trod by “few and far between.”
It wasn’t until I had a full-time contract office job that my perceived value as a journalist doubled in terms of my income, even though I wasn’t working any harder or any more productive. The stark disparity between the value of content and the cost of management is perhaps underscored by the fact that the editorial budget at Toronto Life reportedly went without an increase under Macfarlane for twelve years prior to him leaving the magazine in 2007 (I was told this by a senior employee at St. Joseph Media). The industry attitude that bred this circumstance is also arguably also responsible for this and this.
There are all kinds of other problems with unpaid internships that have been well articulated by others. In a recent column, James Cowan, the deputy editor at Canadian Business magazine, writes that in addition to being unethical, unpaid internships are bad for business. “There is cost to the employers as well,” Cowan says, “one that many companies are too short-sighted to see. Constantly recruiting, training and monitoring new workers is a drain on both time and money.”
In 2012, Alexandra Kimball wrote “How to Succeed in Journalism when You Can’t Afford an Internship”, which starts with the question: “Who gets to be a journalist?” The answer? People with either a) an inheritance or b) a family that can afford to support them while working full-time for no pay.
There is also a misconception that many interns are wet-behind-the-ears students. In my experience within the Canadian magazine industry, that was often not the case. When I edited Toro magazine, I don’t think any of our (paid) interns were students. In fact, one of them had a book published in the midst of his internship.
About a decade into Toronto Life’s internship program, John Macfarlane devoted his monthly editor’s column to it. The magazine organized a photo shoot for as many of its former interns as were able to attend. (I declined in silent protest.) He wrote about how vital the interns were to the magazine. They brought energy, knowledge from a bounty of academic disciplines, new ideas, insight into the latest technology and more. For a few years, until the recession of 2008, Toronto Life did pay a stipend, a sum reportedly well below minimum wage. It sounds like they were worth a lot more.
As long ago as 1995, when Toronto Life’s internship program was still unpaid, the Ryerson Review of Journalism devoted a feature to the hot-button practice. When the question arose of how young people are supposed to make a living while working full time and not getting paid, Macfarlane said the following: “Whether or not a student can or can’t afford to do it is not a problem that Toronto Life is responsible for, or can do anything about.”
It’s about time someone has finally taken on that responsibility.