Progressive News Organizations Fueled By Unpaid Labor

Monica Klein, Opinions Editor

At a recent writing workshop I attended, a New York Times editor asked a group of college students how much we thought a first-year copywriter made at the newspaper. One student guessed $8 an hour. The copy editor’s response was confused amusement: “isn’t minimum wage at least $11?” he asked us, before explaining that average starting salary was $90,000. I wanted to stab him in the neck a little. Every student in the room knew the minimum wage in New York to be $7.25, an impressively large sum compared to the $0 an hour we had all been raking in during our summers of unpaid internships. This man was speaking to a group of aspiring journalists (a.k.a students interested in a profession that, today, mainly consists of unpaid workers); I doubt that a single one of us had ever held a paid position at a news organization, and probably few of us would. Why pay desperate writers when they’re available to work for free?

Various articles have been written lamenting the legal injustice of the unpaid internship: the long hours of Xerox-copying tedium, the endless coffee runs, the menial tasks, all without financial reimbursement. Yet most of my work at unpaid journalism internships — and I’ve had five at this point — were filled with relatively interesting tasks, allowing me to glean the inner workings of these organizations. (One such quickly gleaned lesson: the inner workings are largely dependent on unpaid labor.) Regardless, my qualm with these companies was hardly the typical lamentation over miserable, slave-like labor conditions and menial tasks. Rather, my neck-stabbing anger emerged as I read these news organizations’ daily headlines: “Budget Wrongfully Dismisses Unemployment Benefits;” “Congress Refuses Public Sector Wage Increase;” “Middle Class Screwed By Reaganomics:” each populist-fury-inspired headline of outrage had been written, copy-edited and posted online by an unpaid intern.

Last summer, my friend and I worked at Time Out New York and The Huffington Post. Each day, we went into two of New York City’s most liberal news organizations, and for these three months of summer, five days a week, we both worked as unpaid interns.

My solution to this stipend-less summer was hardly ideal: after six unpaid hours in The Huffington Post’s SoHo office (cruelly located above the $8 cup-of-coffee grocer, Dean & DeLuca), I would walk down Houston Street to American Apparel, change into some mixture of spandex and lace, and sell tutus and hair bows until 11 p.m. (And not for the New York Times’ fictitiously generous approximation of minimum wage).

Six hours of work a day is a manageable load; thirteen, however, is stretching it. Another intern I worked with at Huff Po had recently graduated from NYU and was waitressing until 1 a.m. in Dumbo. My co-worker at American Apparel had just graduated from Columbia and was working sales six days a week, plus interning with a documentary director on her day off. One afternoon in the stock room, she regaled me with tales of waiting in a four-hour line to apply for food stamps. “It’s like $180 a month, and my boyfriend gets $200 because he’s completely unemployed!” she exclaimed. Fabulous.

After three summers and one winter term, I have worked approximately 830 hours of unpaid labor. Simultaneously, I have sold overpriced leotards, waitressed at a Greek restaurant and worked at an Indian café that blasted a-tonal mantras through their speakers for eight hours a day. While many recent articles have focused on the legality of the unpaid internship as illegal labor exploitation, I doubt the students themselves are as focused on legality as they are on economy. Spending most of the day working for no money either results in a miserably sleep-deprived summer of dual-jobs, or, more often, leaves most unpaid interns with absolutely no disposable income.

If I had been paid the New York Times copy editor’s adorable $11-an-hour estimation over the course of my many unpaid internships at various notable organizations of progressive journalism, I would have around $9,130 in my checking account today. (Maybe I would’ve even put that money into savings.) If my friends had received the same amount, as well as other students at colleges across the country, a large group of recent grads would enter the workforce in May with some semblance of financial security, an ability to begin paying rent while searching for a job, and a modicum of disposable income that might be invested back into the economy.

Instead, many liberal news organizations will continue to argue for increased government spending and higher wages, while they simultaneously refuse to pay a large portion of their own workers. And while the presence or lack of 21-year-old interns’ disposable income hardly has a tangible effect on the U.S. economic deficit, one would hope that these organizations might eventually notice how their offices function as a microcosm of the very economic problem that they themselves decry.