End of an Era: The Rise and Fall of the Unpaid Intern

Earlier this week, Condé Nast, arguably the biggest magazine publisher in the country, discontinued their internship program for the foreseeable future, likely as a result of two lawsuits brought against the company by former interns at W magazine and New York magazine. 

The announcement came via an online post from Women’s Wear Daily — Condé Nast has yet to release an official statement on the discontinuation of the program, though the company has removed information about internships from their website. This announcement, however, is just the latest in a series of reactions to the recent “Great Unpaid-Intern Uprising,” according to New York magazine.

The revolution began when Diana Wang, a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar, sued the magazine’s publisher, Hearst Magazines, two years ago. Wang claimed that interns at Bazaar were doing work that put them at risk, such as running errands while carrying many heavy items, and not receiving the educational experience they were promised. Since then, more unpaid interns have been speaking out against their employers, forcing these publishers to modify their internship programs. This summer, for instance, Condé Nast modified their program to require that interns do not stay at their workplace past 7 p.m., access their email from home or run personal errands for supervisors.

It looks like the Condé Nast internships program is, like, totally over.

It looks like the Condé Nast internship program is, like, totally over.

The best solution here, however, is also the simplest: Don’t end the program; just pay the interns.

Students don’t take internships to make money. They take them to explore a field, gain experience, network with professionals and sometimes get college credit. Most understand — at least editorial interns at publications — that there will be some grunt work involved, especially at publishing powerhouses like Condé Nast (think Devil Wears Prada, not The Hills). Internships are stepping stones, but they are work nonetheless. Students sacrifice time that could be spent in class or working at a paid job to take on these internship positions.

It’s no secret that the media industry is hurting financially, but I highly doubt that companies like Condé Nast are unable to sacrifice minimum wage for a few interns. And they should cough up some cash, if not out of the goodness of their hearts, then based on the fact that interns are an integral part of any publications. No editor wants to spend all day compiling research or ordering office supplies or making spreadsheets or keeping track of deliveries. Interns will do it, and will be happy to if it means they can sit in on the weekly edit meeting.

Condé Nast had the chance to set a precedent here. The publisher of hugely prominent magazines like Vogue, Condé Nast holds a unique position as a globally recognized trendsetter, in more than one sense of the word. If the publisher had gone the opposite direction with its program, they would have been paving the way for other magazine companies to follow suit. Now, future generations of potential interns will never have the advantage and privilege of working hard at an internship and getting to put the ever-prestigious Condé Nast name on their resumes.

Interns might be overstepping by suing employers that are essentially doing them a favor by hiring them, and a salary might not impact the value of an internship. But paying workers, intern or not, is just the right thing to do.

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9 thoughts on “End of an Era: The Rise and Fall of the Unpaid Intern

  1. Wouldn’t paying interns further encourage employers to continue all the activities for which they are currently suing physical and menial labor, personal errands, etc.? Now that they would become paid employees, employers would legally be able to force them to do all the grunt work. Furthermore, since they are being paid, there would be no obligation to provide an educational experience for the students – the quid pro quo is in the money, not the experience. I would also imagine that employers would not pay these new employees much, seeing as they don’t possess a college degree (for the most part).

    • Not paying interns hurts employers as well, and in the case of journalism, it hurts the rest of society in the long run. Unpaid internships privilege wealthier students who can afford to work without pay, thus excluding potentially good/smart students from gaining the experience usually required for future employment. By hiring interns from an economically homogenous class of people, the future of journalism will be skewed accordingly and quality of reporting suffers as a result.

  2. Good point, Sam. However, I don’t think the point of paying interns would be to give employers license to abuse them. The point is to reward them for the work they are already doing, which undoubtedly includes grunt work despite regulations placed on intern supervisors by their companies. I think that hourly wages would supplement an intern’s time and efforts that could be spent at a paying job, and make interns feel more valued for their contributions.

  3. Glad to read that the blight of unpaid internships is slowly being beaten back. What I feel is most important to note here is how this levels the playing field for applicants who couldn’t have afforded to work for free to begin with. Now that only paid positions are offered, I’d posit that merit will play a stronger role than it used to in giving jobs. Back when it was just doing banal peon work for free, the qualifications of candidates weren’t really that relevant so the well-connected (and wealthy) were at a tremendous advantage. There is no doubt that connections still matter, but at least this is a step in the right direction.

  4. Awesome post! I’m glad Diana Wang finally spoke out and provided a voice for interns who were exploited and taken advantage of. There’s a difference between volunteering on your own time to shadow a job and doing menial labor. If an intern is contributing financially at all to the business, they must be paid for it, according to fair labor standards.

  5. If its a job-like internship students should be paid but if it is an educational internship they probably shouldn’t be paid. A lot of these employers are doing kids favors as interns can be more of a responsibility than they are a help. That being said, I have never had and unpaid internship and I believe many employers are either paying their interns or getting rid of their programs altogether like you talked about.

  6. Thank you for this post. I heard a bit about Conde Nast suspending their internship program, which was really interesting for me because as a senior in high school I interned in the public relations department at Fendi. As a Fendi intern, we would constantly send clothing samples to companies such as Conde Nast with the hopes that they would be featured in one of the magazines, and it worked as a method of free advertising for many large high fashion companies. Since we worked with Conde Nast so frequently, I made great relationships with some of their interns as we would deliver clothes back and forth across New York City. At Fendi, I would always be sent to the Conde Nast headquarters in a black town car. However, Conde Nast interns would tell me they would always just take the subway, and pay for it out of their own money. Sometimes the clothes would be seriously heavy (we’re talking shoes, handbags, and fur coats at times) so I couldn’t imagine dragging that along a subway car. I think it’s one thing for an intern to work unpaid, and it’s another for an intern to be exploited without pay. It’s unfortunate that an entire generation of Conde Nast interns will not get the experience of this publishing powerhouse due to a few people’s exploitation of these interns, however I do think it’s necessary to suspend an internship program if it can’t be successfully revised to actually support and respect the unpaid interns working there.

  7. If an intern is doing work that a paid employee can do or is doing, they should be paid. I think this whole unpaid internship deal is just a way for companies to get free labor, with the promise that the intern will get a “valuable educational experience”. I am not sure how often unpaid interns really gain skills that are relevant to them or how much of the time they spend doing menial office tasks. I completely disagree with the fact that unpaid interns make long commutes to their internship and never get compensated for any of their time or even their commute/gas money. At the minimum, they should be provided a stipend to cover the commute cost.

  8. I used to work for SPAWAR (Naval Space Warfare and Commands Systems) and although I did a lot of grunt work, I was given a valuable experience. I learned a lot about finance and how the government manages their money. I enjoyed my internship so much that I might have even done it for free in the summer, but for lesser hours. I kept the internship while I continued school in the fall and the spring; if I had not been getting paid, I most likely would have discontinued my internship. There has been a lot of competition for firms that do not pay their interns, and because of that, almost all firms pay their interns. The prestigious and wealthier companies normally pay their interns because they can afford it and the less prestigious and less wealthy companies will pay their interns because they need a means to attract bright and motivated interns; as it is much easier for the prestigious firms to do.

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