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Betting Against the Future: How Industry Loses When Interns Go Unpaid

A young journalist reflects on her own internship experiences — and how the reliance on unpaid interns is contributing to a failing system.

Perhaps you’ve heard that ProPublica has launched an investigation into internships. If you’re not familiar with our latest project, here’s the gist: we want to document the emerging intern economy in the United States by hiring an intern to help us investigate the intern economy. There will be multimedia and traveling involved, and it’s paid.

I’m the research intern here at ProPublica, and since we are already in the business of practicing journalism that creates impact, I wanted to do my part to help persuade you to support this project.

To put it simply, the current arrangement between employers and unpaid interns is neither fair nor sustainable. The set-up — where organizations hire workers under pet names such as “apprentice” or “volunteer” and pass off full-time employees’ responsibilities without compensation — undermines a large pool of people in this country, typically young folks. In this sense, employers who actively recruit and rotate new talent without paying for it are directly hurting a critical sector of their own industries. In journalism, this mentality is contributing to a new type of bitterness in an industry that needs young people on its side, rooting for its revival and longevity.

Accepting an unpaid internship is, of course, a choice, albeit a tough one for an emerging workforce with limited professional experience. The economic downturn, paired with student loans and other financial realities, compounds the complexity of this decision for college graduates looking for jobs. According to a recent study (PDF) conducted by Intern Bridge, a college recruiting and consulting firm, more than 50 percent of graduating seniors have had some sort of internship during their time at school, with non-profits leading as the highest provider of unpaid work, followed by government and the for-profit sector. Over the past several years, I have held six internship positions, half of which were not paid and required taking on a hefty slice of salaried employees’ daily workloads, which I completed with fellow interns who often juggled multiple jobs or sought government assistance to make ends meet. 

My decision to take an internship at ProPublica meant the chance to learn about investigative journalism and contribute research to projects that have the potential to create tangible impact. It was also, in the spirit of full disclosure, motivated by the lure of a living wage, something I had not been offered from an internship since graduating from college in 2011.

Thus far, the return on investment has been high. For example, since my arrival at ProPublica in February this year, I have learned how to use nearly a dozen research databases to help enhance my reporting, to comb through public records, court documents and legal proceedings, and to press officials on critical issues. I have contributed reporting to a multi-year project on patient harm, and have worked under the guidance of senior reporters and editors to investigate physicians who receive thousands of dollars in payments from pharmaceutical companies. Each week, I have been compensated $700 for my work. The intern who ProPublica hires to carry out this investigation will shoulder the same level of responsibilities, and will be paid the same way.

But this commonsense approach to labor doesn’t apply to many organizations in the current internship bubble. Employers who rely on unpaid interns to churn out large sums of work without pay are contributing to a failing system in which people on the lowest level of a professional chain are presented with two options: make do or get out. Many talented young people have chosen the latter. Their employers have, in essence, bet against them.

The impetus of any ProPublica story is moral force, and through this investigation, we will share stories of thousands of interns who have been subjected to unfair treatment by employers. With luck, we will do right by this thriving sector of the modern workforce. I hope you can help.

Hanna Trudo is a research intern at ProPublica. She was previously an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, dually focused on print research and digital production; an intern at The New Republic; and a manuscript fact-checker for a historical book about global politics in 1979. 

Help this investigation by donating to our Kickstarter, or sharing your own intern story with our reporters.

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