Journalism in the Public Interest

Northwestern’s Journalism Program Offers Students Internships with Prestige, But No Paycheck

Colleges have used internships as a way to prepare their students for the professional world, but they’re also collecting tuition for unpaid internships.

Fisk Hall at Northwestern University (Wikipedia)

Northwestern University’s journalism school boasts of its prowess in preparing students for prestigious careers — but it also serves as a pipeline for unpaid internships.

At Medill, students pay $15,040 in quarterly tuition for the privilege of working full-time jobs as unpaid interns. During their mandatory quarter in Journalism Residency, as it is known, students work full time at news organizations such as CNN Documentaries, Self and WGN Chicago. But instead of paying interns, employers pay Medill $1,250 for every student placed. In turn, students receive academic credit and a small stipend from the university for relocation expenses, ranging from $600 to $1,200. The most generous stipend amounts to just $2.72 an hour — far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.  

It’s an arrangement that even Medill is second-guessing. According to a July 30 email obtained by ProPublica, Medill has begun asking news organizations whether they would consider paying students minimum wage.

“As always, Medill and the University are careful to make sure that the program is an academic experience that meets U.S. Department of Labor regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” program coordinator Desiree Hanford wrote in an email to editors and internship coordinators at partner media companies.

“Some sites … have told Medill that their legal counsel require them to pay a student either in addition to the $1,250 or in lieu of the $1,250 to reflect the company’s own hiring policies that address this law,” Hanford wrote. (see full document)

“With this backdrop, Medill would like to know whether you would be willing to pay a student who is doing a residency at your site and, if so, how much you would be willing to pay?” Hanford asked. “Would you be willing to pay your state’s minimum wage?”

Jack Doppelt, Medill’s interim associate dean for journalism, said the program complies with Labor Department guidelines, but that the school is still considering whether to require employers to pay its students.

“For the purposes of the law, we’re comfortable,” Doppelt said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re comfortable with students not getting paid money.”

Alice Truong, a 2010 Medill graduate, wasn’t comfortable going unpaid, either. Truong said she didn’t have the finances to move to another city for three months on Medill’s internship stipend (which is usually $900). As a result, while some of her classmates had a list of 20 journalism residency options around the country, Truong’s financial constraints narrowed her choices to “two or three okay options” in the Chicago area.

“That alone was very frustrating, and I remember being very upset about this,” Truong said. “For most students at Northwestern, everything was within reach to them. I only had a handful of options.”

When Truong was in school, Medill also prohibited students from working other jobs during Journalism Residency, forcing Truong to give up her work-study job that quarter. Medill has repealed that policy as of this academic year.

Truong ended up interning at her first choice site, the RedEye, a Chicago-based daily tabloid. There, she wrote short pop culture articles and a few cover stories. She says her internship was a valuable experience that ultimately got her a paid internship and then a job at the Wall Street Journal. But she was still frustrated by the way the program was structured.

“I was close to graduating, and there are so many money stressors around that period of time,” Truong said. “So having to go to a very expensive school to start with, and having to do an internship where I essentially provided free labor for credit, while the school was paid — that was hard to stomach.”

Medill’s program has existed in some form since at least 1973, when it was known as  “Teaching Newspaper.” Roger Boye, an associate professor who has taught at Medill since 1971, said Medill initially gave students a choice between reporting on campus and reporting from a professional newsroom. The internship placements were so successful that Medill made the program a requirement in 1989.

“In the early days – and this is still true – we considered the [newsroom] editors basically part-time faculty members,” Boye said. “These were people that had an educational mission to their own work and wanted to be part of an educational process.”

Medill says its intern sites – more than 100 in all – are chosen carefully to ensure that supervisors will provide “substantive editorial experience” and “good mentoring.” Hanford, the program coordinator, said students must send weekly logs to their adviser and receive midterm and final evaluations from their employers. Medill advisers also visit their students midway through the quarter.

“When I have students go on [Journalism Residency], not one of them leaves without being given my cell phone number because I want to know if something is happening, if there’s an emergency,” Hanford said. “I don’t care what that emergency is.”


Is Academic Credit Enough?

Medill is reevaluating its program at a time when employers and students nationwide are questioning the legality of unpaid internships. In recent years, unpaid interns have brought several high-profile lawsuits seeking back pay, though most have resulted in settlements or findings that favor employers. Only one ruling addressed the issue of internships for academic credit.

According to Labor Department guidelines, an unpaid internship is more likely to be legal if a college grants academic credit and provides oversight. But oversight alone isn’t a guarantee — unpaid internships still must meet six key criteria. For example, the internship must be educational, benefit the intern more than the employer, and not displace paid employees. 

In the last three years, federal investigators have cited at least four employers for violating federal guidelines, even though their unpaid interns received academic credit. One of those cases faulted Rome Snowboards Corp. in Waterbury, Vt.  

Matthew Wolfe interned for free at Rome Snowboards during his senior year at Saint Michael’s College, doing data entry for 10 hours a week. Wolfe received four hours of academic credit for his time. He was surprised when, the summer after graduation, he received a letter from the government and a check for about $1,000.

“Of course I’d love to be compensated for the work, but as a college student – from all of our perspectives – that wasn’t a norm,” Wolfe said. “There weren’t many students who expected to be paid and get credit.”

The Labor Department concurred, finding that “unpaid internships at for-profit establishments appear to be prevalent in the area” and that Rome Snowboards seemed unaware that interns at “for-profit firms almost always have to be paid.”

Rome Snowboards co-founder Josh Reid, who declined to comment for this story, told the investigator that he was frustrated “with the interns’ colleges, whom he believed were complicit in the firm’s noncompliance involving the interns.”

Colleges clearly play a key role. Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, surveyed college officials last year and found that 75 percent thought academic credit was “an appropriate substitute” for wages in some or all cases.

Joanne LaBrake-Muehlberger, internship director at Saint Michael’s College, said she works with employers to ensure students receive educational training.

“Just because the student is earning the credit doesn’t mean that lets the site off the hook with their responsibility,” LaBrake-Muehlberger said. “We make that clear. I send out a letter, and I include the information from the Department of Labor, so they are made very much aware of the guidelines.”

But the federal investigator in the Rome Snowboards case reported that area schools were “either unaware of or turning a blind-eye to the requirements of the [Fair Labor Standards Act].”

Regardless, the department placed ultimate responsibility with the employer and ordered Rome Snowboards to pay $37,673 in back wages to 38 interns, ruling that because they provided an “immediate advantage” to the company, they should have been paid.

The courts have also begun to weigh in on academic-based internships. In his June ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures, federal Judge William H. Pauley III wrote, “A university’s decision to grant academic credit is not a determination that an unpaid internship complies with [New York labor law].”

“Universities may add additional requirements or coursework for students receiving internship credit, but the focus of the [New York labor law] is on the requirements and training provided by the alleged employer,” Pauley ruled.

The ruling could put a damper on unpaid internships for academic credit, according to David Yamada, a labor rights advocate and law professor at Suffolk University.

“If the judge’s observations in the Fox Searchlight case are affirmed and become law, then obviously those private sector internship placements at least are open for liability against that internship employer,” Yamada said. “And then the school might have to incur the wrath of that employer, who’s saying, ‘Oh gosh, you sent us this student, and they turned around and sued us.’”


Shrinking Newsrooms, Shrinking Wages

While unpaid internship postings are rampant on public job boards at journalism schools at New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, some media interns are starting to push back. Gawker Media, Condé Nast, NBCUniversal, Inc. and News Corp. are all facing lawsuits from former interns who say they should have been paid minimum wage.

The Nation Institute, a nonprofit, agreed to begin paying its interns minimum wage after an embarrassing public campaign by a group of former interns who had been paid only $150 a week.

But as newsrooms revisit internships, it’s clear that for some, even minimum wage can strain the budget. Newspaper staffs have shrunk by 30 percent since 2000, with newspapers employing fewer full-time staffers than they did in 1978, according to Pew’s 2013 State of the Media report.

The Charlotte Observer ended its paid summer internship program and stopped accepting Medill interns about four or five years ago to save money.

“This is strictly just a budget thing with us,” said Jim Walser, the Observer’s projects editor and intern coordinator. “We had to cut out everything that was extraneous to try to save as many permanent staffers as we could. We loved the kids coming in from Northwestern. We never had a bad one.”

Chicago Public Media stopped participating in Medill’s journalism residency in 2008.

“Medill charges news organizations a fee, and being that we’re a nonprofit, that’s not something we necessarily could absorb,” internship director George Lara said. He said the station continues to offer some unpaid and some grant-based internships.

Journalism graduates are feeling newsroom cutbacks, too. Only 60 percent of journalism majors reported holding a job related to their field of study six to eight months after graduation, according to a 2012 study at the University of Georgia. On average, journalism grads in 2012 made barely more than those who graduated in 1987, the study found.

Faced with such a tight job market, journalism students are hungry for the type of internships that will give them an edge, said Gina Neff, associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. But while Neff found that virtually all journalism schools offer internship programs, she estimates only about 10 percent of them provide students deep academic engagement.

“We’ve held up a class of jobs that are ‘the internship,’ that are typically unpaid or underpaid,” Neff said. “I would call on more professors to stand up and take notice that we’re in effect complicit in a system that is underpaying student labor.”

Medill’s dean says the school hopes to ensure students are compensated for their work, without limiting their options in a struggling industry.

“It’s a very delicate balance,” Doppelt said. “We’re trying to have that happen, and it’s a set of moving negotiations, and we have to be sensitive to what the field – that is hurting right now, financially – might be able to do.”

As Medill reevaluates its prestigious internship program, 15 news organizations have started to pay their Medill interns and at least 18 more said they would consider doing so, according to Hanford, the internship coordinator.

WGEM, a television station in Western Illinois, started paying them state minimum wage last year when the station’s owner, Quincy Broadcast Print Interactive, launched a paid internship program for the whole company.

Jena Schulz, director of human resources for Quincy, said each Medill student works as “a typical member of the news department team,” shooting video and going on air. From a legal standpoint, only paid interns can do that kind of work, Schulz said.

“We believe it is necessary for us to treat the interns as actual employees — and pay them — in order for them to receive the full benefit of the experience,” Schulz said. “Our company has operated by the letter of the law and said, if the interns are anything other than in your way, they probably don’t qualify as unpaid.”

The Kitsap Sun, a mid-sized newspaper in Bremerton, Wash., also started paying its Medill interns the state minimum wage of $9.19 per hour a few years ago.

“They should get paid for their time,” said editor David Nelson. “They’re here. They need to pay rent. They’re learning, but it’s not free to live.”


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I worked at People for my JR and lived at home, but my stipend still barely covered my commuting expenses (the LIRR is very high-priced). To know the experience was costing me money while I worked full-time essentially as an entry-level employee was very unsettling.

It should be noted that, at least when I was a student, that the credit we received was in name only. It did not actually count towards our total number of credits. It was, in essence, ‘fake’ on our transcript, there—to my understanding—to satisfy employers’ requirement that interns receive credit.

I asked once why the credit did not actually go towards our degree, and was told it couldn’t be added on as too many journalism credits would make Medill a ‘trade school.’

It never made sense—or seemed fair.

Alex Campbell

Oct. 1, 2013, 12:05 p.m.

When I did this program in 2010, I was one of a subset of students who got to go to newspapers/TV sites in South Africa.

Because our gig was also somewhat a study abroad thing, Northwestern’s Study Abroad office pitched in. They paid for our flights, and our room and board at a nice bed-and-breakfast.

The upshot of this is that it was cheaper for my family if I did the residency in South Africa than it was to do it at, say, a magazine in Chicago.

It still was $14,000 in tuition, though.

Kalpana Mohan

Oct. 1, 2013, 12:14 p.m.

We have forked upwards of 53K every year to put our child through the program at Medill. The JR did not bring her any money and was really a drain on us because guess who has to pick up the rent or part of the rent, and post her degree, we still have to help our child out so she can live decently in a place like New York. Something has to change drastically in the field of journalism and I hope schools like Medill, which have always called themselves avant-garde, will be at the forefront of this upheaval. To lure the best minds, journalism MUST be appealing post graduation. My daughter is idealistic and will not take any of the other communication/marketing jobs that are coming her way, many of which will pay very well. But how long will she remain this way?

As someone on JR right now, trying to live on $1,200 for 2.5 months in New York is impossible, especially when my parents forked over tuition and I am still paying rent for my place in Evanston where I return for Winter and Spring quarters. The rub is that it’s a required experience. I would say 90% of my Medill peers have had a legitimate internship experience prior to JR without paying Medill tuition, usually during a summer where they can live at home or in cheaper summer housing at other universities, but there’s no counting this experience towards JR and allowing that to substitute. Additionally JR isn’t even counted as a full quarter load - its only 3 credits instead of the 4 or 5 I would be taking if I were in Evanston. My internship is great so far and I’m doing the same work as the other staff-editors.. but having to pay for it….? Rubs me a little the wrong way.

I did my JR in 2011 and I can say it was one of the worst experiences I had at NU. I was placed in a chicago ad agency in a department that had major issues. Even my advisor called my JR boss “psychotic.” I essentially paid to live on campus and pay for el passes into the city to work 12 hour days (think real life devil wears Prada. Lots of coffee. Little meaningful work). While the name looks great on a resume, I’ve struggled to work for other agencies due to the reputation on the Medill JR program. It’s just sad coming from such a great school.

I had two sons do internships and what they were was nothing more than slave labor, filled in for those taking vacation or doing the jobs delegated down that the perms would not do.  The company I worked for had summer interns but we paid them in excess of the minimum wage.  Interships are a good way for a business to get basically free labor while acting like they are providing experience for the student…...


I am currently in my second week on JR at a marketing agency in the city. Though I am happy to be getting this experience that I may not have received otherwise, it comes with quite a bit of a cost. Half of my $600 stipend gets consumed just by travel costs. In fact, my stipend for the entire quarter doesn’t even cover a month of my rent. I am finding that already, the budget is running low for food and for other personal expenses.

In addition, even though they changed the rule this year to allow people to keep their work-study job and take an additional class, the 9-to-5 schedule (if not more) of the work day really limits the amount of time that can be devoted working and studying. For example, I used to be an employee in the Medill administration, but I cannot work there this quarter because the hours at the agency conflict with the hours of operation in the school.

JR is a good opportunity for work experience, but I would rather not sacrifice so many other things in my life for unpaid work.

stephen b. shepard

Oct. 1, 2013, 4:18 p.m.

At the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where I am the founding dean, all of our students are paid for their mandatory summer internships. The CUNY J-School pays each student at least $3,000 for a summer internship, if the employer doesn’t pay.  If they get a paid internship, they keep the money. I know of no other journalism program that pays students to undertake a summer internship.

The only internships that should be unpaid are those that guarantee real-world experience.  In another era, I worked one day a week on the city desk of a major wire service.  The place was so short-staffed that we were handed story assignments just like most full-time reporters.  It was one of the best experiences of my life and it resulted in a job offer upon graduation.

I also did two other summer internships with daily newspapers where the weekly salary was at the bottom end of a living wage.  Again, in both places, the experience was so valuable that I would have done it for free.  However, it was nice to know that both organizations valued my work enough to pay me for my efforts.  And the later of the two also resulted in an attractive job offer that gave me a great start on my career.

Today, however, greedy corporations and their HR departments have seen to it that many interns are little more than slave labor.  This is not a business issue.  Companies can easily afford to pay an intern for their services.  Rather, it is a moral issue in which companies try to get away with what they can.  Frankly, it’s disgusting.

I’m glad someone’s writing something about this. They placed me at a marketing agency last winter, for my JR. It honestly didn’t seem to me like Medill did much in the way of due diligence before signing on with the company. The JR site didn’t know much about the JR program, and Medill didn’t know much about the JR site.

We had to submit weekly logs of our assignments to our advisors, who were supposed to provide regular feedback and monitor that the assignments we had were up to Medill’s standards. Mine didn’t. And while the school expressed concern to me about the assignments I was undertaking, it was made clear to me that they wanted me to finish at my JR site.

Because Medill doesn’t set any guidelines on hours, and because it was a small company, overtime was regular and expected. Though Medill told us the JR was supposed to be more intensive than a regular internship, this distinction was not made clear to the JR site. They were expecting someone to assist with clerical tasks around the office: proofreading slide decks, entering data, breaking down boxes. There were weekends I had to be on-call, checking my email hourly. All of it unpaid—and with a company that, I was told, would normally pay its intern.

A lot of people—some of them friends—got great connections or jobs out of the experience. The program is still exploitative.

“She says her internship was a valuable experience that ultimately got her a paid internship and then a job at the Wall Street Journal. But she was still frustrated by the way the program was structured.” - Are you kidding me? As a Journalism grad myself, this girl should be blacklisted from the industry for crying over her privileged options. Oh, the Red Eye and Wall Street Journal for your first two jobs out of school? Rough stuff.

arnold josnick

Oct. 1, 2013, 6:45 p.m.

Another example of the hypocrisy of both the elite college professors and the exploitative practices of the main stream media.  Where are the union organizers and the REAL journalists that are quick to expose government misdeeds.  If it were Walmart or McDonald’s it would lead the network news and be featured on 60 Minutes.
This article will be the beginning and end of this ripoff.

Perhaps it is a testament to the depth of ProPublica’s reporting that my own perspective is not represented here – despite not being paid by my JR site, my net income was greater than it had been as a student working four part-time jobs in Evanston. With grants from NU’s financial aid office, a Journalism Residency-specific scholarship from Medill and my accommodation covered by NU’s International Development Program, I broke even and was able to fully dedicate 40+ hours a week to one of the most valuable experiences of my life. Of course not every student is lucky enough to get funded, but not every student applies for the partially-funded Global JR program or the JR scholarship money or, better yet, raises their financial concerns with the director of undergraduate education or the office of financial aid. Complaining on ProPublica or Gawker won’t get you anywhere, Medillians.

Of course it’s not fair for interns to work for free, but JR is hardly the worst offender out there. (Just check out Medill’s graduate school and its “5th quarter” specialty programs.)

Reading this, I cannot in good faith apply to Medill for the MSJ program. I have long been uneasy with the tuition price: given the instability in the media industry for over a decade now, and the low starting salaries, the extraordinary tuition price of $91k per year (including living expenses) just seems out of ratio…

Get it, Get real, pay for good work done. Anything else is just demeaning to youth, intelligence, and faith in the future of our country.

No matter how you schmeer it with goo, pride it with glitiz, dress it with rationality, it is SLAVERY to demand people work for free.

Stick that in your college administrators face that expects you to work for nothing. Tell him/her to work for free too. After all, it will look soooo good on THEIR resume.

Oh, I feel so sorry for these students at this elite university having to deal with such “first world” problems. One student in the story talked about the stress of this internship debacle on top of “having to go to such an expensive school.” I must’ve missed that they’re forcing people to go to elite schools nowadays.

The newsroom I interned at in Fargo basically depended on the constant flow of Medill interns to even run as a fully functioning news operation. There were days that if I hadn’t shown up, there would have been ZERO stories to go on air. That’s how slim the staff was, and how reliant they were on the unpaid interns. Accordingly, the internship felt abusive. We worked from 8 am to 10 pm with one day off a week. I asked once to take a day off for a personal matter and was refused. In my experience the newsroom and news director severely took advantage of the situation and the free labor. All in all, the only thing I took away from the experience was how much I never want to work in journalism. Medill should also realize that most students have to pay double rent at the time as well—rent in the city for the internship, and rent back in Evanston.

Dina J Padilla

Oct. 2, 2013, 11:16 a.m.

When it all comes down to it, it is only about not paying people for the work they do, all the while replacing people that did get paid. It is slave labor and nothing more.. Privatizing these entities made it so! Corporations ARE always looking for ways to cut back and they’re winning that fight while their wallets are bulging at the seams! A terrible example of how to treat those who want to learn and contribute & work, that no matter how hard you work, compensation is far too low and over all rewards are about non-existent!

I went to Medill and I did this program when it was called Teaching Newspaper. It sounds like the standards may have gone degraded since then, partly because the standards of increasingly understaffed publications have, too. My time was carefully structured to give students lots of experience on a variety of beats and skills under the supervision of editors. I had a NU-based advisor who carefully coordinated my learning trajectory with a staffer at my publication, and she received my weekly reports to make sure my time wasn’t being abused and I was learning a variety of skills. It would up being one of the most valuable segments of my degree, and the clips I got landed me my first job right out of school. I think people like Arianna Huffington, who bleed young people for free work and line their own pockets with millions of dollars, have tainted valuable experiences such as this. It’s no longer quite possible to find a staff large enough to coordinate a truly broad educational experience, and you’re not likely to get a paid starter job out of school as long as there are outlets like Huffington’s, which live off free labor.

I think ProPublica is missing a huge part of the story here. Unpaid internships contribute to lack of diversity in newsrooms and other workplaces. As someone who comes from a working class background, my parents would have balked at taking an unpaid internship, whether it was during the summer or after school. Meanwhile, a lot of rich kids, many of whom are white, can take these unpaid posts and often end up hanging around long enough to eventually get hired. I have seen this time and again at the local NPR-affiliate. The end result is that the path that rich, white kids take to getting these great jobs is much different than say a black or Latina or even a white kid from a poor or working class background. The end result is that the news media lacks diversity, both racially and economically.

Christie Thompson

Oct. 2, 2013, 2:58 p.m.

Hi SSK. Thanks for your note! I’m currently working on a story about how unpaid internships contribute to a lack of diversity in fields like journalism. I’ve sent you an email, would love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue.

-Christie Thompson (intern at ProPublica)

Many people have to do unpaid internships for their degrees. I did back in the late 80’s. Nothing new here. My company has a ton of internships in non profit media at all times in many sorts of departments, and I think if they had to pay for the interns it would be better for lower or middle income interns AND for the lower level employees who often have less opportunities than the interns. All that free labor just makes them less competitive in a bargaining sense and even the exposure to new things. Maybe it’s just my company though.

I’m a dinosaur. When I was a sophomore at the University of Arizona J-department in 1977, the department proudly did not recognize internships for academic credit. “If you’re good enough to write, you’re good enough to get paid” was their policy. When a reporter suddenly quit at a weekly in Nogales in 1977, the department chair called me and asked if i could quit my reservations agent summer job in Phoenix and get to Nogales tomorrow. I got there in four hours, and spent the next three summers working for that paper as a well-paid reporter. My classmates all had similar experiences - or at least the good ones did.

So what was wrong with that? Arizona newspapers were full of paid students with promise, and students were getting paid for their work.

Now, the U of A J school is a department, and it proudly heralds all the (unpaid) interns it places around the world. That’s something to brag about?

Why do poor students get discriminated against? Why do students have to rack uop debt to pay their dues working for businesses?

What’s wrong with America?

Dina J. Padilla

Oct. 6, 2013, 3:19 p.m.

Because it is not anymore about credibility, integrity, a moral compass & get rewarded for a job well done. It is all about profit at any cost. Rather than call it capitalistic, I call cannibalistic!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:


The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for unpaid interns hasn't kept up.

The Story So Far

The number of internships in the United States has ballooned over the past few decades. But oversight and legal protection for interns hasn’t kept up. We’re investigating companies that may be violating labor laws by employing unpaid workers, schools’ role in the issue and how it’s affecting American workers.

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