I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was 15. I still have the “Personal/Professional Action Plan” I completed for a Grade 10 careers class that lists the 10 steps I would take toward success. My last five: “Apply to Ryerson University; Get accepted to Ryerson University; Enter into journalism program; Choose area of study; Work hard and succeed in area of study.” I estimated I’d spend $5,000 a year on tuition and an additional $2,000 in expenses to jump-start what I thought would be a happy and lucrative career. Interns by the $$$

I was a naïve high school student, and I also made a journalist’s biggest mistake: I didn’t do my research. For my fourth-year of journalism school, tuition was more than a thousand dollars over my original estimate. I’ve spent more than $2,000 a year on cigarettes to soothe me while juggling multiple deadlines and worrying about how to survive without Belmonts as I work for free after graduation.

I’m talking about unpaid internships, the bane—or lifeblood, depending on how you look at it—of today’s young journalists’ existence.

Since the first pack of unpaid interns started photocopying and fact-checking, journalists have engaged in a moral debate. Some see unpaid internships as necessary educational experiences; others think it’s slave labour. Since then, the debate has grown tired, the lines have long been drawn, and many have picked their side.

But exact figures rarely come up in this well-worn discussion. What are internships really worth in dollars and cents? Are youngsters throwing away thousands? Do media outlets need internships to preserve their bottom lines? Being budget-minded myself, this time, I decided to do my research and crunch some numbers.

School lets out in May. So what would a student like myself lose by interning for four months instead of flipping burgers this summer? If my full-time gig were to pay Ontario’s minimum wage of $10.25 per hour, I’d miss out on $5,221.28 after taxes. Since full-time undergraduate tuition in Ontario averages at $6,300, and the average student with a loan in Ontario owes $22,700 after graduation, the pay from the burger joint could cover about 83 percent of one year’s tuition, or 23 percent of the loan.

That’s some dismal math. But look at it another way: internships can act as a cheap replacement for further education. Tuition for a two-year master’s degree in journalism is $17,343 at Ryerson. For five semesters of study at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism it’s $10,200. On top of that, you have to pay to eat and live somewhere while you write essays on media ethics.
So, for industry newbies, the cost can vary. But what about the publication’s costs? Let’s look at the most internship-reliant sector: magazines.

Canadian Living, for example, hires about 12 interns a year, who work three or four days a week for three month periods, says Doug O’Neill, the magazine’s executive editor. They contribute between 3,024 and 4,042 unpaid hours to the magazine annually. If each of these interns were paid minimum wage in 2010, the magazine would have spent anywhere from $30,996 to $41,328.

Perhaps in these tough times Canadian Living can’t afford the equivalent of one entry-level salary, but take into consideration the magazine’s 8 percent increase in revenue from 2003 to 2009, and its total revenue of more than $41 million in 2009. Paying all of its interns minimum wage that year would cost the publication less than 0.09 percent of its total revenue.

While Canadian Living does pay interns for features that are published in the magazine, I asked why it couldn’t afford to actually pay their young workers. Transcontinental Media declined to comment.

Fun fact: Transcontinental’s former CEO, Luc Desjardins, earned $4 million in 2008.

St. Joseph Media is a publishing company which publishes Toronto Life, Quill & Quire, and Canadian Family among other magazines. Its publications have attracted more than 6.5 million readers, according to its website, and boasts of 158 National Magazine Awards over the past five years. The company pools revenue from all of its publications, and then doles out budgets.
Interns at five of its top eight publications also work an estimated 26,040 unpaid hours per year.

Toronto Life made more than $9 million in 2009. The magazine employs interns in four departments who work full-time for four months, unpaid. All positions are not always filled, but in an ideal situation, the magazine would have 12 interns per year, says Matthew Fox, an online editor at the magazine.

In a 12-intern best-case scenario, paying each intern would cost Toronto Life $68,880, or around 0.6 percent of its revenue.

I do realize that my math is relying on revenue numbers. “I would suggest you look at profit instead of revenue because that tells a completely different story. If you look at those, your percentage of what it would cost to pay an intern goes way, way, up,” says Fox. Too bad many privately owned media outlets don’t release those numbers.

Though not every publication is cheaping-out on interns (at least according to my flawed math). At Maclean’s magazine, which is unionized, interns are paid; they receive $22,500 for one year, and those who help out for three months over the summer, are paid $1,750 a month. Not bad considering the publication saw an 11 percent drop in annual revenue in 2009, as well as a drop of nearly 18 percent in total revenue from 2003 to 2009. The publication took in over $30 million in 2009—a big chunk less than Canadian Living.

That year, there were 1,276 consumer magazines in Canada, along with thousands of TV and radio stations, newspapers and other media outlets that employ interns. But continuing my number crunching would make this article as tiresome as the moral debate.

The bottom line is that internships mean more financially to the trainees that work thousands of hours for free than they do to the big organizations that employ them. However, it’s still a cheaper option for new journalists than shelling out for grad school. Forget whining. No need to launch another intern blog. These are the cold, hard, facts.