The job listing posted in the student lounge at Ryerson’s journalism school sounded great: it invited “university graduates interested in working in the magazine industry” to apply of a position that would offer experience in “many aspects of magazine production including story conferences, post-mortem and production meetings, fact-checking, copy-editing.” To qualify, applicants had to come up with 10 to 15 story ideas and write a 500-word critique of the latest issue. Only “creative, organized, motivated” individuals willing to work 40 hours a week for three months would be considered.
There was only one catch: Toronto Life magazine wasn’t offering enough pay for a cappuccino at the Toronto Life Cafe, located two floors down from its offices. In fact, it wasn’t offering any pay at all. The “job” was an unpaid “internship.”
Using recent college graduates as unpaid labour is common in the U.S. consumer magazine industry. Not only do such worthy but perennially money-losing titles such as Harper’s and The Nation use interns, but also more profitable magazines like New York magazine and Details. “There is a kind of arrogance about New York that students are so desperate for work there that magazines can get away without paying them anything,” says Carol Holstead, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas and a member of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.
Now it seems this money-saving practice is being adopted by a growing number of Canadian consumer titles, although so far Toronto Life’s use of interns is the most extreme example.
Many magazines have traditionally co-operated with journalism schools that require their students to get some experience as part of their program. What’s different about the recent trend is that there is not necessarily a connection to course work. In late ’94 and early ’95, 14 major English-language consumer magazines were surveyed as to their use of interns. Only Toronto Life had an advertised program, but three others used unpaid interns: Flare, Modern Woman and Homemaker’s.
In addition, both Chatelaine and Saturday Night are considering the idea, with Chatelaine experimenting with it by taking on interns from community colleges. An of the remaining publications (Canadian Business, Canadian Living, Financial Post Magazine, Maclean’s, Reader’s Digest, Report on Business, TV Guide and Western Living), two (Maclean’s and Report on Business) have unions that prevent the use of interns.
The distinction between course-related co-ops and unpaid internships is an important one. Whereas one is an integral part of the student’s education, the other is offered in addition to the education. And while editors at the magazines point out that they are giving “great experience” to the people who participate, it is clear they are not solely motivated by a desire to help the younger generation of editors. So what is their motivation?
“Free labour, to be honest,” says Liza Finlay, assistant managing editor at Flare. At her magazine, interns fact check, proofread and copy edit—tasks traditionally done by staffers in entry-level jobs.
The use of unpaid interns in Canada didn’t start until after the recession hit in the early ’90s. Flare, which struggled during that time, started its policy of bringing in interns in the summer of ’91. The recession forced Flare to turn to any method available to get the job done. “If you open Flare and you open a copy of Elle, you’ll see that we’re half their size but with a quarter the staff,” says Finlay. The downsizing the magazine went through forced staffers to double up on positions, making the addition of interns extremely helpful.
Homemaker’s, which began using interns in September ’91, had no such financial burden. According to Mary McIver, the managing editor, the magazine remained profitable throughout the recession and earned more than expected last year. And yet she maintains that there is no room in the budget to pay interns, since they are not essential to the magazine’s operation. “We could manage without them,” she says.
In the case of Toronto Life, editor John Macfarlane started the three-month program in the spring of ’93, a year in which his magazine lost roughly $500,000; 1994 wasn’t any better for Toronto Life. But despite this, Macfarlane says finances play no part in his decision to not pay interns. “I don’t think that’s really the issue here,” he says. “Even if the magazine were profitable I’m not sure we would pay the interns.” As he sees it, the unpaid workers are getting “good value, in terms of what they learn and what they come out knowing. The whole notion of an internship,” he explains, “is that a different kind of bargain is being struck. The interns give us whatever they are able to give us—and instead money, we give them a practical grounding in magazine journalism.”
Many in the industry don’t believe this bargain is fair. “I think it’s exploitive,” says Mary Doyle, the professor in charge of print internships at the University of Western Ontario journalism school. “I’m sure the management at Toronto Life would not agree to work 40 hours a week for nothing.” And Equinox editor Jim Cormier says of the practice, “I’m not sure I like that. It doesn’t reflect well on the industry.” Fina Scroppo, now associate editor of CA Magazine, who graduated from Ryerson’s magazine journalism program in 1991—and went straight to an entry-level job at Maclean Hunter’s trade division—raises a pertinent question. “How,” she asks, “do these people who take the internship make a living?”
Macfarlane doesn’t see this as his problem. “Whether or not a student can or can’t afford to do it is not a problem that Toronto Life is responsible for, or can do anything about.”
Steven Trumper, the managing editor of Toronto Life until last year, agrees the issue is a difficult one. “For a student who’s already paid $10,000 in tuition to give up time to work to nothing, that’s a lot to ask. But that’s up to them. I don’t’ think it’s up to them. I don’t’ think it’s up to the industry to decide a policy for those matters, “You should pay people for work.” And Ian McGugan, executive editor of Canadian Business, agrees. “It’s much fairer on both sides that way,” he says. “The intern doesn’t feel ripped off and it imposes a work ethic and discipline on both sides because money is involved.” Canadian Business, says McGugan, won’t offer an internship unless it can find some way to pay.
As Macfarlane sees it, though, hiring interns and employees are two different things. “When I hire people who are skilled, I hire them on the same basis that I’m hired. They give me a week’s work and I give them a week’s pay. But here we’re hiring people who aren’t yet in that position, being just out of school.” Still, they are graduates. “But that doesn’t make them useful at all!”
Two Ryerson magazine journalism graduates who have proved themselves useful at Toronto Life are Leanne Delap and Angie Gardos, now both associate editors. They were hired shortly after they graduated in 1989, initially for the summer. Would Gardon have been able to take the summer position had it been unpaid? “Probably not,” she admits.
Joanna Shepherd, a broadcast major in her final year at King’s College in Halifax and an intern at Toronto Life last summer, enjoyed her experience. And she also doesn’t have a real problem with the idea of unpaid internships. Like many students, she has accepted the notion that she may have to do some volunteer work to get experience. “A lot of internships are going to provide references,” she says. “If you haven’t done one, I would recommend it.” And in some cases, it has led to employment. Another inter, Andrea Curtis, was hired on as a full-time copy editor after her three months were over. And of the remaining six interns who have gone through Toronto Life since the program began, two have done freelance work since then. It is this chance for employment that helped sway Gardos and Delap. “I was sort of against it at the start,” says Gardos, “but the way we’re working it here, I don’t feel guilty.” Delap echoes Gardos: “I no longer personally feel bad.” She also defends the decision not to pay the interns on the basis that unpaid programs are common in the United States.
Students there seem resigned to this situation. As Fernella Saunders, who’s taking journalism courses at Duke University, says, “Whether we like it or not, some form of unpaid work is necessary in order to gain the experience to prove that you are not only qualified, but serious about doing the work.”
And so graduates on both sides of the border are volunteering their present for a chance at a job in future. Sara Curtis, a Ryerson magazine student who graduated in 1992, went south in the fall of ’93 to work as an intern at Harper’s. While she describes her time at the renowned magazine as “amazing,” she found herself back in Canada in three months looking for a job in a tough market. Working at Harper’s opened doors; impressed by her experience, Ken Whyte at Saturday Night met with her to chat once she came back in spring 1994. Although she has since done some contract work at Maclean’s, she has yet to find full-time work.
But that doesn’t mean she thinks the internship wasn’t worthwhile. “I don’t have one regret,” she says. At Harper’s, she compiled research and did fact checking for the magazine’s opening sections. She also had lunch with each of the magazine’s editors. For Curtis, the “job” was a joy from the beginning. “I’d wake up in the morning and want to go to work.”
For Tyrone Newhook, who graduated in ’94 from Ryerson and also interned in the U.S., the trip was less enjoyable. Newhook spent three months last summer at New York magazine. His co-workers were a collection of well-to-do students, including the daughter of Regis Philbin. “They saw us as free labour, not as real journalists,” he says. “We were treated as the children writers, the journalism wannabees.”
And while his duties were similar to Curtis’, he sometimes felt taken for granted. One time he proposed a story idea only to see it assigned to an established writer. On another occasion, a special project came up that required the work of two freelancers. It was good that Newhook was there, he was told, because now the magazine would only need to hire one. These incidents left Newhook questioning the value of the intern program.
It is stories like Newhook’s that worry graduates and unions alike. But neither group has much control over the situation. In Canada, only Maclean’s and Report on Business are unionized, and thus don’t allow the use of unpaid labour. The only other organization involved with magazines, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, can do little but bemoan the practice of using interns. “Magazines are looking for any way they can to save money,” says John Mason, a PWAC vice-president. “It just lacks the professionalism that this industry used to have.”
Doug Bennet, editor of Masthead magazine, sums up the situation for students. “It’s the law of the jungle. It’s a difficult situation, but it’s the law of supply and demand.” And in this jungle, graduates will have to look for jobs any way they can, regardless of pay. It is this situation that angers many.
“If you’re getting people to do work that would normally be paid, and you’re not paying them, then that’s not fair,” says Paul Rush, the director of magazine journalism at Ryerson. “What you’re doing is you’re taking advantage of somebody else’s need.”
About the author
Paul Jay was the Senior Writer for the Spring 1995 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.