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My affectionate position toward unpaid internships may come as a surprise for two reasons:

A. I am broke.

B. I am also an unpaid intern.

For the second time in my life, I am working for free—by choice. In fact, I practically begged for the internship I have now. I applied by email, then by real mail, and then sent kindly worded follow-up emails for the next three months until I was called back for an interview. When I was asked if I would move to New York even though I was ineligible for an American work visa and, therefore, could not make any money this summer, I happily said yes.

It would be great if I could get paid, but I can’t, and neither can many of my colleagues and peers who are also spending their summers working without pay. This is a bigger issue for some than for others. To all, it is a quandary—a moral or ethical dilemma—or an issue of practicality. And I get that; I wish we could all sustain ourselves as interns and not struggle as Toronto-rent-paying (graduate) students who come home from our nine-to-fives to churn out freelance work or yawn our way through serving coffee. But when an unpaid internship is the only option students have if they want to gain experience and make contacts in the industry, I think the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term financial stress. (I say that having just taken out a sizable bank loan that won’t be paid off anytime soon so that I can—kind of—afford the intern life I’m now living.)

I did an unpaid internship at a Canadian arts publication two years ago. At the time, I was working the night shift at a hotel front desk that was a ninety-minute commute away from my internship. I had to lease a car to get there everyday. It was rough, but it was worthwhile. The bylines I produced and the contacts that I made ultimately went on to help me land the position I have now and, more importantly, taught me a lot. In the case of my current internship, the magazine offered to pay me but can’t because I wasn’t able to obtain the proper visa. So, do I boycott the internship because I can’t get paid and have some organization—the government, my employer, my school—step in and help me find a paying gig? Or do I make it happen and spend the summer actively involved in the production of a major magazine for which I’d someday love to work? I think the answer is clear, but not to everyone.

Bethany Horne just finished her undergraduate degree in journalism and recently declared that she would boycott unpaid internships. According to Horne, “…The clansmen leading the armies atop the fortress didn’t get there through an internship.” She is referencing the speech Robert Krulwich delivered to the Berkeley School of Journalism Class of 2011. Sure, he made it clear that journalism is a difficult door to wedge a foot into. But he went on to encourage young journalists to persevere if they love their craft and to blog their own journalism, even though “No one will pay you. No one will care. No one will notice….” This description sounds an awful lot like that of an unpaid internship, but at least you’ll get noticed at an internship, especially if you do a good job.

If unpaid internships are the evil of the world Horne wants to fight, I am all for her protest. But I weep for the bylines she’s not getting, the contacts she’s not making and the skills she’s not learning because of her refusal. When you Google the names of my colleagues who are working for free this summer and getting bylines at The Globe and Mail and the National Post or producing segments for CBC and reporting the news in Los Angeles, their links become viewable to potential employers. They are not making money, but they’re learning as they go, making valuable contacts and securing themselves a place in the industry when they graduate. They are making names for themselves. When I type “Bethany Horne” into Google, all I learn is that she will not work for free.

Horne’s anti-unpaid internship manifesto sparked some debate across the Canadian journalistic blogosphere, mainly on Twitter, where Ed Keenan (senior editor at The Grid) jumped in to disagree with her. Like many publications, the Grid offers unpaid internships. Like many unpaid interns who really go for it, some of those who have interned at the Grid have moved on to big things (the paper’s masthead, The Canadian Press, The Walrus, Columbia University). Keenan himself was once an intern there (when it was still Eye Weekly) and said that if funds were available to pay interns for their full-time work, he’d prefer to give the job to someone with the requisite qualifications as opposed to a student who is just learning. Being qualified for an internship is not the same as being qualified for an entry-level job. For a publication, it’s a risk to take on interns who may or may not know their CP style, who is semi-proficient at writing ledes and who has never worked in a newsroom. Keenan’s argument is essentially the same as mine: “Tension in [the] unpaid internship debate stems from [different] views about [the] function of the role: free labour vs. free education.”

If Horne’s refusal to work for free results in a norm of financial stability for young journalists, I’ll be relieved for the students who don’t have to learn first-hand how grueling it can be to pay your dues. Until then, I’ll grin my way through working for free. Paid or not, the primary beneficiary of an internship is the intern.

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About the author

Carly Lewis was the Departments Editor for the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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