The Toronto Star is suspending its summer and year-long internship programs, and will resume hiring for those positions once “it’s economically feasible to do so,” according to Bob Hepburn, Torstar’s director of communications.
The Star normally staffs 10 summer and 10 year-long interns, Hepburn said. He added that the paper will continue to hire students and journalists to work in the Star’s Radio Room, the 24/7 breaking news desk generally staffed by younger reporters. Interns currently hired for the year-long internship will close out their term in September. Each year-long intern was paid at union rates, with a salary of roughly $50,000 per year.
“All media outlets in North America are facing significant advertising revenue challenges,” Hepburn told the RRJ over the phone Tuesday. “In an ideal world, yes, we’d love to have all of [the interns], but we have to make some very hard choices and this is one of them,” he added.
The Star’s ad revenues have been consistently declining for years. According to Torstar’s 2016 annual report, between 2015 and 2016, the publication’s print ad revenues dipped 15.11 per cent and its digital ad revenues decreased by 3.57 per cent.
Hepburn said the media company has had to make tough decisions in order to preserve full-time staff positions in the newsroom.
In the latest changes, the Star also decreased the paper’s freelance budget, travel expenses and other aspects of digital operations, although Hepburn wouldn’t disclose the exact nature of those cutbacks. Responding to the ad revenue decline, the Star laid off seven employees in the advertisement sales department Monday, as well as six employees involved in its digital backshop operations. And in January, Torstar closed its Smiths Falls, Ont., printing plant, affecting between 75-80 workers.
Hepburn said the programs aren’t being cancelled outright, and repeatedly said that the Star hoped to continue the year-long and summer internships should the economic situation improve. He believes the internships give valuable work experience for young journalists.
For several years, the Star’s summer and year-long internships have been highly coveted by journalism students across the country, and applications for those positions normally number in the hundreds. Hepburn estimates 700 people apply each year. Now, at least temporarily, the internship programs, which served as stepping stones for some of the country’s best journalists, as well as several full-time Star journalists, aren’t available.
Kevin MacLean, who worked as an editor at the Star from 1987 to 2010 in a variety of departments, called the suspension of the internship programs short-sighted and disappointing.
“It’s just really sad that it’s come to this,” said MacLean, now an instructor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “How long can you cut costs before you’ve gutted the beast and made it unrecognizable?”
Jackie Hong, a reporter with the Yukon News, based in Whitehorse, interned at the Star from September 2014 until June 2017, starting out with three terms in the Radio Room followed by a summer internship and then a year-long position.
“Rumours have been going around for a while—and by a while, I mean years—that the internships were going to be cut,” Hong wrote in an email. “I can’t say I’m surprised that it’s for real this time, but it doesn’t make it less sad. It sucks.”
Hong, who graduated from Ryerson University’s bachelor of journalism program in 2015, is doubtful she’d have gotten her current job without the boost the Star internship gave her career early on. “The Star is where I really cut my teeth when it comes to courts and crime reporting, and I was so lucky to have editors who encouraged me to develop and pursue my interests on those things,” she said. “Honestly man, I’m bummed,” she added.
Andrej Ivanov, a Radio Room reporter from September 2016 to April 2017, was disappointed by the suspension of the programs as well. “It is extremely unfortunate, saddening and disheartening to hear that an internship that allows students and young journalists to cut their teeth in daily news may be coming to an end,” he wrote in an email to the RRJ. “It is a sign of the times, and I do sincerely hope that this isn’t a permanent decision.”
The deadline for the next summer and year-long internships was on Jan. 15, but the Star had yet to contact, interview or hire any potential interns by the time the programs were suspended Monday.
MacLean is concerned that the suspension of the internship programs will deplete opportunities for student journalists and up-and-comers in the future. “In the digital age, it seems like a wrong turn to basically eviscerate the pool of young talent that’s going to replace all the old timers they want to get rid of because they’re most expensive,” he said. “It’s a nasty, sad direction to be going in.”
“We’d love to be in a hiring condition, but until conditions improve, we have to take measures to maintain a viable newsroom, and a viable newspaper,” Hepburn said.