Fisk Hall, where the interns journalists are made.
  • Buckybc/Wikimedia Commons
  • Fisk Hall, where the interns journalists are made.

The raging debate over peonage in higher education is the one about the football and basketball players in the big-time programs. Their coaches make millions. Broadcast rights to their games are worth hundreds of millions. But it’s the athletes who put their bodies on the line—and for what? One-year scholarships that may or may not be renewed.

But the jocks aren’t the only students who are arguably exploited. ProPublica‘s been taking a close look at college internships. Two months ago it issued a report headlined “How Unpaid Interns Aren’t Protected Against Sexual Harassment.”

Said the report, “Unpaid interns miss out on wages and employment benefits, but they can also find themselves in ‘legal limbo’ when it comes to civil rights, according to law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada. The O’Connor decision (the leading ruling on the matter, according to Yamada) held that because they don’t get a paycheck, unpaid interns are not ’employees’ under the Civil Rights Act—and thus, they’re not protected. Federal policies echo court rulings.”

ProPublica issued another report this week. It hits very close to home. The headline: “Northwestern’s Journalism Program Offers Students Internships with Prestige, But No Paycheck.”

Says ProPublica:

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.

Medill students have to intern. They’re paid beans—if even beans—for the work they do, which employers are so happy to have done for them that they pay Medill a little something for access to the cheap labor. It’s an arrangement that apparently is making Medill squeamish. According to ProPublica, Medill has recently been asking news organizations if they’d be willing to pay interns the local minimum wage. Jack Doppelt, interim associate dean for journalism, is quoted: “For the purposes of the law, we’re comfortable. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re comfortable with students not getting paid money.”

For graduate students, there’s Medill’s optional global residency program (undiscussed by ProPublica). The importance of this program to Medill’s self-image is suggested by this grandiose language on the school’s website. “We Are Global,” Medill asserts. “The boundaries separating people from one another and from information they want and need will only continue to evaporate. This is why Medill continues to expand its global reach and presence. At any given time, our students can be found working at and visiting news organizations, NGOs and corporations across Europe, Asia, Africa, and South and Central America.” Yet these residents may be as put-upon financially as the interns. “Residencies vary in financial support,” says Medill: “Some organizations pay student residents; some provide support for housing or expenses; and some provide no monetary compensation or support.”

These are hard times in the media world, and the Reader is one of many publications that have come to rely on interns, including interns from Medill. They’re bright, energetic, willing to tackle the worst grunt work in the name of everything being a learning experience—and, most importantly, they don’t get paid. As a result, perhaps everyone likes to think they’re more grateful than they are.

ProPublica reports that “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.” And yet, “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.”

NOTE: In a postscript Wednesday, ProPublica allows that many former interns “who’ve shared their stories with us so far have said the connections and skills they gained at their internships were far more valuable than reading a textbook.” But that, ProPublica continues, doesn’t mean a given internship isn’t illegal and/or exploitative. To find out more about journalism school internships, ProPublica’s asking for volunteers to help it create a “college internships cost calculator” that “will compare the cost details, and let students rate and review their experiences.”

To read more, or sign up, click on this link.