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Comment: Condé Nast ends internship programme

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Last week, Condé Nast – whose publications include The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue – announced that it was closing down its internship programme following lawsuits being filed against the company by former interns, claiming that they had been paid below the minimum wage for summer jobs at W Magazine and The New Yorker.

Condé Nast Bulding, Times Square

Former interns Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib sued Condé Nast in June 2013, stating that the magazines had broken labour laws by paying them far less than the minimum legal wage.  Ballinger complained that she was paid just $12 per day (about £7.45) for shifts that lasted twelve hours or more. Leib claimed that The New Yorker paid him between $300-$500 (around £186-£310)  during each of the two summers he worked for the magazine, reading, proofreading and reviewing articles.

This is just the latest development in a string of cases relating to unpaid or underpaid internships; last year, Hearst Magazines was sued by a former Harper’s Bazaar intern, and earlier this year a Manhattan judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures broke laws by not paying two interns who had worked on the hit film Black Swan.

However, while there is much to be said for the fight against unpaid internships, a number of former and current Condé Nast interns feel that shutting the internship programme altogether is too extreme a reaction.

By getting rid of the programme, scores of students and budding journalists are to be denied the chance of what is undoubtedly an invaluable experience and first step up an increasingly competitive career ladder. Opportunities such as networking with key players in the magazine industry such as Vogue’s Anna Wintour, researching for respected writers and, crucially, real hands-on work experience, will be all but lost to many prospective journalists.

While the ethical and legal issues surrounding unpaid internships are crucial, another argument against the practice is that only privileged young people whose parents can afford to help them through an unpaid placement will be able to take advantage of such offers. Past Condé Nast  interns have included several of America’s rich and famous, including a daughter of CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, a daughter of Arianna Huffington, and The Hills stars Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port, who interned with Teen Vogue as part of the reality show.

Current Glamour intern Rosana Lai, 21, is a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  She said "I’m disappointed on behalf of all future interns as well. We’re no longer going to have that foot in the door." However, Lai does believe that Condé Nast should at least be able to pay its interns minimum wage. She is earning school credit for her internship, but is only receiving payment of a $1,200 stipend from the Medill School.

Of course, not everyone who has undertaken an unpaid internship agrees with Ballinger and Lieb’s lawsuits.  Former The New Yorker intern Dylan Byers, now a media reporter at Politico, interned in 2006 and 2007.  He feels that accepting an internship and knowing that you will be paid little or nothing, and then complaining about it, seemed "disingenuous."  He added that the real value of the internship, as well as school credit, was learning from established writers and getting job recommendations.

Similarly, Michael Humphrey, now a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University, said, "Having The New Yorker on your résumé does amazing things for you."  Humphrey received around $500 during his internship, but again insisted that the real value was the experience and relationships gained.

While companies such as Condé Nast may be protecting themselves by preventing future internship sign-ups, the implications for vast numbers of student and graduate journalists are far from positive.  Internship placements are a vital means for many to gain real experience in any industry and, by denying young talents of such experience, companies are ultimately hurting themselves as well as students.  By increasingly limiting access to these opportunities, companies are damaging students’ chances of gaining real experience and understanding what a job really entails, theoretically setting themselves up with a pool of less able, inexperienced applicants in future – not to mention potentially damaging their appeal as employers for prospective employees.

Would it really be such a challenge for all companies to offer minimum wage payment for short-term placements? Or should students be prepared to accept experiential rather than monetary rewards?  Share your views on the issue and comment below.




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