This post is the eighth in a series called “E-Lancer Writes,” exploring the working conditions, rights, and collective organizing strategies of freelance journalists, interns, and other low-wage or temporary digital media workers.
By Errol Salamon
Entry-level media workers can confirm that some journalism internships aren’t as glamorous as they may seem because they’re neither paid fairly nor do they provide one-on-one mentoring.
We gathered the stories of four journalism interns to better understand the experiences of emerging media workers in today’s media landscape. Here’s what they had to say.
Pay your interns fairly
Pay rates vary across journalism internships. Vanessa interned full time at Canadian Geographic in Ottawa for 12 weeks. She wasn’t paid.
“To not get paid when you’re working full-time hours can be a little bit discouraging and it’s also tough being a student because you can’t work another job,” she said.
“So I essentially lost out on an entire summer’s pay that could’ve gone towards my schooling.”
According to the Canadian Geographic website, “Unfortunately, our internships are unpaid, but they will give you meaningful, fulfilling work experience, insight into the inner workings of an internationally-acclaimed 80-year-old magazine published by a not-for-profit society, and a head start on your career in the magazine industry.”
Vanessa wrote for Canadian Geographic’s online magazine, participated in headline and byline meetings, pitched story ideas and fact-checked articles.
Likewise, Alex’s* internships at a Corus-owned radio station and a CBC network program were all unpaid.
“Internships should be paid. It is ridiculous that students are expected to work 40-hour weeks and not get paid for the work they do,” Alex said.
At CBC, Alex produced stories that aired daily. At Corus, Alex fact-checked, researched, wrote broadcast scripts for newscasts and wrote online stories.
“For the more sought-after internships in Toronto, a bunch of us paid to fly there, paid for new accommodations (and rent in the city is not cheap) just so we could work for free. In addition to that, students have to pay tuition for their internship course, so again, we’re paying to work for free,” Alex said.
According to Janice Neil, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, students in the Bachelor of Journalism program have to pay tuition if they take the optional internship course because they earn credits. Students in the Master of Journalism program are required to do an internship.
But Neil also said interns pay tuition to gain valuable learning experiences. Students have access to the course instructor, who serves as a “guiding hand” to help them understand the workplace environment they’re in and to encourage them to act as agents of change. Additionally, students are expected to get feedback from a mentor at their internships.
“Our expectation is that students are getting coached or feedback and that they’re getting supervision in a way that would not be expected if they were employees. But it’s the feedback part that’s absolutely important,” Neil said.
Anna’s* internship at enRoute, Air Canada’s lifestyle magazine, paid an honorarium of $500 per month for 3 days a week of full-time work. This honorarium amounted to less than $6 per hour. She doesn’t think the pay was sufficient for her to maintain a decent standard of living in Montreal, where the magazine is based.
Anna said journalism interns should be paid between $12 and $15 per hour—at least more than Quebec’s $10.75 per hour minimum wage.
“I don’t see this internship as unskilled,” she said.
“It’s highly competitive and people do a lot of work, free work, to get to work at a magazine or become an editor. That’s a specialization that deserves more financial respect.”
At enRoute, Anna was responsible for fact checking stories, brainstorming headlines, transcribing interviews, pitching story ideas and proofreading articles.
Each Canadian province has its own employment standards legislation that applies to interns. In Ontario and Quebec, interns must be paid at least minimum wage unless an internship meets certain exceptions. Among them, internships can be unpaid if they provide professional or vocational training and are part of an approved program at an educational institution.
Kelly* is one of the fortunate student media workers. As a student journalist at the Toronto Star, Kelly is paid a special student rate of $17 per hour to work in the radio room. The terms and conditions of employment in the radio room are outlined in the collective agreement with Unifor 87-M, the union representing the workers.
“This is an organization that is tanking financially, but they can still afford to pay us well,” Kelly said.
According to the Toronto Star website, the radio room internship is open to postsecondary students who staff the radio room 24 hours per day, seven days a week. These student journalists typically work eight-hour shifts for 16 hours per week during the school year and full-time hours in the summer.
Radio room journalists regularly check with police and monitor emergency scanners, websites and social media for breaking news. They provide information to the newsroom and occasionally do original reporting.
However, Unifor 87-M negotiated a pay decrease in 2013 from $25 to $17 per hour to save the student journalist positions and prevent the radio room from being outsourced to another company. In the late 1990s, the union proposed that the Star staff the radio room with students to reduce corporate spending, create part-time jobs for emerging journalists and give established full-time journalists more opportunities to work in the field.
Mentor your interns
In addition to being paid decently, student journalists said companies should offer more one-on-one mentoring as part of internships.
“I’m a huge fan of having a mentor, someone who has more time than my supervisor had, even though I know she was trying her hardest and doing her best. I prefer more one-on-one feedback and interaction,” said Anna.
Journalism interns would agree with Janice Neil that mentors could provide them with valuable learning experiences.
But Anna wasn’t the only intern who wasn’t assigned a mentor.
“In some cases, my classmates would be thrown in the newsroom with no supervision or mentorship, being expected to figure it out themselves,” said Alex.
“As a result, they walk away without valuable learning experiences.”
A mentor can help interns work through on-the-job issues. Alex was happy to be assigned a mentor at the CBC who took the time to check in weekly. At Corus, Alex was given someone to shadow for a few weeks.
“But my mentor eventually switched schedules and after that no one else paid attention to me,” Alex said.
Kelly agrees that mentors are important, but acknowledged that it’s helpful that the radio room throws student journalists into the grinder to work through problems on their own because they learn a lot quickly in their first few months.
“I think it’s great that it’s not taught to you,” Kelly said.
“You learn a lot of it yourself by doing things.”
Still, said Kelly, mentorship helps students get a better idea of how they’re performing on the job.
“There have definitely been times—especially when editors are stressed and there are deadlines and you’re trying to throw something together—they’ve never disrespected me—but you never really get a sense of how they feel about your work,” said Kelly.
For Vanessa, Canadian Geographic provided a good model for mentoring interns that other companies could follow.
“I was actually working under six different people, depending on what task I was doing,” she said.
“They were very involved in whatever I was doing. Anytime I had a question, they were very available. They were very willing to help me. They definitely mentored me very well, I would say. They were very present.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of these emerging media workers.
Errol Salamon is a freelance writer and the work and labour editor of J-Source. He’s also co-editor and contributor to the book Journalism in Crisis: Bridging Theory and Practice for Democratic Media Strategies in Canada (University of Toronto Press). Follow him on Twitter @errolouvrier.