Fellowship or Internship? In Media, the Definition Has Become Fluid

The New York Times Katherine Bindley
November 23, 2014

Since graduating from Wesleyan University last year, Rachel Pincus has completed two journalism internships and one in publishing. But now Ms. Pincus is pursuing fellowships.

I’m trying at this point to move beyond internships into entry-level jobs, ” Ms. Pincus said. With a fellowship, maybe you get a little bit more like clout or something, so you could take on bigger projects. ”

Maybe. Maybe not. In what appears to be largely a semantic shift, media outlets including BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post, Mic, Outside magazine and nearly a dozen others have taken the role of internships and repackaged them as fellowships.

The internship slash fellowship lines have completely blurred, ” said Arielle Dreher, a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

One fellowship Ms. Dreher plans to apply for is with Outside magazine. It’s a paid position, and the responsibilities are fact-checking, reporting and research, all typical for a newsroom intern.

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On the career website Glassdoor, one aspiring applicant described receiving an offer for a fellowship with The Huffington Post, then learning the pay was $10 an hour.

Beware, the fellowship is just an internship. Had the initial interviewer paid any attention to my age and experience or asked me what kind of money I was already making, he would have known I was the wrong candidate, ” the reviewer wrote.

Eric Glatt, a law student at Georgetown University and one of the interns who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures after working unpaid on the movie Black Swan, ” suspects that lawsuits like the one he filed along with those against Condé Nast and Gawker Media are in part responsible for the change in terminology.

They’re embracing “fellowship’ because it seems less tainted with all of the harms and the exploitation people associate with internships now, ” Mr. Glatt said.

Fellowships vary by industry but they often involve academic research or professional development completed over a set period of time with a stipend. The Nieman fellows at Harvard University, for example, are journalists with at least five years of full-time experience who spend two semesters auditing classes. They receive $65,000 to do so.

Internships are often undertaken by students in exchange for school credit, as well as by recent graduates looking to gain experience to position them for a full-time job. The responsibilities of a journalism internship can range from errand-running and personal assistance to fact-checking, reporting and writing.

Ben Smith, the editor in chief of BuzzFeed, said that his company’s internships and fellowships were in fact different. Interns work for three months and make $12 an hour. Fellows work for three months and make $12 but follow a structured curriculum. ”

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Many fellows are ultimately hired, Mr. Smith said, so the program is a pipeline for talent at the company.

At The Huffington Post, a devaluing of the word internship partly led to the creation of a fellowship program, said Ryan Grim, the site’s Washington bureau chief. He said internships had become too ambiguous and could mean anything from fetching coffee to doing real journalism. Fellows at The Huffington Post are given that title to signify they are doing the latter.

What this does is it signals that this is a position that has actual responsibility with it, ” Mr. Grim said. And I would hope that companies going forward don’t abuse that and end up tarnishing the title fellow, too. ”

Writing recently on the website The Awl, Eric Chiu, who worked as an unpaid media intern in 2010, argued that in some regards these fellowships could be considered a positive development.

If this is the new status quo cheap but not free labor for media companies, low but real pay for fellows, a nontrivial chance at employment it’s an upgrade, ” he said.

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, ” said in an email that internships, too, were initially billed as ways to identify full-time employees. Given the way companies are defining fellowships now, he predicted a fall in the prestige of the word.

Whatever the nomenclature, employers and job consultants agree on what recent graduates really need more of full-time, entry-level jobs.

I think this question of internship and fellowship kind of dodges that, and in fact creates more preliminary levels and hoops to jump through before saying, “O.K., she’s ready for that full-time reporter gig,’ ” said David C. Yamada, an employment law professor at Suffolk University Law School.

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