Last week, The New York Post ran the kind of heart-rending article tabloids excel at. A young woman, new to New York, found herself pushed beyond what she could bear, forced to work by a big bad corporation for a compensation of exactly zero.
“I cried myself to sleep at least three nights a week,” Lisa Denmark told The Post.
And where, the reader might ask, is this gulag of horrors? That would be Vogue magazine at 4 Times Square, headquarters of Condé Nast Publications. Ms. Denmark was terrorized for “not putting the tape on the mood boards correctly” (don’t ask because I don’t know and don’t want to know), and was forced to load an editor’s books into a car and take them to the bookstore for resale, pick up dry cleaning and fetch juice.
Pity the poor interns, or tell them to get over themselves, but while you are at it, save one or two tears for the six million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are neither in school nor employed. In a country full of young people who have been burdened with enormous student loans and uncertain prospects, internships in Manhattan are very tiny in the scheme of things, but telling in terms of the business itself.
Unpaid internships, which are to the publishing business what the mailroom was to Hollywood studios, are under broad attack. Both Hearst Magazines and Condé Nast have been sued by former interns who assert that they performed a great deal of work for little or no money. Hearst, which has vigorously defended itself in court, is contemplating dumping internships, and Women’s Wear Daily revealed last month that Condé Nast would no longer provide internships.
These internships are by their very nature discriminatory. Only a certain kind of young person can afford to spend a summer working for no pay. According to sources at the major publishers, more than one in five of these plum spots typically go to people who are connected one way or another.
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By suing, the interns have won the battle but seem to have lost the war. (The New York Times, by the way, pays its interns, but the slots are limited and the competition is steep.)
This would seem to be a good time to rethink the entire issue. As currently configured, publishing internships do very little for the organizations that host them and merely burnish the résumés of a lucky few. Publishers are keenly concerned that their Starbucks orders are delivered just so, but less interested in what interns themselves might have to contribute.
To read most of the big magazines on the newsstand right now is to get a look into the soul of Manhattan, such as that is, but little insight into the rest of the country or world. Magazines, desperate to connect with young readers and advertisers, are more than ever a collection of bulletins from a rarefied hothouse.
Paid internships, properly conceived and administered, could bring a diversity of region, class and race to an industry where the elevators are full of people who look alike, talk alike and think alike. Pie in the sky? Not at Atlantic Media. Three years ago, the company made the decision to end unpaid internships and go to yearlong fellowships that had meaningful tasks, an educational component, a living wage attached and, get this, health insurance.
There are now 45 fellows working across its publications, and several have graduated to significant, permanent roles at the company.
“We were looking for ambitious, creative, original journalists, and we did not want income to be a barrier,” said James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic. “Publishing that includes the web means we need to reach a national audience, and that requires a diverse mix of class, region, race and, yes, generations to do our job.”
The odd thing about those good intentions and enlightened talk? It’s been good for business. The Atlantic is expanding its audience through the magazine and its website, along with The Wire, its high-tempo news site; and Atlantic Cities, a site that covers urban issues. The audience seems to be noticing. According to GfK MRI’s annual survey tracking print and digital readership, The Atlantic has grown 34 percent in the first half of this year.
The Atlantic experiment conforms to my own experience. In the 1990s, I ran The Washington City Paper, a newspaper mostly staffed by white people in a majority-black city. By funding fellowships and entry-level positions, we were able to bring new perspectives aboard by publishing work from Ta-Nehisi Coates, now a senior editor and National Magazine Award winner for The Atlantic (who also contributes to The Times); Holly Bass, a Washington-based performance artist and writer; William Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut associate professor, author and essayist who went on to publish in The New Yorker, The Washington Post and TheRoot.com; and Neil Drumming, an alumnus of Entertainment Weekly who is now a critic at Salon and directed and wrote “Big Words,” a feature film that came out this year to great reviews.
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Unfortunately, creating meaningful internships and funding them seems like a low priority for an industry that is in a knife fight to survive. But if magazines are going to be anything other than gossamer artifacts of declining interest, the people who run them might want to rethink how they employ their interns. Bringing on young people from all kinds of backgrounds is less a moral nicety than a business imperative.
Yes, it’s swell to have someone to pick up your dry cleaning, but it’s a lot more important to come up with a product that other people will pick up.