W ayne Carter, now an anchor at WAPT in Jackson, Miss., paid his dues in the broadcast world. He did four unpaid internships during high school and college. After his sophomore year at Syracuse, he went to Washington, D.C. to do two part-time internships and take a course for school. “Between my travel, rent and food, my parents were paying more money for me [to live in D.C.] than they were for our house at home,” Carter said. Carter’s experience is not unusual for a broadcast journalism student. Most stations don’t pay their interns, partly because of the high demand from students for first-hand experience and partly because the pay scale in broadcast has traditionally been lower than that of print. But any journalist will tell you that experience is what gets you that first job, so students often are willing to work in unpaid positions in the hope that it will pay off in the long run. “It’s just the nature of the business,” Carter said. “It was a sacrifice, but you make a lot of sacrifices to get what you want.” Unpaid broadcast internships came to the fore in the early 1970s as television journalism programs were becoming popular and enrollments were growing, according to University of Missouri professor emeritus Vernon Stone, who’s been researching broadcast news salaries for more than 30 years. “Young men and women knocked on newsroom doors, willing to work free to get a start,” Stone reported in his research findings, which are published on his Web site. “Stations came under pressure from universities to provide internships to most students who wanted them. Stations couldn’t put them all on payrolls. So unpaid internships came into their own, and found takers.” Print journalism isn’t necessarily a bottomless pit of funds with which to pay interns, either, but print interns are more likely to be paid something for their work than their broadcast counterparts. Broadcast students looking to learn are usually caught between two less than ideal alternatives; they are often told that the best places to learn are the same places that don’t have the resources to pay them. “In the smaller/midsize markets, you’re more apt to find people who are willing to give interns more practical opportunities,” said Paul Irvin, director of news coverage and content for the Radio-Television News Directors Association. But, he added, “most community television stations don’t have the money to pay [interns].” Confront broadcasters who take advantage of free labor, and they’re likely to retort that they give their valuable time to train interns, which is worth more than an intern could pay for by earning wages. Most educators and broadcast journalists will tell you that clips and experience are often more important than grade point averages when it comes to job hunting, which makes the work and experience of an internship more important than the pay. “Students rarely gripe about money or lack of money after the fact,” said Kevin Allen, news director for WUFT-FM and a professor at the University of Florida’s journalism school. “It’s more about whether they stood around and made coffee or actually did something.” The RTNDA 2000 convention in Minneapolis featured a session, “The Savvy Internship Shopper,” which advised, “All internships are definitely not created equal. … While you may think an internship in a big market with nice call letters will look good on your resume, your best shot at really learning something just may be a weekend internship in a small to medium market where you can try just about anything.” In a field where unpaid internships are the norm, students have to make the most of what’s available to them. Jason Jedlinski, an investigative producer at WGN-TV in Chicago, spent one summer working seven days a week without a single day off, splitting his time between a television and a radio station. Neither job paid, but he said he made sure that he got the experience he needed. “When I first started, I was in the planning department, filing press releases. I did what they asked me to do as fast as I could and said, ‘hey, what else can I do?’ Any internship for me has always been a privilege. You could almost be paying them for the experience,” he said. Jedlinski’s enthusiasm may be what it takes to get the most from a broadcast internship. Though having the internship listed on a resume is helpful, truly learning about broadcast journalism is what lands better internships and jobs down the road, which is important for students, professors and news directors to remember. “Some [interns] get more out of the experience than others,” said Irvin. “I know from talking to people … some universities, and some TV stations, some interns are just going through the motions.” In order to ensure that experience is really useful, professors should keep up with the student’s daily activities, according to Lawrence Webb, a now-retired professor who advised both print and television students doing internships through Anderson College in Anderson, S.C. “Because of the way broadcast is, most interns are not going to be allowed to put together a [news] package,” said Webb. “I’ve had managers, even at the bigger stations, tell me that a lot’s going to depend on what the intern’s willing to do in terms of taking initiative. I wanted the student to set some goals. I wanted to hear from them every day – to file an e-mail with me every 24 hours telling me what they did.” Stone agrees that experience is critical for a broadcast student, but he said the internships should be paid. His first internship, at a radio station in Kentucky, paid in experience and money. “I had zero experience in broadcast news, but I learned all the basics of broadcast news at that radio station,” he said. “People were on vacation; I filled in for two weeks [for each person]. It was just a wonderful experience, and I got paid for every bit of it.” He said the reason the stations don’t pay isn’t lack of money. It’s because of “supply and demand. There are so many students wanting internships. I think station management says ‘why pay them when we can get them for free?’” In some cases, the law has given an answer to that question. Almost all broadcast outlets are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a federal law governing such employee rights as minimum wage and overtime. To avoid paying an intern, the station must show that the student’s position meets six criteria: • The training must be similar to a vocational school.
• It benefits the student.
• Interns don’t displace regular employees.
• The employer can’t enjoy an immediate advantage for the student’s work; in fact, the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
• There’s no quid pro quo as to a student being entitled to a job after the internship.
• Students understand they’re not entitled to wages. In 1995, the U.S. Department of Labor fined A. Brown Olmstead Associates, a large Atlanta-based public relations firm, $31,250 for using unpaid interns for two years. The firm violated the FLSA because some of the interns were not receiving college credit, but the agency still billed its clients for work performed by them. A. Brown Olmstead’s fine forced a lot of companies to re-evaluate their internship programs, according to Irvin. “Media agencies have changed policies … I think that they’ve tried to legitimize the work,” Irvin said. The legitimacy of the job may be what makes the most difference in the long run, rather than the amount of money in a student’s bank account at the end of the summer. “In the end, what I think is more important for their professional development is to find a good internship … whether it pays or not,” Irvin said. Besides, Carter says those interested in a big paycheck should stay away from broadcast news. Internships teach students that lesson quickly. “I think a lot of people have a misconception that TV reporters make a lot of money,” he said. “People find out entry-level reporters make $20,000. If someone’s willing to [work without pay], it helps prepare them for a career.”
Elizabeth Whalen is a 2001 Pulliam/Kilgore intern for Quill magazine and a student at Case Western Reserve University. Art Barnes is a communications professor at Urbana (Ohio) University, adviser to the campus newspaper and a member of the SPJ National Journalism Education Committee.