When Valerie Banner saw the letter from The (Portland) Oregonian, the junior at Youngstown State University figured it was just another rejection letter in her quest for a summer internship.
She didn’t realize it was really a sign of the times.
The December letter, while praising her work thus far, announced that not only wasn’t she getting an internship at The Oregonian, but no one else was, either.
“Unfortunately budget considerations have forced us to shelve the [internship] program for a year,” the letter read.
Banner, 20, who last summer interned for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, was stunned.
“I didn’t think the economy would affect internships,” she said.
As the country slipped into recession over the past year, newspapers and other media outlets have struggled with layoffs and cutbacks. One of the newer casualties is the summer internship program, a source of pride for many papers, a source of good clips and opportunities for talented young journalists, and now, along with travel, free-lance budgets and part-time employees, a source of expendable dollars for publishers.
Both The Oregonian and the San Francisco Chronicle eliminated their summer internship programs for 2002. The Baltimore Sun substantially cut its program, and other papers have either cut back on pay or eliminated pay altogether.
As a result, an already competitive process has become frenzied, and students who in the past have secured a position by January find themselves still searching. And now wondering.
“I’m getting kind of nervous,” said Banner. “So I’ve pulled together my clips and am looking to apply to papers with later deadlines.”
At the San Francisco Chronicle, the elimination of the internship program came as part of the cuts that included 115 layoffs in November and a buyout program that started in January, said Adrianne Cabanatuan, director of recruiting, retention and administration at the paper. Normally the paper hires five to 10 interns for its summer program, but last year that number was trimmed in consideration of the beginning downturn. The Chronicle hopes to resume the program for 2003.
The Baltimore Sun offered its usual 10 to 12 summer internships last summer, but it trimmed the 12-week program to 11. This year the paper cut back to two interns and again trimmed the length of the program – this time to eight weeks.
“When you’re trying to avoid layoffs you do everything you can,” said Ed Waldman, The Sun’s internship coordinator. “This was an easy call.”
The effect of such moves is not inconsiderable. In addition to the loss of summer staff to help cover vacations, there is the loss of a talent pool that some of the papers use to fill positions later on. Since 1994, nine summer interns at The Sun have moved into an apprenticeship program at the paper that provides fixed, two-year jobs.
Other newsrooms have cut or eliminated pay, and that can mean a smaller and less diverse pool. At the Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio, cutting the intern salaries last year and this year has helped save about 11 intern positions – but the $300 weekly pay falls below the accepted minimum for the Chips Quinn Scholars Program, the internship program that places minority students in newsrooms. As a result, for a second year the paper won’t have one of the program’s students for its summer internship program.
“It’s a good program and we’ve been involved since 1996,” said Ernest Brown Jr., the assistant regional editor and coordinator of the summer internship program.
In Portland, where The Oregonian won two Pulitzers in April, editors initially thought a reduced internship force of 10 instead of 15 would provide sufficient savings. But “economic uncertainties are what caused us to shelve the program for the summer,” said George Rede, director of recruiting and training.
There have been no layoffs, and “the publisher made it very clear he values full-time employees” and the experience they bring to the newsroom, said Rede. Instead, the paper has looked to other areas to cut back, including training, temporary employees, travel and internships. The paper is, however, filling its three-slot minority internship program for the summer from a different budget.
The one silver lining for each paper is that the decisions to reduce or eliminate the placements were made before any internship was offered, sparing them the unpleasantness of having to rescind them, something USA Today had to do last year.
In January of 2001, Jose Alfredo Flores accepted a one-year apprenticeship with the Gannett paper, turning down offers from Sports Illustrated, The Charlotte Observer, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel and The Washington Times. In April, he’d heard the summer internship program at USA Today was canceled, but not his.
“I figured I’d dodged a bullet,” he said.
But in May he received an urgent e-mail instructing him to call the paper’s offices. He was told the apprenticeship program was canceled.
“I was just shocked, I didn’t know what to say,” said Flores, 23, who graduated that month from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and later found a summer spot with a news service in Washington, DC.
This year, USA Today has officially ended its apprenticeship program, said executives (who added that the newspaper still feels bad about Flores’ situation last year).
“It was awful,” said Adell Crowe, the staff development editor at USA Today. “We were very sad.”
In addition, the paper has eliminated its paid summer internship program and installed a non-paid, for-credit-only, year-round arrangement. Students receive four credits for their work at USA Today, which recruits students for the eight to 10 slots and is developing relationships with nearby schools such as American University, George Washington University and the University of Maryland.
The loss and reduction of internship programs has forced not only potential interns to adjust their goals, but career counselors and internship coordinators to adjust their advice.
“I tell [students] to start earlier with internship searches,” said Sheryl Swingley, internship coordinator at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., which requires students to complete such a work experience as part of the accredited curriculum.
She also advises them to expand the parameters of their search, particularly if they want a paid placement.
“We’re seeing paid internships dry up in east central Indiana,” she said. “[The editors] say ‘Sure, come work for us,’ “ but the positions are unpaid. Her department chair, a veteran of 25 years at Ball State, recently commented, “This is the worst I’ve seen it.”
At Syracuse University and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Karen McGee urges students to rethink their expectations. What do they want from the internship? Do they want experience? Or do they just want to work for a name paper?
“Don’t always go for the biggest,” the director of career development advises. “Look at medium and smaller size papers, too. We’re in tough times; concentrate on what you’re doing.”
Both the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, while aware of the cutbacks, haven’t found their students to be particularly affected.
The median age of a Columbia student is 28, and those students typically are looking for a permanent job, said Melanie Huff, who works in career services at the journalism school. Medill has a private, online internship site for students where many of the top papers are looking specifically for Northwestern students, said Julia Rogers, Medill’s director of external relations. When she looked at it recently, there were 80 internship postings.
The economy and deepening recession are cited as the overwhelming reasons for the cutbacks, but there are those who wonder if the changes aren’t short-sighted and meant more as a message to newsrooms.
“You’re not saving that much money,” said David Hall, the former editor of The Plain Dealer and The Denver Post and now the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. “I tend to think you’re sending a symbolic sign to the newsrooms that things are pretty bad. [Internships] aren’t free, but they’re not that expensive.”
And certainly there are summer programs that are scheduled to continue fully funded and in full force, such as at Newsday, which typically hires 40, and at The Washington Post, which has added slots, bringing its numbers to 21 for the summer of 2002.
But what’s also true is that both students and their faculty advisers have to be more creative when it comes to acquiring professional experience. At Elon University School of Communication in North Carolina, Janna Quitney Anderson worked out an arrangement with the local paper so that her advanced journalism students each get three assignments to work on – and, as a result, three bylines in the paper.
“Working hand in hand, we found a structured way in which to give students professional experience while aiding the major news outlet at no cost,” she said.
But if the present holds concerns for students, it’s the future that some of them fear – the one that includes post-grad job searches in an uncertain economy.
“That really scares me,” said Banner. “I’m even thinking about going to grad school so I’d have more education and more time before I have to look for a job. It’s really made me nervous.”
Elizabeth Birge is an assistant professor of journalism at William Paterson University. She can be reached at BirgeE@wpunj.edu.