Northwestern University's journalism school boasts of its prowess in preparing students for prestigious careers—but it also serves as a pipeline for unpaid internships.
At Medill, students pay $15,040 in tuition for the privilege of working full-time jobs as unpaid interns. During their mandatory quarter in Journalism Residency, as it is known, students work full time at news organizations such as CNN Documentaries, Self and WGN Chicago. But instead of paying interns, employers pay Medill $1,250 for every student placed. In turn, students receive academic credit and a small stipend from the university for relocation expenses, ranging from $600 to $1,200. The most generous stipend amounts to just $2.72 an hour—far below the federal minimum wage.
It's an arrangement that even Medill is second-guessing. According to a July 30 email obtained by ProPublica, Medill has begun asking news organizations whether they would consider paying students minimum wage.
"As always, Medill and the University are careful to make sure that the program is an academic experience that meets U.S. Department of Labor regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act," program coordinator Desiree Hanford wrote in an email to editors and internship coordinators at partner media companies.
"Some sites … have told Medill that their legal counsel require them to pay a student either in addition to the $1,250 or in lieu of the $1,250 to reflect the company's own hiring policies that address this law," Hanford wrote. (see full document)
"With this backdrop, Medill would like to know whether you would be willing to pay a student who is doing a residency at your site and, if so, how much you would be willing to pay?," Hanford asked. "Would you be willing to pay your state's minimum wage?"
Jack Doppelt, Medill's interim associate dean for journalism, said the program complies with Labor Department guidelines, but that the school is still considering whether to require employers to pay its students.
"For the purposes of the law, we're comfortable," Doppelt said. "But that doesn't necessarily mean that we're comfortable with students not getting paid money."
Alice Truong, a 2010 Medill graduate, wasn't comfortable going unpaid, either. Truong said she didn't have the finances to move to another city for three months on Medill's internship stipend (which is usually $900). As a result, while some of her classmates had a list of 20 journalism residency options around the country, Truong's financial constraints narrowed her choices to "two or three okay options" in the Chicago area.
"That alone was very frustrating, and I remember being very upset about this," Truong said. "For most students at Northwestern, everything was within reach to them. I only had a handful of options."
When Truong was in school, Medill also prohibited students from working other jobs during Journalism Residency, forcing Truong to give up her work-study job that quarter. Medill has repealed that policy as of this academic year.
Truong ended up interning at her first choice site, the RedEye, a Chicago-based daily tabloid. There, she wrote short pop culture articles and a few cover stories. She says her internship was a valuable experience that ultimately got her a paid internship and then a job at the Wall Street Journal. But she was still frustrated by the way the program was structured.
"I was close to graduating, and there are so many money stressors around that period of time," Truong said. "So having to go to a very expensive school to start with, and having to do an internship where I essentially provided free labor for credit, while the school was paid—that was hard to stomach."
Medill's program has existed in some form since at least 1973, when it was known as "Teaching Newspaper." Roger Boye, an associate professor who has taught at Medill since 1971, said Medill initially gave students a choice between reporting on campus and reporting from a professional newsroom. The internship placements were so successful that Medill made the program a requirement in 1989.
"In the early days—and this is still true—we considered the [newsroom] editors basically part-time faculty members," Boye said. "These were people that had an educational mission to their own work and wanted to be part of an educational process."
Medill says its intern sites – more than 100 in all – are chosen carefully to ensure that supervisors will provide "substantive editorial experience" and "good mentoring." Hanford, the program coordinator, said students must send weekly logs to their adviser and receive midterm and final evaluations from their employers. Medill advisers also visit their students midway through the quarter.
"When I have students go on [Journalism Residency], not one of them leaves without being given my cell phone number because I want to know if something is happening, if there's an emergency," Hanford said. "I don't care what that emergency is."
Is Academic Credit Enough?
Medill is reevaluating its program at a time when employers and students nationwide are questioning the legality of unpaid internships. In recent years, unpaid interns have brought several high-profile lawsuits seeking back pay, though most have resulted in settlements or findings that favor employers. Only one ruling addressed the issue of internships for academic credit.
According to Labor Department guidelines, an unpaid internship is more likely to be legal if a college grants academic credit and provides oversight. But oversight alone isn't a guarantee—unpaid internships still must meet six key criteria. For example, the internship must be educational, benefit the intern more than the employer, and not displace paid employees.
In the last three years, federal investigators have cited at least four employers for violating federal guidelines, even though their unpaid interns received academic credit. One of those cases faulted Rome Snowboards Corp. in Waterbury, Vt.
Matthew Wolfe interned for free at Rome Snowboards during his senior year at Saint Michael's College, doing data entry for 10 hours a week. Wolfe received four hours of academic credit for his time. He was surprised when, the summer after graduation, he received a letter from the government and a check for about $1,000.
"Of course I'd love to be compensated for the work, but as a college student—from all of our perspectives—that wasn't a norm," Wolfe said. "There weren't many students who expected to be paid and get credit."
The Labor Department concurred, finding that "unpaid internships at for-profit establishments appear to be prevalent in the area" and that Rome Snowboards seemed unaware that interns at "for-profit firms almost always have to be paid."
Rome Snowboards co-founder Josh Reid, who declined to comment for this story, told the investigator that he was frustrated "with the interns' colleges, whom he believed were complicit in the firm's noncompliance involving the interns."
Colleges clearly play a key role. Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, surveyed college officials last year and found that 75 percent thought academic credit was "an appropriate substitute" for wages in some or all cases.
Joanne LaBrake-Muehlberger, internship director at Saint Michael's College, said she works with employers to ensure students receive educational training.
"Just because the student is earning the credit doesn't mean that lets the site off the hook with their responsibility," LaBrake-Muehlberger said. "We make that clear. I send out a letter, and I include the information from the Department of Labor, so they are made very much aware of the guidelines."
But the federal investigator in the Rome Snowboards case reported that area schools were "either unaware of or turning a blind-eye to the requirements of the [Fair Labor Standards Act]."
Regardless, the department placed ultimate responsibility with the employer and ordered Rome Snowboards to pay $37,673 in back wages to 38 interns, ruling that because they provided an "immediate advantage" to the company, they should have been paid.
The courts have also begun to weigh in on academic-based internships. In his June ruling against Fox Searchlight Pictures, federal Judge William H. Pauley III wrote, "A university's decision to grant academic credit is not a determination that an unpaid internship complies with [New York labor law]."
"Universities may add additional requirements or coursework for students receiving internship credit, but the focus of the [New York labor law] is on the requirements and training provided by the alleged employer," Pauley ruled.
The ruling could put a damper on unpaid internships for academic credit, according to David Yamada, a labor rights advocate and law professor at Suffolk University.
"If the judge's observations in the Fox Searchlight case are affirmed and become law, then obviously those private sector internship placements at least are open for liability against that internship employer," Yamada said. "And then the school might have to incur the wrath of that employer, who's saying, ‘Oh gosh, you sent us this student, and they turned around and sued us.'"
Shrinking Newsrooms, Shrinking Wages
While unpaid internship postings are rampant on public job boards at journalism schools at New York University and the University of California, Berkeley, some media interns are starting to push back. Gawker Media, Condé Nast, NBCUniversal, Inc. and News Corp. are all facing lawsuits from former interns who say they should have been paid minimum wage.
The Nation Institute, a nonprofit, agreed to begin paying its interns minimum wage after an embarrassing public campaign by a group of former interns who had been paid only $150 a week.
But as newsrooms revisit internships, it's clear that for some, even minimum wage can strain the budget. Newspaper staffs have shrunk by 30 percent since 2000, with newspapers employing fewer full-time staffers than they did in 1978, according to Pew's 2013 State of the Media report.
The Charlotte Observer ended its paid summer internship program and stopped accepting Medill interns about four or five years ago to save money.
"This is strictly just a budget thing with us," said Jim Walser, the Observer's projects editor and intern coordinator. "We had to cut out everything that was extraneous to try to save as many permanent staffers as we could. We loved the kids coming in from Northwestern. We never had a bad one."
Chicago Public Media stopped participating in Medill's journalism residency in 2008.
"Medill charges news organizations a fee, and being that we're a nonprofit, that's not something we necessarily could absorb," internship director George Lara said. He said the station continues to offer some unpaid and some grant-based internships.
Journalism graduates are feeling newsroom cutbacks, too. Only 60 percent of journalism majors reported holding a job related to their field of study six to eight months after graduation, according to a 2012 study at the University of Georgia. On average, journalism grads in 2012 made barely more than those who graduated in 1987, the study found.
Faced with such a tight job market, journalism students are hungry for the type of internships that will give them an edge, said Gina Neff, associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. But while Neff found that virtually all journalism schools offer internship programs, she estimates only about 10 percent of them provide students deep academic engagement.
"We've held up a class of jobs that are ‘the internship,' that are typically unpaid or underpaid," Neff said. "I would call on more professors to stand up and take notice that we're in effect complicit in a system that is underpaying student labor."
Medill's dean says the school hopes to ensure students are compensated for their work, without limiting their options in a struggling industry.
"It's a very delicate balance," Doppelt said. "We're trying to have that happen, and it's a set of moving negotiations, and we have to be sensitive to what the field—that is hurting right now, financially—might be able to do."
As Medill reevaluates its prestigious internship program, 15 news organizations have started to pay their Medill interns and at least 18 more said they would consider doing so, according to Hanford, the internship coordinator.
WGEM, a television station in Western Illinois, started paying them state minimum wage last year when the station's owner, Quincy Broadcast Print Interactive, launched a paid internship program for the whole company.
Jena Schulz, director of human resources for Quincy, said each Medill student works as "a typical member of the news department team," shooting video and going on air. From a legal standpoint, only paid interns can do that kind of work, Schulz said.
"We believe it is necessary for us to treat the interns as actual employees—and pay them—in order for them to receive the full benefit of the experience," Schulz said. "Our company has operated by the letter of the law and said, if the interns are anything other than in your way, they probably don't qualify as unpaid."
The Kitsap Sun, a mid-sized newspaper in Bremerton, Wash., also started paying its Medill interns the state minimum wage of $9.19 per hour a few years ago.
"They should get paid for their time," said editor David Nelson. "They're here. They need to pay rent. They're learning, but it's not free to live."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.