We Should Still Be Paid for Paying Our Dues

Condé Nast's announcement to permanently discontinue its internship program spread around the journalism world quicker than wildfire this morning. The decision has brought on a wave of criticism from current and past employees to aspiring editors and (would-be) interns. As a previous Condé Nast intern and an alum of the recently unmasked Medill Journalism Residency exposé, my reactions to the termination of the internship program remain conflicted.

My internship at one of Condé Nast's widest-read publications was rewarding, eye-opening and genuinely enjoyable. That being said, my seemingly perfect illusion of an internship was shattered after discovering that not only did my parents pay $15,000 in tuition to Northwestern for this experience, but Condé Nast was being compensated by my school for 'allowing' me to pay my dues. Why was Condé Nast being paid from two ends for my work, both financially and in free labor? And why wasn't my labor substantial enough to at least merit being paid minimum wage?

Reactions to Condé Nast's resolution are scattered, with some believing there is something to be said for someone who shows up to work solely for the experience. I would argue that those who show up for the experience are financially able to just show up without compensation and live comfortably enough to volunteer their services sans pay. By excluding certain social and or financial classes, they are also cutting off a wealth of brilliant writers, hard workers and well-qualified future employees.

I have been told that paying my dues is part of being a new member in the workforce. No matter the industry, the youngest and least-qualified workers will bear the brunt of the dirty work, and in the media industry, this means running to Starbucks or transcribing hour-long interviews. But there is a difference between paying your dues and working without pay for 40 hours a week while needing to be able to eat and put a roof over your head. This precedent of unpaid labor creates an irreversible environment in media-related jobs that not only lays out a certain premise for the unpaid interns but also changes the expectations of the higher level employees.

It seems unlikely that a student on scholarship or one who is working part-time to pay off their loans would be considered a promising applicant to a company who refuses to compensate their interns. Not only is this fundamentally exclusionary by design, since most Condé Nast internships are located in large, expensive American cities that require substantial amounts of money to be able to live in, but it also fosters expectations of lower pay for new hires in a newsroom. College graduates now believe that any job is better than no job and they are willing to accept lower pay than they deserve and are less likely to negotiate on a first-time starting salary. This in turn causes even greater financial instability and inequality for senior positions and creates an environment where the only qualified entry-level applicants can live off someone else's bank account.

I spent two semesters organizing, filing, making phone calls, researching and transcribing without proper compensation. The experience was invaluable, but it doesn't mean I wasn't owed for my time and my labor. They call it "minimum wage" for a reason -- it's the bare minimum someone should be paid for their effort.

The unfortunate reality is that there will always be students who are more than willing to work for free, and these infamous two former interns were simply seeking payment they were duly owed. I can only hope that the future senior employees will remember the grievances of working for free and put plans in motion to allow eligible applicants to be paid what they deserve.