New CUP/CWA Canada partnership takes “harm reduction” approach to internships

By Katherine Lapointe

$1.64 an hour. That’s effectively the hourly rate for editorial interns at TC Media’s ELLE Canada magazine on a four-month internship. And the interns who receive a $750 stipend upon completion of their internship are luckier than the many young journalists who are not being paid at all for their work. 

By Katherine Lapointe

$1.64 an hour. That’s effectively the hourly rate for editorial interns at TC Media’s ELLE Canada magazine on a four-month internship. And the interns who receive a $750 stipend upon completion of their internship are luckier than the many young journalists who are not being paid at all for their work. 

The Communications Workers of America Canada (CWA Canada), the country’s only all-media union, and Canadian University Press (CUP), a co-operative of student newspapers across Canada, started working together in late 2011 to address unpaid internships and other challenges facing early-career journalists.

The entry price of launching a career in journalism in on the rise. It used to be that you could be hired as a journalist right out of high school. Now, it is more common to find a young working journalist with one or even two degrees. On top of rising tuition fees and the resulting debt, young journalists are faced with the increasingly prevalent expectation that they take on unpaid work.

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The normalization of unpaid internships and freelance work implies that people often need to work for free to get a foot in the door. More and more young people enter the labour market not expecting to be compensated for their labour and not viewing fair treatment as their basic right. Not only does this establish an exploitative pattern for young journalists, it is bad news for all workers: as people are conditioned to accept their own mistreatment, they are less likely to organize against unfair labour practices. Working conditions will surely deteriorate in such a downward spiral.

The growing inaccessibility of the journalism profession also means that people who cannot afford to take on a period of unpaid work will not view journalism as a career option. Journalism will become more exclusive, which has an impact not only on the diversity of the people working in media, but also on the ideas that shape the stories media tell. And this is happening at a time when mainstream Canadian media organizations already fail to reflect the true diversity of the audiences and communities they serve. At CBC, for example, only 6.5 per cent of the workforce is a “visible minority,” according to a recent report on employment equity.

Unions, for their part, are currently facing a crisis of declining membership, especially among young workers. Youth are increasingly entering the labour market through non-unionized positions, and according to Statistics Canada, employees under the age of 25 are 46 per cent less likely than older workers to belong to a union. For unions to remain relevant, they must build relationships with youth and support their struggles.

Through a collaborative program, CWA Canada and CUP aim to build goodwill between union members and students, to support young people in finding fair employment in the media and to advocate and organize around young workers’ rights. In return, CWA Canada hopes that these young journalists will continue to engage with unions throughout their careers.

Over the past two years, we have welcomed more than 200 student journalists as associate members of CWA Canada (membership is free, as are the services members enjoy. The only eligibility requirement is that you are affiliated as a staff or volunteer with a member paper of CUP). Associate members have access to opportunities to both enhance their journalism skills and learn about their rights as workers. Our program opens avenues into professional journalism based on intergenerational solidarity, rather than exploitation. For example, our services include freelancing opportunities, where students cover labour-related events while gaining experience with contracts and invoices and attend training courses, workshops and meet-and-greets at local newsrooms. At the core of these opportunities are lessons about the importance of getting paid for your work, advocating for yourself and working collectively in the workplace. 

Through our mentorship program, we have paired more than 100 new journalists with professional media workers. These mentorships are a way for CWA Canada to encourage more established workers to welcome the next generation into the media sector, while students get feedback on their work, receive career advice and build professional connections. The program is working: as former Ubyssey reporter Kalyeena Makortoff put it, “having a successful reporter take the time to read my articles and give me advice made a career in journalism feel accessible.”   

Because so many student journalists feel they have little choice but to accept unpaid internships, we are taking what one CUP alumnus and former RadioLab intern, Chris Berube, calls a “harm reduction” approach. We offer students information about their rights as interns and freelancers to empower them to make informed decisions, while also creating fair opportunities for associate members. But we’re also committed to supporting paid internships, including a new program for CUP journalists at The Canadian Press (CP).

“The internship was fantastic and a really valuable learning experience,” said former CP intern Alex Migdal (who currently works at The Gateway at the University of Alberta). “Everyone in the newsroom was warm and supportive and they got me to pretty much do it all: stories, videos and audio.”

Our latest project is to establish a steering committee of associate members to find new ways to advocate collectively for change on issues that matter to student journalists and to enable associate members to communicate their ideas to the broader union. The test of our success will be whether conditions on the ground get better for young journalists. 

Learn more about CWA-Canada and CUP’s program here. Volunteers and staff at campus papers belonging to CUP can sign up to become a member here. If you’d like to get involved in other labour issues affecting media workers and freelancers, check out CWA Canada’s website and the growing freelance branch of the Canadian Media Guild


Katherine Lapointe is the CWA Canada–CUP partnership program coordinator. You can reach her at or at 416-795-8598. Follow her on Twitter @katjlapointe.



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