To pay or not to pay? Canadian magazines grapple with the unpaid internship debate

By Eric Mark Do, Reporter

By Eric Mark Do, Reporter

It’s easy to understand the backlash against unpaid internships. A search for internship postings in Canadian media shows that there’s still work to be done. Many internships are unpaid and the ones that award stipends could actually amount to as little as $1.64 an hour, according to one calculation.. In a competitive market where there are still people willing to work for little more than experience while others push for better and clearer regulation of internships, it’s a good time to take stock of how the Canadian magazine industry is responding.

In the U.S., Condé Nast, which publishes magazines such as The New Yorker and Vogue, ended its internship program after former interns sued the company over claims of being paid below minimum wage. It’s possible that Hearst Magazines, facing a similar lawsuit, could follow in Condé Nast’s footsteps.

Here in Canada, one unpaid intern successfully sued for back wages while another is appealing her rejected claim. But neither were journalism internships.

In the Canadian journalism industry, the approach to unpaid internships seems to be tying them to post-secondary programs. In addition to meeting legal criteria in most provinces, workplace insurance is usually provided through the schools. Cottage Life Media, which doesn’t have a budget for paid internships, has one such arrangement. Penny Caldwell, vice-president of content development and strategy, said the company prefers school internships over volunteer situations because the experience is structured with well-defined goals.

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Speaking at a panel on the ethics of unpaid internships organized by the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) in Toronto in November, Caldwell said she tries to put the needs of interns ahead of the needs of the magazine. For one thing, interns who had part-time jobs could negotiate their hours. Interns are listed on the masthead, receive bylines for published work and are given free admission to the MagNet conference. When the budget allowed for it, Cottage Life has hired a couple of its former interns.

The arrangement between news organizations and schools is mutually beneficial, said Western University journalism program coordinator Paul Benedetti, who also spoke on the panel. Benedetti is a proponent of unpaid internships for students because aspiring journalists are not quite ready for “prime time” while they’re in school. “After graduation,” he said, “I do not promote unpaid internships. I think once you graduate, like everybody else you have to make a living.” Benedetti echoed others who say unpaid internships that aren’t for school credit are morally wrong and a wealth filter, generally available only to those who can afford to work for free.

The chorus of internship critics includes groups like the Canadian Intern Association, which pushes for minimum wage for all interns and better working conditions in academically linked internships. In addition to providing various resources and support (such as an online summary of each province’s laws on internships), the association publishes a Wall of Shame and a Wall of Fame. On the former, it called out Readers Digest Canada for advertising an internship that appeared to contravene Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, which garnered a response from a representative of the company within a day (the human resources manager clarified that the internship was for students).

But despite these efforts and proposed legislation—Ontario recently introduced a bill that aims to “give unpaid interns the same workplace safety protections as paid employees,”— unpaid internships are still prevalent.

For example, according to their respective job postings, Canadian Family internships require “a full-time commitment from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.” and numerous responsibilities. Ideally, the prospective intern “has a degree in journalism/publishing or equivalent.” Toronto Life editorial interns—and there are many—“must be willing to intern on a full-time, unpaid basis for four months” while involved in various aspects of the magazine process. And This Magazines interns are promised “no coffee-fetching” in return for three months of unpaid work.

This Magazine’s editor, Lauren McKeon, said the magazine will likely address the complicated issue of unpaid internships in 2014. She herself did an unpaid internship at the magazine a while back, and said This (whose section editors also work on a volunteer basis) is a magazine that cares about labour rights issues.

“It’s a complex issue and something that we definitely have to think about and be constantly evaluating because it’s tricky for us to really advocate for labour rights and at the same time we do use unpaid interns,” she said.

McKeon’s advice for those who choose to take on an unpaid internship is to evaluate whether the tasks are worth the tradeoff in time, and whether the organization is one you believe in and are dedicated to. Like Cottage Life, This helps interns achieve their personal editorial and publishing goals “to at least make sure that we do give back our time for them giving us their time,” McKeon said. “And they are paid (the same rate as This freelancers) for anything that they write. So we do have some things in place to try and balance that out.”

Grants help with that balance. Magazines can apply for the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors’ annual $1,500 bursary, which This has received before. “[The bursary] can pay for an intern for three months, which is not the best solution, but at least it's something that we do look for and it’s great that organizations like CSME do have funds like that for magazines like us,” McKeon said.

The Walrus is another magazine in a unique position: it’s part of The Walrus Foundation, which is a charitable non-profit with an educational mandate to train. The foundation began with a pledge to run only paid internships, but the initial sponsor stopped funding the internships program after two years.

“So our issue is, we’re a non-profit that has to raise money every day to survive and we don't have a funder for our internship program,” said executive director and co-publisher Shelley Ambrose. “So, [internships] have been unpaid for, I’d say, the past six years.”

Walrus internships are full-time, approximately 35 hours per week, and run for six months with training. “From my point of view as a training program and a mentorship program and as a way for people to get real experience and get a job, we actually perform with flying colours,” Ambrose said.

She takes issue with legislation that doesn’t allow interns to be trained to do what employees do because that renders an internship pointless, she said. And while the legal, political and moral debate on unpaid internships continues, some organizations, like The Walrus, will have little choice.

“The crux of the matter is: if internships had to be paid, ours would just go away,” Ambrose said. 

Editor's Note: A previous version of this article contained a hyperlink to a list of magazine internships that was outdated. 

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