The campaign against unpaid internships, CSUN journalism students raise thousands in funds
BY MARCO REVUELTA
California State University, Northridge senior Alex Corey looked forward to using his final year in college to help raise money for students in the school’s National Association of Hispanic Journalists chapter to attend a media conference.
As president of the chapter, he quickly realized that the students had a bigger problem closer to home—unpaid internships.
Corey and his team decided that their career development could no longer wait for the industry to open its purse strings, so they decided to raise money to fund their own internships.
“The majority of our students are working to pay for their tuition, and taking unpaid internships isn’t really an option,” Corey said. “It puts students at a disadvantage when they are told that they need to an internship but can’t.”
Unpaid internships have become a hot-button issue in the media industry. Some critics claim that these types of internships exclude low socioeconomic students who can’t afford to work without compensation and are devised at saving money for the company.
Hearst and Condé Nast are among some of the media companies that have been sued in the past five years by former interns who claimed they were paid below minimum wage for employee work.
A Student Solution to an Industry Problem
The CSUN NAHJ chapter set out to raise money with hopes of funding two summer internships, one at the Asian Journal and the other at Impulso in Los Angeles. The goal was to raise $3,000 for each of the students that would include a stipend for transportation and an hourly wage of $15.
The group’s fundraising efforts received an early boost when Telemundo anchors Julio Vaqueiro and Dunia Elvir from Los Angeles donated a total of $3,000, fully funding one of the internships.
Corey then went on to launch a campaign on Indiegogo—the largest crowdfunding site on the web—to raise the remaining portion of the funds. With the hashtag #StopUnpaidInternships, the campaign garnered social media popularity with more than 500 shares on Facebook and Twitter.
As of now, the campaign is 71 percent funded, and Corey said he hopes the goal is met before the end of May when the campaign closes.
“Believe it or not, it’s been a lot young journalists who have donated that have kind of struggled with this issue,” Corey said. “Freelancers, entry-level people, they know and they really resonate with this issue. I would really like to get more veterans to donate.”
The ethnic media cooperative LA Beez has also been helping the students connect with potential donors, while CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California is holding the donations for CSUN NAHJ until the interns are chosen.
However, raising money was only part of the equation.
Director of LA Beez Julian Do helped Corey identify news outlets that were interested in participating in CSUN NAHJ’s burgeoning internship program.
“We have an ongoing collaboration with the journalism department at California State Northridge, and we wanted to create a win-win situation for our media member and our students,” Do said.
Do said the Asian Journal and Impulso were selected as media partners because they are willing to provide hands-on experience, and they understand the coaching aspect of internships.
Christina Oriel, editor-in-chief of the Asian Journal, believes the recipient of the internships should be someone with a self-starter attitude, and someone who brings their opinion to the table.
The intern will work side-by-side with Oriel, and will gain experience in writing, copy editing, interviewing, and working on a series of articles relating to their local community.
“It helps them manage their portfolio, so when they come out college potential employers can see that they have been published with a publication not affiliated with their college,” Oriel said.
Oriel said the Asian Journal is unable to offer paid internships due to budget constraints.
The case against unpaid internships
In a study released in 2014 by the National Association of College and Employers, 55 percent of graduating college students graduated with an unpaid internship on their resume, and only 41 percent of those were offered jobs. Those with a paid internships had nearly double the chances of getting hired.
“In terms of the (job) offer rate, having no internship and having an unpaid internship is pretty much exactly the same,” NACE Researcher Associate Kenneth Tsang said. “The reason for that is not because employers look at your resume and value a paid internship more, but because people in paid internships positions have a greater likelihood of being directly hired into that same company.”
President of NAHJ Mekhalo Medina has been working with Corey to raise money for his campaign by introducing him to potential benefactors.
Medina, who took several unpaid internships during his college career, has leveraged the influence of NAHJ and its membership to encourage media outlets to provide paid media internships.
“We’ve taken a stand for paid internships, and we’ve worked with our corporate sponsors to encourage paid internships and create fellowships, NBC is one of the big ones,” Medina said. “Over that last two years, they have switched all of their free internships to paid internships, and that’s something amazing.”
In 2014, NBCUniversal was faced with a class-action lawsuit for its unpaid internship program, which later reached a $6.4 million settlement.
Unpaid internships have been controversial, because they can benefit the employer more than the student. According to the Federal Labor Standards Act, in order for a student to work without compensation the following six criteria must be met:
- The internship, even if it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision with the existing staff.
- The employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to nor guaranteed a job at the conclusion of the internship.
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
According to the 2013 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates by the Grady Institute, approximately 55 percent of minorities with a bachelor’s degree in journalism or communications reported full-time employment, in comparison to non-minority graduates with a rate of nearly 73 percent.
Without internships, many journalism students find it hard to break into the industry.
Chatter Buzz Media Founder Ashley Cisneros Mejia, who majored in journalism at the University of Florida, knows firsthand the challenges of taking unpaid internships.
While in college, Mejia worked on campus and as a cashier at night to help pay for her college apartment. The only internships that she was able to apply for were those who were flexible with her school and work schedule.
“I wish this(CSUN NAHJ paid internships) would have been around when I was in school. I think it’s really important, it’s impossible in our field to get that first job unless you have internships,” Mejia said. “I now have a digital marketing agency and when we do internships, we do at least a stipend because we know how hard it is for students.”
NAHJ’s Vice President of Online Rebecca Aguilar said this is the first time she has seen this type of initiative from journalism students.
“They’ve figured out a way to make it happen, and I’m so proud of them,” Aguilar said. “The beauty of this generation is the web; there is no way that I could have done this in high school or even in college.”
Although Aguilar said this is a brilliant idea for unpaid internships, she hopes that this doesn’t become the standard for other students hoping to obtain internships.
“I would hate that students would have to have another job of raising money for internships when they are already raising money for books, tuition, and room and board,” Aguilar said.
Follow Marco Revuelta on Twitter @marcorevuelta