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Was Condé Nast Right to Nix Their Internships?

Conde-Nast“Everything I learned about journalism I learned in J-school,” said no one ever.

Where I learned best was in my internships — the good, bad, ugly, paid, unpaid, unpaid (but for school credit!), East Coast, Congress Avenue, random roommate-living, sleeping-on-couches type of internships that many of us have done.

Operating under that assumption, I’m still scratching my head as to why Condé Nast decided to can their highly-sought after internship positions altogether.

Think about it: publication interns start out doing the basics — fact checking, research, maybe writing some blurbs and perhaps some reporting. I was fortunate enough to learn how to edit B-roll, become dangerous with HTML and write good Web headlines throughout three internships. Interns tread lightly. These are things that you need to know how to do exceptionally well the second you step into an interview for a media company (unless you came from a stellar college paper newsroom where you really got your feet wet).

Now, we all know what MIGHT have led the mother of magazine publishing drop their internship program starting in 2014 — those two pesky lawsuits alleging that pubs under the Condé Nast umbrella, like The New Yorker, paid interns less than a dollar an hour and had them working 12-hour days. Which, if that’s true, is pretty crappy. There could be other reasons, of course — not enough staff to manage the interns’ daily duties, declining revenues, etc.

Sorry for the sap, but there’s so much more to doing internships than just the desk work. As they’re pursued in such a transitional time of life, I believe they help to shape who you are not just professionally but also personally, and if they’re done right, they can push you toward a decision about what you want to do with your life. For the rest of your life. What if other huge names like Condé Nast gave up on their internship programs? The New Yorker, in many circles, is considered the pinnacle of journalistic success. And for fashion writers and enthusiasts, Vogue reaches those heights. Now, freshly graduated people are potentially left to knock on Condé Nast’s door with zero relationships in the building, having had no opportunity to show them that they can hack it at a major media title — the  shot you get during an internship.

When I was on the fence about applying for Texas Monthly’s digital editorial internships (which were unpaid but included college credit) as a student, I saw one stat that pushed me toward a decision: “40 percent of our interns eventually become Texas Monthly employees.” I was sold, only because of the small possibility that through my three months of labor, I might find my byline in the magazine ten years later.

Now, I admire the work ProPublica is doing on the state of unpaid internships and certainly would have preferred to be paid, but would I have passed up on that opportunity just for cash? No way. It was just too valuable an experience. (By the way, ProPublica has a nice Q&A on this issue).

Maybe we’ll learn later why Condé Nast decided to discontinue their internships — maybe they didn’t feel their program was designed to offer their products intrinsic value. It does raise the question for media outlets, though: to what extent do we regard training young journalists? And if we say we do indeed care about helping to raise up the next generation of writers and reporters, can we afford to compensate them appropriately? Is the intern’s labor and our resulting reward a fair trade?

Simple questions, but ones we might not want to know the answers to — yet.

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