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I worked for mediabistro.com all summer, but I didn't get paid for it. My only payment, really, is the opportunity to write this—and things like it—for free. You see, I am a member of a growing class of unrepresented, unprotected, arguably illegal laborers in this country: I'm an intern. I have few rights, less accountability, and only the occasional, odd-job paycheck. Hell, I can't claim even to be an intern anymore—my time at mediabistro.com, sweet as it has been, just ended. And now, well, at least I can quit lying to myself and my loved ones and answer truthfully when people ask what I do. It is a great weight off my chest that I can simply grimace and say, "I'm unemployed."
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
I did what you're expected to do when you're an overambitious, overeducated kid: I started interning when I was in college. The idea is that the intern gains practical experience and real-world connections. You do one or two, and you're well on your way to a real job upon graduation. At least that's what they want you to think. And back when I was still a wide-eyed undergrad, I believed it.
I was pleased when I tripped into my first internship. After class one day, my journalism professor offered me a spot at the alumni magazine he edited, and, aw shucks, I took it. It wasn't Harper's, but I'd gain a place in which to escape the heat of a North Carolina summer for a few hours a day. I spent my summer compiling long lists of marriages, promotions, and deaths into the alumni record. It wasn't a bad gig—there was even some pay—but it wasn't quite what I'd been hoping for. My professor-cum-editor had shown our class all sorts of famous magazine journalism—Talese, Wolfe, Thompson. I was primed to be working on a magazine staff, ready to play the game. So when I burst into the magazine office a month into the gig with a brilliant investigative pitch—the university had so-called deans on staff whose main function was to organize and recruit freshmen for Bible study—I was amazed when my editor mumbled only that maybe I could do a small calendar item about various religious events on campus. Then he handed me a fresh stack of obituaries to file. Apparently, an alumni magazine is not an appropriate medium for reporting of any particularly investigative nature, especially about the university itself.
But I'd learned something important: That journalism isn't all Woodward and Bernstein. And when the summer ended and I was offered a job there, writing profiles and covering events like Homecoming, I respectfully declined and realized I'd learned something even more important. If you're not interested in getting an actual job at the place of your pseudo-employment, the whole thing really does you no good. The best possible outcome is a bullet on your resume—and maybe a reference.
One internship does not a resume make, and so I tried to find more unpaid work, this time something closer to my interests. The alumni-mag editor introduced me to a young, rising star in the mag world, a man who had gotten his own glossy publication onto newsstands internationally yet was hardly out of his twenties. He and his girlfriend had scrapped and saved and raised capital and ran it all themselves; he edited, she designed. I instantly had two new role models. They said they needed a third hand, "for everything else." I welled with excitement at the thought of all the other poor lowly interns filing, labeling, taking messages for assistants to associates at massive corporations—this time, I thought, I could really get myself into something worthwhile.
The magazine had pretty pictures. I should have stopped to actually read it. There were lots of poems about dark, smoke-filled cafes and old black men. There were photo essays about graffiti. There were calendars that listed the dates of "world beat" music festivals. There was a 5,000-word essay about Budapest, written entirely in the third person and referring to that protagonist only as "the poet," but without providing any salient historic or logistical information about the city. Once I started working, one of my few tasks was to answer the phone and generally deflect the callers. Frequently, I had to deflect the publisher, who once, in great seething understatement, inquired why there was a typo the magazine's cover. And typos throughout the inside, too. It turned out that without much of a budget, the editor had written and edited most everything himself. (Which meant he was the obtuse "poet.") And thus I learned my third lesson: Even if things weren't going quite so horribly here, it was ultimately another dead end. A shoestring operation wasn't hiring anyone any time soon, so the best result I could hope for was another reference.
Now I was confident. I had two internships under my belt, so I could proceed to a real job. Right? Um, no. In fact, this is when I finally realized that I'd been duped, that millions of my peers were duped. As I glanced through mediabistro.com one day, I could see that entry-level job postings always fell into two categories: either internships or positions requiring a year or two of professional experience. This was the elephant-sized hole in the job market's living room, a yawping gap in the ladder between the intern's rung and the ground level of real employment. So I started asking around to see how people had done it. My suspicions were confirmed. Barring deus ex masthead—someone in the right rung moves, gets pregnant, or is struck by various forms of career lightning—an internship won't land you a job; if the timing doesn't come up in your favor, it's just back to waiting in line. Sure, your performance in the internship makes a big difference, but once the stint is over, it all gets lost behind just another bullet in the resume.
I obediently stepped back into line. I knew someone who knew someone who knew the mediabistro.com folks, and, I figured, where better to finally find a media job than at a site all about media jobs?
I must first say that of all my pseudo-employers, mediabistro.com was the best. The nice thing about this place is that the folks here make the industry—which at times can seem irrational, baseless, and fickle—seem engaging, easygoing, and infinitely entertaining. What's more, they know that even though hard work and merit badges don't quite equal success in these fields, it doesn't mean that there aren't proven formulas for getting ahead. In that way, they are a perfect place for a media internship. But it's also a small operation, not quite shoestring anymore, but not much bigger. I was ignoring my third rule. But I was also enjoying it.
One of my first assignments here was to contact successful media professionals and ask them about their own internship experience. The project didn't get very far. Turns out that internships haven't ignited too many great careers, at least not yet. Most people who have weathered the internship in its modern sense are still on the mild slope of the career curve. Back in the day, it seems, people just got low level jobs, in the mailroom or on the switchboard—much like internships, they're small jobs for people with underdeveloped skill sets, but with significant differences. For one, there's a paycheck—often with a side dish of health coverage—but more, important, you have real responsibilities, however minor they may be.
Now that college degrees are nearly universal and companies have learned to take advantage of this naďve and expendable free labor, internships are less like apprenticeships and more like unpaid temp jobs. There's rarely any hope of advancement, and all the burden of proof is on the intern. Employers aren't looking to help you improve; they're keeping you around to have someone trained in case an employee leaves. No amount of hard work can change that—in fact, as mb editor-in-chief Jesse Oxfeld delights in telling me, the biggest mistake I made here was proving to be an excellent transcriber. It didn't get me a job; it just brought me more transcribing.
I'm not complaining about that. Really. I realize that I'm in an extremely fortunate position: I might still be treading water two years after graduation, but I'm not afraid of actually drowning. Make no mistake—a summer or three living in expensive cities while working for no pay is a luxury, and this shows in the people who end up doing it. When I flip through my graduating class's facebook, I notice that those with the most high-profile internships are the ones for whom a wageless summer living in an East Village loft is not much of a concern. We're not climbing a ladder; we're riding an escalator. As a result, the younger generation comes from narrower backgrounds and has a more limited range of experiences. We're more willing to pay dues, no matter how degrading, but we're less inclined to be innovative and take risks.
This whole system isn't good for the interns, and it can't be good for the industry either. It's creating a limited talent pool, and, beyond that, a company gets only what it pays for: a constantly changing bottom floor filled with people who have little or no vested interest in business performance, sucking up bandwidths, writing potentially embarrassing emails, engaging in scandalous interoffice behavior, without having a real job to worry about losing. How long will it be before the internship inefficiency becomes acknowledged and eliminated?
Of the few things I've learned from internships, their central lesson is still a vital one for a spoiled college grad with a throbbing sense of entitlement: until fate finds you or you find fate, you ain't shit. That's a lesson I can get behind. But if I keep learning it, the stench will be intolerable.
Greg Bloom is a former editorial intern at mediabistro.com who has left the magazine industry for the moment. He is currently trying to save the world.