It’s the ultimate “screw you” to the lawsuit currently hanging over Condé Nast’s head: Rather than pay its interns, the magazine giant just won’t have interns at all.
Women’s Wear Daily broke the news yesterday, dumping a proverbial bucket of ice water on the hopes that the suit might win thousands of coffee-fetchers, fact-checkers, and errand-runners more compensation than an extra line on their résumés and the ever-nebulous benefit of “experience.” Starting in 2014, even those willing to work for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and other newsstand staples for little more than a $500 stipend and a reference or two are fresh out of luck.
Like many other college students and virtually everyone I know at Columbia, I’ve done my fair share of unpaid internships. They’re common in practically every industry that isn’t finance, consulting, or tech, though media positions get the lion’s share of the media coverage for reasons that are both obvious and self-explanatory. As yet another aspiring writer trying to break into a profession I’ve been told is in its death throes my entire life, offering my services to whatever outlet would take me just made sense.
Fortunately, “whatever outlet would take me” translated into a series of invaluable opportunities to learn the ropes of my (tentatively) chosen profession—a description that reads like brochure-speak for what internships are supposed to be, sure, but it is an accurate one nonetheless. Which is why Condé Nast’s decision is so disappointing: Instead of offering that same experience to more prospective interns, it’s closed it off entirely.
The fundamental injustice of internships has never been that there’s no value in young people giving for-profit corporations part-time, entry-level labor, which is what Condé Nast implies when it axes internships altogether. It’s that there’s plenty of value in the practice, but employers ensure the vast majority of prospective interns can’t reap any of that value by not providing meaningful compensation for said entry-level labor.
Ironically, forking over the $7.25 an hour a paid internship program would require might actually serve the long-term interests of the company as well as aspiring denizens of the GQ fashion closet. Opening up internships to those who can’t afford to work for free makes positions more competitive, yielding both more qualified interns and, eventually, more qualified applicants to the entry-level media jobs for which internship experience is increasingly mandatory.
In a perfect world, Condé Nast would replace its now-eliminated internship program with some of those ever-elusive starter jobs. Unfortunately, even if Condé were to do so instead of just reabsorbing typical intern tasks into existing positions, the company would still be depriving itself of the most intuitive hiring pool—and training ground—for new talent there is.
Condé Nast was once the prime representative of a system that was deeply flawed, but easily fixable (easily, at least, for companies with the cash to afford a brand-new set of offices at One World Trade Center, let alone a few minimum-wage workers). Now, an industry leader has chosen to lead in precisely the wrong direction, discarding a chance to make internships more beneficial for both interns and their employers. It’s too bad, and not just because the pickings on LionShare just got a whole lot slimmer.