January 09, 2014
By Blair Hickman and Casey McDermott
Special to the NNPA from ProPublica
Some might say internships received more scrutiny than ever in 2013. Here’s a look back at key developments from our ongoing investigation into unpaid internships.
The courts saw a slew of cases brought by current and former interns – and rulings were mixed. Former externs at billing companies were told their unpaid work satisfied federal guidelines, while a case brought by former interns at The Hearst Corporation was denied class-action status, due to a lack of “commonality.”
In the most high-profile ruling of the year, a federal judge ruled in June that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage laws by not paying its interns on the set of the movie “Black Swan.” But questions over intern wages are far from settled.
Since the June ruling, at least 17 other lawsuits have been filed. And Fox Searchlight is appealing its case, Attorney Rachel Bien, an attorney for the Fox interns, said she hopes the appeals court adopts a “bright-line test” to clarify exactly when an intern should be paid at least minimum wage.
In August, we reported on a little-known loophole that leaves unpaid interns without protection from sexual harassment. While the federal law remains unchanged for now, lawmakers in New York and California have since introduced measures to extend civil rights protections to unpaid interns in those states (Washington, D.C., and Oregon were first to enact such protections).
And as public scrutiny toward unpaid internships increased, several high-profile media companies shifted away from the practice. The Nation Institute began paying its interns minimum wage for the first time this fall. Opting for a different approach, Condé Nast announced in October (in the midst of an ongoing lawsuit against the company, filed by former interns) it would end its internship program altogether.
Reactions were polarized, though many lamented the end of the program. Moving forward, Breaking News associate editor Aaron Edwards (who has interned with other several media organizations, though not Condé Nast) said companies “need to find ways to let in those who have historically been shut out, or risk fostering underrepresentation.”
With the help of tips from hundreds of former interns, we also reported on how some colleges and universities — such as Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism — actively steer their students into low-wage or unpaid internships. Medill is reevaluating its internship program, including asking employers whether they would agree to pay students minimum wage.
Meanwhile, we found some colleges — notably at athletic departments — aren’t just sending students into unpaid internships in government, film or media. They’re also filling on-campus positions with unpaid interns of their own.
Finally, with help of the Knight Foundation and more than 700 Kickstarter backers, we were able to travel across the country to document dozens of internship stories — providing a closer look at how the intern economy has affected those who keep it running. The stories we gathered varied, including one from a student who said his unpaid internships did little to advance his career in the music industry (“At the recording studios all of them for the most [part] just had me clean bathrooms, so I learned nothing from them,” he said.) and others who found their internships to be rewarding, but were still troubled by the idea that unpaid internships could exclude those who can’t afford to work without pay.
So what’s next for Project Intern? In 2014, we’ll continue our reporting around internships with a special focus on the role schools play in the intern economy.
To bring more transparency to unpaid internships for academic credit, we’re also asking college students to help us document the tuition cost and quality of internship programs across the country. We’ve already profiled journalism internships at 20 schools — and we plan to add more schools and majors with your help.
Are you a former intern? Please check out the app and tell us how your experience matched up with your school’s internship policies. And if you have a tip about a particular school or employer, you can always share it privately with us at http://www.propublica.org/getinvolved/item/worked-an-internship-in-2013-tell-us-about-it.