By RYAN GLASSPIEGEL
Earlier this week, Charles Davis wrote a piece for VICE in which he shamed left-wing media outlets for failing to live up to their stated ideals in their practices of exploiting unpaid and poorly paid interns. While I’m on comparatively stronger footing as a freelancer right now (but by no means out of the woods just yet), I discussed the industry norm of being expected to write for free early in my career back in March and was fascinated by Davis’ story just by the nature of being a twenty-something working to establish a sustainable career in media.
Davis named names, shaming outlets like The New Republic, Washington Monthly, In These Times, and Salon for their low or unpaid internships. Mother Jones’ own living wage calculator found that the amount it was paying its fellows (a new, less derogative word for interns) to be substandard. (After the piece’s publication, MJ announced that it would soon begin paying its fellows slightly above California’s minimum wage, which is a start, I suppose.)
The primary takeaways were that these purported liberal publications were hypocritically practicing the labor exploitation that they denounce in corporate America, and that these industry norms consequentially marginalize all but the most genetically fortunate young journalists from making it professionally. This leads to a lack of diversity in voices, which waters down the quality of media across the board.
I reached out to Davis and asked him a few follow-up questions about his story:
Was there a particular catalyst for you to decide to tackle this story? Did you write it on spec or get the pitch approved from VICE before you started?
Working as an unpaid intern straight out of college was bad enough, but that was a couple years ago so the bitterness of making my boss richer while I worked for free had dissipated – until I started looking for jobs again. What I realized is that the unpaid internship was not behind me: a lot of the positions for which I qualified and sounded a hell of a lot like jobs to me were promising payment only in experience, something one used to gain as a paid employee but which we now consider a form of currency in and of itself.
It struck that, instead of leading to a staff position, my unpaid internship had simply allowed my boss to fill a staff position for free and that the effect of these internships was to drive down wages across an industry not exactly known for making people wealthy. And when I saw my partner get a paid position with an outlet that enjoys a budget smaller than most allowances in Orange County, the argument that publications simply can’t afford to pay all their employees a decent wage, much less anything, really struck me as ever-so-much bullshit.
VICE did not commission this piece nor did I set out with the intention of writing it for them. The problem I encountered is that no outlet one would consider part of the traditional “left” media would touch it, in part because they either exploit 20-something labor themselves or they wished to stay on friendly terms with those who do. VICE was willing to let me call out hypocrisy when no one else would.
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