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.
In the piece, you wrote, “You need to let the person being interviewed explain why he is terrible, which is more easily done when he thinks you are stupid or on his side.” One of the emails you later posted a screenshot of seemed to veer from this strategy. Do you think you could have gotten some more damning quotes, as opposed to so many non-responses, if you had appeared less combative from the outset?
I don’t consider asking media outlets the most basic questions imaginable about their internship programs to be particularly combative, and I find the most interesting thing about the questions I posed there to be the fact the person I posed them to only responded after publication – and only internally. That said, I also don’t think there is any real way to ask questions about internships these days that will make the person you are questioning think you are pro-people-not-getting-paid. This also was not the sort of piece where I really needed to goad anyone into giving a “damning” quote, since the most damning information came from these publications’ own job listings.
The response I think matters is not the one issued from a communications specialist to a journalist prior to publication, but the one that comes after the piece is out. A spokesperson for Mother Jones gave me a quote for the piece and I dutifully put it in there, but their decision to give their interns a $500-a-month raise, announced after my article was published, is the one people will remember, not the banal, pre-publication excuse-making.
I previously wrote about receiving parental subsidies, and your story notes that you have benefitted from that when you were just starting out as well. Do you think that you would have been willing and able to continue to pursue journalism without them? (I know I wouldn’t have.)
I do not think I could have worked a full-time job without a salary as long as I did without getting some help from Mom and Dad. I slept on couches of friends and distant relatives alike, but that only works for so long. And some day you do have to stop deferring your student loans. Insofar as I have a career, I like to think talent played a part, but I’m not yet conceited enough to believe the economic privilege I enjoyed as a white suburbanite trying to fulfill a “dream” wasn’t the bigger factor.
You said that the people emailing you were even more inflammatory than the commenters on the story. What were some of the most outrageous things that crossed your inbox?
Being a sensitive soul, I never read the comments, so I can’t say if the critical emails I received were actually more inflammatory. I do think it is important to point out that the vast majority of the feedback I encountered was positive, many of it coming from people currently employed as interns, as well as the legions of 20- and 30-something media types who didn’t much care for their own internship experiences. Staff at some of the publications I named in my piece wrote to say they found their bosses’ excuses for not paying interns living wage less than convincing. Only a few people took the bosses’ sides.
Indeed, the only negative responses I got in my inbox were from a couple people (none of them interns), who wrote me to suggest that editors who are making anywhere from $70,000 to $150,000 are not “getting rich,” which may be true but is also a non-sequitur – and go tell that to an unpaid intern.
I understand why some of these people are defensive – the left-wing media world is small — and some would say incestuous — but when you have the means to pay top staff well above a living wage, it’s a bit rich to ask only the millenials to sacrifice in the name of the cause. It’s wrong, actually.
I don’t think progressive outlets should be in the business of replicating the economic inequality they criticize elsewhere. And I don’t think editors who pay themselves well over a living wage should be immune from criticism when they pay others nothing. For some, that’s been a point of contention.
You tweeted that you made $22,000 last year. It would appear as though you have the talent to lend some of your writing ability to creating viral/ephemeral web content (like much of what I do) to help support yourself in also continuing to craft important journalistic pieces. Is this something you have ever considered and pursued?
As a matter of fact, I’m already working on having my intern piece converted into GIFs of Jaden Smith.
Shortly after your piece published, Mother Jones announced that they would begin paying their interns slightly above California’s minimum wage. Though you noted that this still falls well short of their own living wage calculations, do you see any moral victory there? Have any other of the outlets that you outed followed suit?
A senior editor at The American Prospect responded that while he wanted to defend his magazine’s use of unpaid and barely paid labor, he couldn’t help but admit that his magazine was wrong and needed to “live up to values we profess.” I am not aware of there having been a change in policy yet, but such acknowledgements can’t help but set the wheels in motion – and I do know that staff at some of the other places I named in the piece are lobbying for such a change.
That’s ultimately why I wrote it: There’s a lot of exploitation in our society. While the vast majority of that exploitation is carried out by people who would not identify as part of the left — much less center-left media — guilty white liberals are susceptible to being guilted into changing their behavior when allies point out that it falls short of their professed values.
Would you estimate that the final total came out to above minimum wage for the hours of research and writing that you put into it?
I was paid $300, which I consider extremely good for freelancing but pales in comparison to what I would have received had I written the piece as a staff writer (with benefits). VICE, like any other publication, could do a better job of sharing its wealth with the people who produce its content, be they freelancers, editors or interns.
If the shamed outlets respond to your call for them to either pay interns or not hire them by opting for the latter like Conde Nast did, how does anyone — rich or poor — become a professional journalist?
I think it’s a good thing when outlets decide to only hire employees that they plan to pay. If publications respond to criticism of unpaid and poorly-paid internships by ending them, entry-level positions once filled by interns will ultimately be filled by employees, assuming that the current crop of interns are performing vital work from which their employers benefit – which they do and is why they’re “employed” in the first place.