Money for nothing: How much would you pay for an upaid internship?

If you heard a long, anguished, agonized scream today, don't call the cops. You probably heard the collective sobbing of journalists around the nation. We already know print news is in trouble; newspapers have had trouble paying the bills since they rolled the dice and hoped that giving away their reporting for free online would eventually pay off. So far, after more than a decade, it hasn't.

Instead of selling its product, one website is selling an unpaid summer internship. That's right, intern pay equals zero. You read that correctly. Forget applying; that's old-school. Today, any enterprising journalist with sufficient cash can bid on an internship at The Huffington Post, a website infamous among freelance journalists for its payscale of precisely zero dollars per word.

But at least the writers don't have to pay to be published. But is giving away a HuffPo internship that, at the time of this writing, has attracted 10 bids, topping out at $13,000. Somebody out there has agreed to pay $13,000 for the privilege of working for free.
I understand why someone would be willing to spend $13,000 to land a prestigious internship -- to a point. It's a lousy economy, and journalism is a tough field to break into. If you can land an internship with the Huffington Post, a strong brand name in media circles, that will likely open doors at major media organizations like CNN (and even newspapers, if there are jobs to be had). And it's indisputable that the $13,000 will go to an important cause: the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

So it isn't as if the Huffington Post is getting the $13,000 (or more, if more higher bids come in over the next two weeks). But the irony is appalling. The Huffington Post -- fairly or not -- has become a symbol of what's killing professional journalism. Most writers for the HuffPo toil for free (although the site has recently created a fund to pay for investigative journalism), and they promote other magazine and newspaper articles on their site, arguing that they're driving traffic to other media outlets. Some of those media outlets gripe that the Huffington Post's business model of aggregating other organizations' enterprising (and expensive) journalism is raking in a lot of money at very low cost -- low cost to the HuffPo, that is.

And let's not forget that many of the Huffington Post's contributors are well-heeled celebrities who can afford to take a pass on a paycheck. But by doing so, they help to drive down wages for working journalists -- who, after all, rarely get into the business to get rich, but also hope that their chosen career doesn't consign them to a life in debtor's prison.

I just hope that this pay-to-get-a-free-internship doesn't become the norm. It seems wrong on so many levels, whether in journalism or any field. The concept of a free internship -- let alone asking someone to pay money to get a free internship -- is a practice that prevents non-wealthy candidates from getting better jobs. You have to really feel for anyone who is extremely qualified, gung-ho, full of initiative, but who doesn't have the funds or connections it takes to swing an unpaid internship. Unable to compete with the rich kids, that poor but qualified person is shut out from the earliest stage of a career.

When my daughters are old enough, in a decade or so, to enter the job market, I won't automatically be excited if they consider an unpaid internship. If we truly are seeing the start of a new trend, my reaction will probably be: "You know, when I was your age, a paid internship meant they paid you."

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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