'Atlantic' Publisher Takes Stand on Intern Pay. Who Will Follow?

Atlantic publisher takes stand on intern pay
Atlantic publisher takes stand on intern pay

A lot of young people are performing full-time work but not getting paid for it because they're classified as interns, according to The New York Times. Although supposedly a recession-related phenomenon, this has long been standard operating procedure in the publishing industry, which makes heavy use of college students and graduates on the pretext of educating them. But with the Labor Department tightening enforcement of internship rules, will that system have to change? At least one publisher thinks so.

Atlantic Media, which counts The Atlantic and the National Journal among its publications, has decided to begin paying all of its interns -- with actual money, that is, and not just in the currency of "valuable work experience." The company explained the change in a statement to DailyFinance:

With some enthusiasm, we worked with (outside) counsel last year to develop what we hoped might be one of the best internships available for aspiring journalists. The plan was to have interns work side by side with our editorial and business-side staff -- and to create for them a strong academic program with a formal curriculum including lectures, case studies, homework and exercises. Our first class of interns began last summer, our second this January.

Thinking about the internship program through the lens of Saturday's New York Times story, we found ourselves revisiting the concept. We had thought this was the way to structure unpaid internships but if it sits near a grey zone, it's not for us.

Yesterday, we decided to pay, retroactively, both last year's interns and our current class. We convened our current interns this morning to tell them the news. Some messages are easier to deliver than others. Telling them they would be paid was on the easier side.

The change puts Atlantic Media in the minority of publishers offering only paid internship positions. Time Inc. is in that group as well, and also requires that all interns receive graduate or undergraduate course credit, according to a spokeswoman. A Hearst spokesman says its interns all receive either pay or credit, with those who receive credit required to provide a letter of verification from their schools.

But many other companies employ interns who receive neither cash nor credit -- even though such an arrangement falls into exactly the legal "grey zone" Atlantic Media is exiting. A search of online job listings in magazine publishing turns up plenty of unpaid internships for non-students, although in most cases credit can be had for those who want it. A listing for a fashion internship at Interview magazine specifically states, "College credit is not required," while one at Us Weekly merely says credit is "available." It's not much different in online media: A spokesman for the Huffington Post says the site "has both paid and unpaid interns, who work at the site for the training, experience, and exposure." Adds the spokesman, "We're careful to follow all employment guidelines."

Those guidelines, however, are fairly subjective and, taken literally, rather unfavorable to employers. They require, among other things, that any company employing unpaid interns derive "no immediate advantage" from the work they do to ensure that the emphasis is on job training, not exploitation. That rule seems to be honored mostly in the breach at places like Rolling Stone, which is owned by the same company as Us Weekly, Wenner Media. A former intern there says her job was mostly transcribing interview tapes and fetching coffee for editors.

Originally published