The discussion over whether unpaid internships have their merits — or are just downright exploitative — seems to resurface every few months.
One side touts that any experience is desirable, and can teach lessons about work ethic. And the other crowd counters with tales of skipping meals or being forced to work multiple jobs to hold said position, while simultaneously noting that the lack of pay presents a nearly unconquerable barrier for many lower-income individuals and people of color.
But one particular tweet from a reporter on Monday brought back the debate in full force. And while the same firestorm of comments was again ignited, this time around, the conversation online appeared to shift beyond just talking about historical norms.
Many united around a singular response: enough is enough.
Jane Slater, a reporter for the NFL Network, first tweeted what she initially labeled as an unpaid internship opportunity, inviting broadcast journalism students to apply and reach out to her with questions.
An hour or so later, Slater followed up on the offer, appearing to be taken aback by the replies she was receiving over the fact the job was not a paid position, writing that she had three “unpaid internships in school, double majored, and had a job.”
Her next tweet, implying that anyone who was unable to survive on less than a standard living wage was not cut out for the media industry, is what really set people off.
“There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business,” Slater said. “I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”
One other layer...for future journalists...your first few years feel unpaid. I made 16.5k my first two years and worked harder than I’ve ever worked. There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business. I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind ✌🏼 https://t.co/c4iWwPQ1bs— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) March 1, 2021
Throughout the day, Slater continued to retweet messages on par with the one she had conveyed, including one person who said that you have to “pay your dues to have a career” and another who said the “opportunity is more valuable than any reimbursement.”
After people pointed out that Slater had previously said in an interview her grandfather had helped to support her financially, she again lashed out and called them “rotten” and “ugly.” Slater later walked back her earlier remark that the opportunity was an “internship” and apologized for coming across as “elitist.”
I have listened, engaged & now have some food for thought. Let me explain this “unpaid internship”, how we all got here in the comments section & what I’ve learned. Twitter isn’t the place but good & bad I always hope to learn something & hope you do too❤️ pic.twitter.com/NbMKuDCSvh— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) March 1, 2021
Among those who responded to her tweets, many took issue with “hustle culture” being perpetuated and the lack of compassion for those without family resources enabling them to take up such opportunities.
People shared what their own experience as an unpaid intern struggling to make it in their respective field had been like, along with the physical, mental, and often emotional toll it took on them.
The outpouring of reactions spurred Sopan Deb, a journalist with the New York Times, to note how the “unpaid internship discourse” has shifted over time, remarking that it “used to be an entire industry would try to uphold them as a norm.”
But “now, it’s one person’s tweets and the internet mobilizes en masse to dunk,” he said.
His colleague Astead Herndon, a national politics reporter at the paper, said he has learned that people “who think being broke for an unpaid internship was some fun or some necessary experience usually weren’t broke.”
Rather, Herndon said, those individuals likely had money and family they could fall back on in times of need. When he took on an unpaid media internship, Herndon began working at Jimmy John’s.
But when he was fired from the job, Herndon said that “worse than losing the [minimum] wage check” was the fact he also lost “a guaranteed meal.”
i always tell the story about me getting fired from jimmy johns for laughs but it's actually not funny! i was working there to do an unpaid media internship and worse than losing the min wage check i lost the free sandwich every day which was a guaranteed meal— Steadman™ (@AsteadWesley) March 1, 2021
Freelance journalist Lexi McMenamin shared a similar sentiment. The one internship she took in college was out of a feeling she “had to.”
“I went hungry living off $1 boxes of pasta. I got berated [because] I couldn’t afford a MetroCard,” McMenamin wrote. “I was so ashamed I stopped applying to writing gigs.”
The experience, McMenamin said, “materially damaged my career.”
now I'm multiple years out of college, freelancing and constantly hustling, because I literally couldn't afford to take the same unpaid opportunities as my classmates. sorry that I'm bitter, but if you don't want to support ppl from marginalized backgrounds, just say that!— lexi mcmenamin (@lexmcmenamin) March 1, 2021
Kat Stafford, a national investigative writer for the Associated Press, said whenever the conversation over unpaid internships again makes it rounds, she can’t help but think of all the “Black/POC journalists who couldn’t afford to take one [and] were unable to break into the industry.”
“Unpaid internships are barriers for many, not a badge of honor,” she said. “I almost didn’t pursue journalism because of it.”
Because of these roadblocks, the industry has “suffered tremendously,” Stafford said, as Black and other voices are shut out of the conversation.
While some may be tired of having this discussion again, Stafford said she “is not.”
“I want every young journalist to understand that they deserve to be paid for their labor,” she said, highlighting how those affected by the racial wealth gap and those who are first-generation students without any generational assets are automatically disadvantaged.
“Are we ready to talk about how that impacts journalism [and] who gets opportunities?” Stafford posed.
In fact, I'd argue the industry has suffered tremendously because of the voices we don't have. Imagine the stories that haven't been told. The perspectives we don't have -- from both Black/POC and aspiring journalists from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.— Kat Stafford (@kat__stafford) March 1, 2021
The racial wealth gap is a major factor. A first gen college student in a family w/no or minimal generational wealth/assets, often takes on more student debt. And you can't afford unpaid internships. Are we ready to talk about how that impacts journalism & who gets opportunities?— Kat Stafford (@kat__stafford) March 2, 2021
Brian Munoz, a visuals fellow with USA Today, detailed in a personal thread how he grew up poor, the son of Mexican immigrants — relaying his own life experiences to convey how “unpaid internships are how industries systemically keep marginalized communities out of them.”
Munoz described how his family relied on public assistance programs for some time as a means “to get enough food on our table.” While his dad worked by day at a scrapyard, his mom worked by night at a factory. In elementary school, Munoz would make items like bracelets to sell at a local flea market so he wouldn’t have to ask his parents for money.
“I knew they didn’t have much and were giving me everything they could,” Munoz said.
His first encounter with journalism — being interviewed by a local journalist and photojournalist — “left a long-lasting impact on a poor little Mexican boy,” Munoz said.
When he grew older, Munoz shared how he maxed out on student loans in order to attend his dream journalism school and spent nearly all of his savings — over $1,000 — on Uber rides “trying to get places in an attempt to build up my experience.” But drivers began canceling on him, Munoz said, because his neighborhood was seen as “dangerous.”
“Journalism, along with other industries, all have systemic barriers in places that will keep their industries favoring those from upper socio-economic classes,” Munoz said. “Unpaid internships are a prime example of systems that directly exploit people and their labor.”
He concluded: “At the end of the day, the ‘you have to put in your dues’ excuse needs to end. We need to offer paid (and livable) opportunities to those from marginalized communities. Those in power need to take note of their candidate’s personal backgrounds and how to best support them.”
Even New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez waded into the discussion, urging employers to pay their interns.
“You won’t be relying on privilege to subsidize staffing and your interns can do better work that they’re proud of when they aren’t exhausted working 2-3 jobs to subsidize one,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
In a clip attached to the tweet, Ocasio-Cortez is seen standing alongside Representative Ayanna Pressley and Representative Rashida Tlaib. “Experience,” Ocasio-Cortez shouts into the camera, “doesn’t pay the bills.”
Pay your interns!— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 1, 2021
It’ll improve your operation and make it more diverse and just. You won’t be relying on privilege to subsidize staffing and your interns can do better work that they’re proud of when they aren’t exhausted working 2-3 jobs to subsidize one.
We pay ours $15/hr. https://t.co/96M4XaY0GY
See what others had to stay on the topic:
The worst part of having the unpaid internship conversation again is learning how many full grown, powerful adults learned nothing from the previous unpaid internship conversations, and thinking about all the full grown, powerful adults who don’t even know this round is happening— Meredith Haggerty (@manymanywords) March 2, 2021
This is the toxic language that I'm hopeful will change with young folks in this industry calling it out. Equity issues in this industry should not be lauded for being part of "the grind." Just because you can afford to be unpaid and taken advantage of, doesn't mean others can. https://t.co/45EXxdNwZO— Omar S. Rashad عمر (@omarsrashad) March 1, 2021
I think a toooootally great feature for this app would be "Last time we talked about this," in which you could find out whether the discourse has changed at all since the last time people went to war on Twitter about a certain topic.— Omar S. Rashad عمر (@omarsrashad) March 2, 2021
Unpaid journalism internships perpetuate journalism's systemic racism issue & are a sure-fire way to keep low income, predominantly people of color, journalists in low paying jobs or out of the field entirely. We don't pay our rent, bills or student loans in "opportunities." https://t.co/E7GPpXS81V— Zameena Mejia✨ (@ZamTheWriter) March 1, 2021
making your internship unpaid DOES NOT ensure that your interns will:— hannah chinn (@hannahlchinn) March 1, 2021
- work more
- hustle harder
- learn to “grind”
it DOES, however, ensure that your field will remain inaccessible to:
- low-income students
- people of color
- those without a financial safety net
I had 5+ jobs throughout college and 1 unpaid internship. My pay would go towards paying for subway fares to get to my internship and lunch in the expensive Manhattan area where the office was located. Luckily, I got bylines, some aren’t as lucky. https://t.co/4sgbS57NYD— Alejandra Arévalo (@alejandrareval_) March 1, 2021
"i had 48284694232 unpaid internships and I had to donate my pancreas AND my heart to pay my rent. young kids these days don't even know!"— Erin B. Logan (@erinblogan) March 1, 2021
I personally loved working unpaid internships while also working two jobs. I slept 4 hrs a night in a moldy basement apartment and had panic attacks in the break room. Best years of my life.— Tori Bedford (@Tori_Bedford) March 2, 2021
1) pay your interns— Ryan Murphy (@rdmurphy) March 1, 2021
2) being a media darling shouldn't give you a pass
3) "I didn't get paid as an intern" shouldn't give you a pass
4) "we didn't pay interns at the magazine" shouldn't give you a pass
a former unpaid intern who wouldn't wish it on anyone
unpaid internships don’t show that you’re more dedicated to a job than someone else they just show that there’s a phone number in your phone that you can dial whenever you need money— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) March 1, 2021
A paid journalism internship is honestly the absolute bare minimum.— Megan Menchaca (@meganmmenchaca) March 1, 2021
Internships need to offer mentorship, professional development, a healthy work environment, a chance to do meaningful work and more.
Simply offering a salary without support is not enough.
I held an unpaid internship every semester of college (and 2 post-grad), while holding min wage part-time jobs & freelance writing. I didn't get my first "real" editorial position until I was 28. I would never wish what I went through upon my enemies. Hustle culture can f*ck off.— Joseph Hernandez (@joeybear85) March 1, 2021
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of New York Times reporter Astead Herndon.