Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

The Threat to Publishing Internships

Two unpaid interns sued Fox. And won.

Yep, it's true. As this Washington Post article describes:

"a federal judge in New York ruled this week that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie 'Black Swan.'"

Now of course, this ruling could get overturned by a higher court. Don't think for an instant that Fox won't appeal the ruling.

But for the moment, let's discuss another facet of the ruling; namely, the current legal test for employers to determine if their interns can go unpaid (from The Atlantic, emphasis mine:)

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; 
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

On first glance, these criteria seem entirely reasonable. But then we have internships with publishers. If employers are required to gain no advantages from the interns' work, then would interns be allowed to use and hone their writing skills in such a position? Because in a good publishing internship...

  • an editorial intern learns to write cover copy, reader's reports, and sales blurbs
  • a marketing intern learns to write pitches
  • a development intern learns to write grant proposals, for the non-profits

And what about other creative internships? Journalism, graphic design, anything with creating copy or images. It's all fine and well to have interns practice creating such things, but it just makes more sense to let them practice on real projects. Higher stakes, more realistic working environment, and undoubtedly better guidance, as their work reflects directly on their boss. 

Unpaid internships are unquestionably abused by some employers, but the line between useful and exploitative is a bit murky. By these criteria, the only unpaid internship I ever worked would have been illegal. Except it was not only the best job I ever had, but it gave me an invaluable wealth of experience and connections for the publishing industry. You can't get that in many places. 

Granted, the only reason that internship at The New Press was unpaid was because I worked it after the economy crashed, when they almost had to shutter their entire press. But they didn't. They still hired interns, gave them a travel stipend, and fed them lunch once a week for a seminar. And they were committed to starting to pay interns again as soon as possible.

As it happens, they've delivered. If you're looking for a publishing internship in NYC, go apply here