The Interns Are Uprising! But Is It Their Loss?

The interns are staging an uprising. And many big media executives are sweating. Charlie Rose has already settled a lawsuit against his production company. FOX Searchlight lost a case and is appealing. Now MSNBC and “Saturday Night Live” may have to go to court. Each is accused of working interns to the bone, having them perform menial tasks that regular employees should perform, and not paying them a dime.

Whoa, Millennials! Way to stick it to Old Media!

Except… I think I’m going to have to side with Old Media on this one.

As TheWrap points-out in a nice piece which puts a face on Hollywood interns, the unpaid internship is the way to get your foot in the door in television, film, and journalism. The real threat of these lawsuits isn’t to the big media companies’ bank accounts. The real threat is to next year’s crop of interns and the ones who would be applying the year after that. You see, in this age of “we make billions but we still only buy that stiff, generic toilet paper for the company’s restrooms because it saves us ten-cents a roll,” we may not see paid internships as a result of these lawsuits. We may just see internships go away. And that would be a shame.

I did it. I should say my mother, father, and I did it. I don’t know how we scraped together enough money for me to intern at Dispatch Broadcast Group’s DC bureau the summer before my senior year in college. But we found nearly $1,000 each month — from somewhere — to pay the rent on an apartment in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was within walking distance of the Metro’s Red Line, which I would take downtown to Dispatch’s suite in the National Press Building.

I held the reflector above the correspondent’s head, my arms aching, as she sweated through standup after standup in the stifling heat that just seems to lay on Washington in the summertime as if trying to literally smother it. I grabbed the camera and tripod and began shooting a news conference one morning when our staff photojournalist got stuck on a Metro train because of some delay in Northern Virginia. Thank goodness he showed-up in the middle of it because I was a horrible photog. I wrote packages and VO/SOTs out the wazoo. Some days I didn’t even get a thank you from the correspondent. But, boy, what a thrill that my words were being read by her or the big time anchors at WTHR in Indianapolis and WBNS in Columbus!

I wasn’t getting paid with money. But that news organization was giving me something I would’ve been willing to buy. Their correspondent and photographer were showing me literally how you get around Capitol Hill as a journalist (this was pre-9/11 but security was already tight and the word “labyrinthine” is never so apt as when it’s used to describe the Hill’s hallways, tunnels, special subway system, and liveshot/news conference locations — each with their own quirky nicknames. You’ve got your “Swamp” and “Triangle.” Plus, there’s no telling who you’ll spot in the Ohio Clock Corridor.)

Just to give you a feel for how big a financial struggle this was for my family, there were many days when I’d wander down to an ATM outside the National Press Building and there would be no money. And I was a college kid, super hungry all the time. I’d call my mom pleading for another 20 or 30 bucks. She’d say she couldn’t believe how expensive Washington was because she’d just given me $100 a few days before. And I’d say, “I know. It’s unbelievable.” And she’d say, “Well, I’ll try.” And somehow she’d scrounge-up some money, run it to a teller at Bank of America in our hometown, and within 24-hours it would be in my account. I must have used credit cards, too, to survive. They practically hand them out as welcome gifts at colleges, after all.

But that wasn’t the end of the scrounging. In the fall, I began my training as a student at the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, which came with a small stipend but more importantly included an internship at CNN’s Washington bureau.

Talk about doing the job of regular staffers! I was quite literally former CNN economics/political correspondent Brooks Jackson’s researcher, field producer, and tape logger — a job I particularly despise to this day and still have to do. But demand payment? Are you kidding? Brooks was like my father-away-from-home offering me advice about the biz and life in general. He is still a wonderful mentor and friend. Plus, it was through him that I met Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, when Brooks interviewed him in a majestic room inside the Treasury Building. On other days, Brooks would introduce me to some of the smartest people in the world studying this issue or that at the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, or Congressional Budget Office.

Believe me, 90% of it wasn’t glamorous, though. There were hours spent transcribing long interviews and adding asterisks around soundbites that I thought might work for Brooks’ next piece. I would get dizzy searching for b-roll in the bureau’s cavernous video library, where the numbering system never seemed to make sense. Plus, there were lots of long days. When I worked for him, Brooks was reporting for Wolf Blitzer’s show, which at that time didn’t air until 8 p.m.

Keep in mind, Brooks was working even harder than I was. He was logging, researching, and corralling interview subjects before I got to his office in the morning and was staying much later than I was at night. He also always wrote his own package scripts. So maybe some of this passion for a good ol’ fight against The Man comes from interns who worked for network divas who expect producers and interns to do everything for them.

However, to sue Old Media or New Media because you weren’t paid for the time you toiled away preparing interview materials for Charlie Rose or because you were asked to help book guests for MSNBC seems to me to be the height of ungratefulness.

Do you realize what a chance these broadcasters are taking even letting someone as unqualified as a college student, like I was, in the door? Do you realize the damage you could do to a world class news organization with one screw-up that gets on-air? But even without having had any qualifications — and even with all the real world education you got and the contacts you made through that opportunity — you’re going to turn around later and demand that they pay you?

Excuse me, but unless there was some egregious treatment by these media companies that I’m not aware of, the former interns behind these lawsuits will not be receiving any sympathy from me.

And to current and future interns: If you’re not getting anything out of your internship, quit. Otherwise, suck it up and take in all you can take in. At the end of it, if you didn’t have the time of your life, it’s not an attorney you need to consult. You need to go see your college’s career counselor because apparently this one’s not for you.


For more information on the federal rules governing internships and whether your station/network might be at risk of a lawsuit alleging that interns should’ve been paid, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has created this fact sheet. In addition, you’ll want to consult your company’s attorneys to make sure your current and future internship programs meet the guidelines.

Matthew Nordin is an investigative reporter at WXIX-TV in Cincinnati. Join him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @FOX19Matthew.