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The 23-Year-Old Intern

Did I just graduate, or am I imagining it? Journalism alumni keep right on interning at big publications, leaning on retail jobs and parents to pay the bills

Email icon  feuer@nyu.edu

As a Vassar undergraduate, Eliza Thompson interned at United Feature Syndicate, earning $12 an hour for proofreading and fact checking. She hoped that internship would help her find a journalism job. But six months after graduation, she was still interning — for free –- at the women’s magazine Bust, and the parody newspaper The Onion.

“I really want to find a job in magazines and journalism, but they’re sort of nonexistent right now,” said Thompson. “So, I feel like the only way in is through unpaid internships.”

To cover her living expenses, she works 15 to 30 hours per week at Old Navy, and receives help from her parents.

Thompson belongs to a growing group of college alumni who continue working at unpaid journalism internships well past graduation, as media are hit by the double whammy of economic crisis and the waning power of print.

Only six in 10 bachelor degree recipients in media fields were employed full time six to eight months after graduation, according to the Grady Institute’s 2008 Annual Survey of Journalism and Mass Communication Graduates, compared with 70 percent in 2007.

This is also the first year that a sizable block of college graduate interns (in all fields) showed up in the National Association of College and Employers annual survey.

“A post-graduate internship is not a really bad strategy,” said Edwin Koc, the director of strategic and foundation research for NACE. “It gives students a chance to show they are a fit for the company. Their chances are probably vastly improved as opposed to if they went in cold.”

Parents magazine editor-in-chief Chandra Turner agrees. She compared an unpaid internship to dating.

“When you have a boyfriend, it’s much easier to find a boyfriend,” said Turner, who founded Ed2010, a career-building organization for young magazine staffers. “It’s much easier to find a job when you have a job. You talk the talk. You’re more involved in that industry. You’re running into people in the building. You have the internal contacts with human resources. Your confidence level is up.”

When she hears of a job opening, her interns are the first people she recommends, she added.

That is the thinking behind Molly Finkelstein’s job hunt. The theme of the Vassar graduate’s recent birthday party was “The 23-Year-Old Intern.” Finkelstein works at two internships, at Seventeen and New York Magazine. She receives small stipends from each job, and additional money and health insurance from her parents.

“I figured since no one was hiring in any industry, I might as well just stick with the one I know I’m interested in,” she said. “Also, my only post-grad goal was to not move back to New Jersey.”

Not everyone recommends this strategy, though.

Consider freelancing rather than interning, suggested Pamela Noel, the director of career services at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Wanted: Real, Paying Jobs

“If a May graduate comes to me in June or July and they’re upset and thinking about taking an unpaid internship, I would probably suggest that they give it a little more time to keep looking, because this is a really difficult job environment, one of the most difficult we have ever had in media,” Noel said. “That does not mean that they cannot find work. Jobs do open up. Real, paying jobs.”

Since freelancing involves writing rather than traditional intern duties, such as research and office work, Noel considers this an effective way for graduates to gather contacts, and ultimately land journalism jobs.

Yet in some cases, interns are picking up work freelancers used to do. Magazines have adopted this strategy in an effort to stay afloat, according to Rachel Kaufman, the editor of MediaJobsDaily, jobs blog of the media services organization Mediabistro.

“It’s not a tough business decision in the eyes of a publisher to get the same results for less money,” she said. “Editors would rather see their publications survive these very tough times than worry about a couple freelancers.”

Some think this situation is temporary.

Jim O’Brien, the director of career services at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, predicts that, as the job market rebounds, unpaid internships will again become the domain of underclassman.

But Bust managing editor Emily Rems disagrees.

“Journalism is teeming with people who would gladly do it without pay,” she said. “Anytime, you’re going to find people willing to do it for free because they want to get their foot in the door. They want to get into the industry any way they can.”

Turner concurred.

But, she added: “It’s still good to be working at a magazine rather than at Starbucks.”

After college graduation, interning gets old fast.

Photos by David Playford