By Christina Jedra
In the summer after her freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Emma Weissmann was looking for some real writing experience. She knew that to get competitive journalism internships — and eventually a job — she would need clips. But she was stuck in the suburbs of Chicago for three months, far from the major publishers in New York City, so, she did what many whippersnappers do: she got an internship. As a “remote intern” blogging for a website, Weissmann wrote two 500-word posts a week. By the end of the summer, she would have a portfolio of more than 20 published clips to pave the way for later internships. But unlike a traditional internship, Weissmann never got edits from her boss; in fact, she never even met her editor or heard her voice. She also didn’t get paid.
Weissmann is one of a growing group of college students who do remote internships, usually unpaid positions where interns work from home or their dorm room, often without the structure and mentorship that in-office internships offer. Ten percent of internship job postings on Ed2010 are for off-site positions, a figure that continues to increase. While these gigs can give young writers a foot in the door and coveted bylines, are they taking advantage of the thousands of students who are willing to work for free? And are employers violating federal labor law in the process? More and more students are asking these questions as they try to break into the competitive business of magazine media.
“I would not recommend it to anyone who is looking for some heavy journalism experience,” Weissmann says, noting that the unpaid position meant that she also waited tables that summer. “I never got any feedback on my posts from my supervisor and I didn’t get much direction on what to write about.”
Of course, students have been interning for free for magazines and websites for a long time to score clips. It’s become a necessary evil to working in publishing: If you have an internship, even unpaid, at least you can cite the educational value of the work — like observing editorial procedures, working side-by-side with established editors, and being in a professional environment — as compensation in itself. But with remote internships those face-to-face benefits disappear and students are left with an email, phone, or Skype relationship with their supervisor.
With remote internships “those benefits become much less possible, and that creates a problem,” says Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. Perlin says that the hyper-competitiveness of internships has given hiring managers the upper hand and that it’s hurting students — especially those who can’t afford to work for free.
Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors, says that remote interns can miss out on essential learning opportunities. “So much stuff at a magazine happens in the hallways. You lose out on valuable experiences,” he says. “You don’t see the sausage being made.”
The rise of remote internships is a result of the increase in entrepreneurial online businesses, like fashion bloggers who need help with content creation, says Lauren Berger, CEO of internship posting and advice site InternQueen.com. Berger, who runs her own remote internship program for Intern Queen, says she feels good knowing students don’t have to spend money on transportation to her Los Angeles office and that the program allows her to be more selective in hiring talent. “We can really choose an intern from anywhere,” she says. “We’re not limited by the city that we’re based in.”
Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Her Campus Media, agrees, noting that many interns choose to work from home to save money. “Especially given that in-office internships are often unpaid or you’re just getting school credit or a stipend, having to move to a new city and rent an apartment for the summer can be expensive,” says Lewis, whose office is based in Boston.
And some former remote interns do feel they gained valuable experiences from their off-site gigs. Hunter Harris, a journalism student at Emerson College, said she interned remotely for HerAgenda.com the summer after her freshman year. As an unpaid remote social media intern, she scheduled Twitter and Facebook posts, made graphics for Instagram, wrote a weekly roundup column, and facilitated Twitter chats. Harris — who later interned for Boston magazine and O, The Oprah Magazine — says she Skyped with her boss once a week with email check-ins more frequently. “The experience actually felt very similar [to other internships], in terms of the closeness of my relationship with my supervisor, which is probably a testament to how proactive and effective her management style was,” says Harris. “I think with a remote internship, a supervisor who’s more invested can make a difference.”
Jessica Fecteau, an editorial assistant at People, says her remote internship with CollegeLifestyles.org during her freshman year at Central Michigan University was “the best thing I could’ve done at the time. It really taught me how to write for an online publication,” she says. “The editor-in-chief was extremely hands on, teaching us teamwork and writing styles and the ins and outs of Wordpress.”
You may not know it by the popularity of unpaid internships in this industry—remote or otherwise—but according to the federal Department of Labor, it is illegal for for-profit companies not to pay interns minimum wage for their work unless the position meets six criteria. According to these rules, unpaid internships must be educational, for the benefit of the intern, and closely supervised. The employer also cannot derive “immediate advantage” from the intern. What that means is a matter of debate.
Maurice Pianko, a lawyer and founder of intern advocacy site InternJustice.com, says if internships don’t meet these requirements, as well as any additional state requirements, it is “100 percent illegal,” even if a student consents to volunteering their time. “Anybody can call anything an internship, but that word alone is meaningless,” he says.
A remote internship is not necessarily illegal, Pianko notes, but employers of remote internships that involve content creation may have a hard time claiming that they derive “no immediate advantage” from articles or blogs published on their site. “I would raise that argument before a judge or jury,” Pianko says. “I know it helps the intern because it gets them exposure, but it terms of the company, they’re doing it for web traffic. They want free blogs, and this cuts costs.”
InternQueen’s Berger encourages employers of remote interns to be mindful of internship structure, and notes that she’s careful to insure that the interns she hires for her own business stay occupied. “We take interns’ schedules very seriously. They’re on all of our calendars, and we know when they’re working, we’re going to have assignments for them, and when they’re not on, they’re not interning,” she says. “There are a lot of remote internships that are loosey goosey. They say, ‘Here’s a bunch of projects, just work on them when you can.’ I think everyone benefits from a structured remote internship program.”
If you choose to pursue a remote internship, keep these three things in mind:
1. Know what you’re getting into. “When students are looking for a virtual opportunity, they should look for a formal interview process,” Berger says. “Interviews are a two-way street.” Ask about the editing process, calling or Skyping in to editorial meetings, and if you can contact former interns to ask them about their experiences.
2. Supplement your professional experience with in-office work. “If someone gave me a resume with all remote internships, that would be a concern,” Holt says. “For the ASME intern program, we look to see that you have people skills.” Early in your college years, remote internships may help you establish clips, but you want to graduate up to in-office positions.
3. Know your rights. If you believe your internship employer has violated the requirements set by the federal or state Department of Labor, a consultation with a plaintiff’s lawyer is worthwhile and often free of charge, Pianko notes. His website internjustice.com is a useful resource if you’re weighing whether or not to pursue a case.
—Additional Reporting by Alexis Beneviste
This article was originally posted in 2014.
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