November 1, 2013

Conde Nast shuts down its internship program


But who will make sure that the sunrise synchronizes exactly with the 38th floor now?

In the wake of a lawsuit by two former interns, the media conglomerate Condé Nast has shut down its internship program. The news came out in Women’s Wear Daily on October 23rd and though it does not affect current interns, there will be no internships at the company from 2014 onwards.

No one at Condé Nast has officially commented on the decision yet, though a press release on the corporate website from earlier in the year trumpets the fact that this September has been the company’s strongest in five years, with ad page numbers up in Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Bon Appétit, Wired, Architectural Digest, and other magazines.

But that’s not enough revenue, apparently, to fund paid internships or to soothe Condé Nast’s wounds, after Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib sued earlier this year, claiming that they’d been paid less than $1 an hour for internships at W and The New Yorker, respectively, in 2009 and 2010. Even though ads in Condé Nast properties are insanely expensive, and could actually cover modest intern salaries. Alyssa Rosenberg, herself a former intern at The Atlantic, broke the numbers down on the blog ThinkProgress:

As of January 1, 2012, minimum wage in New York was $7.25 an hour. In 2014, it will rise to $8.00. If Condé Nast was to pay its next summer interns minimum wage, forty hours a week, for ten weeks over the summer, that would cost them $3,200 per intern. If each of the 26 publications in the Condé Nast brand, which run from Allure, to Golf World, to Wired, hired ten interns for the summer, paying them minimum wage would run the corporation $832,000 for the entire summer. That’s a tidy sum, to be sure, but it’s also worth remembering that running a full-page ad, once, in Vogue, just one of the publications in Condé Nast’s roster, will run an advertiser $181,286: in other words, you could pay the whole corps of Condé Nast interns by selling 4.59 full-page ads in a single issue of Vogue.

The shutting down of the internship program has been widely condemned, though from very disparate quarters. Aliza Licht, senior vice president of global communications at Donna Karan, demonstrated a near Delta Gamma level of catty shaming, when she tweeted “I hope everyone who sued knows they ruined it for EVERYONE.” Former interns have also weighed in, though some of them are just so horrible that it’s hard to believe they’re actually intended to serve as sympathetic examples of the cost of this decision. For instance, from a New York Times article by Cara Buckley:

For Lauren Indvik, a business editor and soon-to-be co-editor in chief at Fashionista, the 2008 internship at Vogue was worth every sacrifice.

The 15 pounds frantically lost in the weeks before the interview. The predawn drive from New Hampshire to Times Square. The bed shared with a fellow penny-pinching friend near Pennsylvania Station, and the morning and evening walks — in heels — because she could not afford subway fare. “It’s so valuable,” she said.

Seriously? We are supposed to feel bad for you? Sorry, but nope.

Responses from other past interns have been less douche-y. From the same article:

Another former intern, Michael Humphrey, a freelance writer and a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University, said, “Having The New Yorker on your résumé does amazing things for you.” While he would not have minded more pay — he earned $500 for a semester’s work — he said the real value came in the experience and relationships built. “It helped verify that I was serious about the business,” he said.

Commentators have generally seen the decision as part of a larger reconsideration of internships, which raise questions not only about paid vs. unpaid work, but also about the rights of interns in regards to discrimination and sexual harassment, whether internships for course credit should cost full (or any) tuition, and where internships for nonprofits fit into all of this. Suffolk Law School professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada was interviewed for ProPublica (which is also conducting a nationwide survey about the intern economy, with the help of an intern) on the subject and commented that, in the short term,

It may mean a reduction in the net number of internships offered, but that reduction affects everyone equally in terms of supply. In addition, given the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) Studies showing that unpaid internships may carry less clout in the entry-level job market, it’s far from clear that an overall reduction in unpaid opportunities will have a negative effect on individual employment prospects.

Yamada’s referring to studies that show that, in 2013, 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer, in comparison to 37 percent of unpaid interns, and that this trend has been consistent over the past three years that the NACE has been collecting data on internships. In addition, starting salaries have been higher by a significant amount for paid interns versus unpaid interns or those who forgo interning entirely (median salaries of $51, 930 vs $35, 721 and $37, 087 — in other words, it appears to be marginally better to do no internships at all, rather than an unpaid one).

Though the thought of fewer Indviks traipsing around with pouty faces fills me with undisguisable glee, the questions here seem to be not only about numbers, but also harder to measure qualities: self-worth, valued work, a sense of a potential long-term commitment from both sides, and a joint enterprise, which is what makes work satisfying in the first place. Paid publishing jobs often don’t offer these very prospects. But if the intern lawsuits of the 2000-teens create even a sliver of a workforce engaged with labor issues more generally — conscious of exploitation, thinking about what workplaces should really offer their employees — I think it’s a good development.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.