Hold Tight, My Young Ilk, Because We’ve Got Some Money Coming Our Way

In a particularly obtuse episode of the seminal 90’s animated Batman series, Batman stumbles upon a subterranean city of runaway children, stigmatized mute and averse to sunlight and forced by a crazed Sewer King to steal pocket watches. No one thought of looking for workforce injustice in the sewers least of all Mr. Wayne, who of course was occupied with more overt villains forged in improbable acid accidents but it was there. And in the end, Batman made sure those mole children filed W-4s and were offered transportation stipends and equality was had.

I reference this now because it is not entirely unlike the recent and sudden Adult interest in the sub-employee status of their children, occurring for years in the shadows, but only now brought to the surface in a swell of apparent shock and indignation. Surely they must have noticed their progeny absent from their usual stations in the couch for time on end, yet still asking for gas money. Where did they suspect they were, I wonder, working these magical volunteer jobs of indeterminate hours?

In any case, now they know, and they agree it’s probably less than legal.

That catalyst of a Times piece quotes the Labor Department’s Nancy J. Leppink: “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”

Not entirely advance-grade economics, yet no one thought of questioning big name publishers who brought in college seniors and recent grads to do work on par with their salaried staffers, but who rolled them out of a moving pick-up truck three months later without much more than a canned recommendation and that ersatz compensation, “exposure.”

To liken the government’s forceful rhetoric and Atlantic Media’s subsequent admirable (if pressured) response to that of reparations perhaps doesn’t hold. But for those privileged enough to be able to enter into a period of unpaid work at all, the unpaid internship is the closest we get to White slavery.

To be certain, journalism is a creative enterprise, and like any other, it necessitates serious, tangible work, and perhaps more so serious personal gauging. If we recognized the byline of any young upstart with spell-check and a self-assured handle on post-modernity we’d be doing everyone a disservice (Note: this is blogging’s problem).

But there is also a threshold. That they have the unfortunate luck of being born after a time when Tina Brown was feting magazine launches under the strained symbolism of the Statue of Liberty should not mean that nascent writers be dropped into an MC Escher drawing of dropped expectations.

Choosing to be a journalist right now is hardly the soft choice (to wit: a full-time assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review will make $27,000 this year, $5,156 less than a subway booth clerk in New York City, and a doubtlessly less engrossing desk view). Any young person right now electing to run headlong into the blazing tenement building that is the state of the media seems to me more than half-way of the right heart for this job.

Are the back paychecks of three-odd months of base wage work going to dramatically alter the lives of erstwhile interns, righting these emboldened wrongs? That isn’t exactly the point. The Atlantic announcement is a largely symbolic gesture, whether conscious or not, that acknowledges the value of a whole set of people who will dedicate themselves to an industry, even as they see it become unglued from itself.

For a long while, Big American banks ran into little resistance claiming this defense: they had to doll out unconscionable bonuses as a means of retaining “talent,” keeping their insanely marketable Excel technicians from decamping across the street. Of course we know now the fallacies there, but the philosophy holds. If your industry is predicated on a certain amount of talent, you should be doing what you can to keep that talent on board. At the very least, you should not be actively trying to disillusion them by making them sanitize door handles during peak epidemic seasons.

— Max Lakin

My thanks to Columbia’s Hunter Walker for compiling that salary comparison.

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