Magazine internships: Opportunities or exploitation? The courts may decide

“A million girls would kill for this job!”

Remember that line from The Devil Wears Prada, the movie about a hapless, abused junior assistant at a VOGUE*-like fashion magazine?

While we haven’t heard any reports of young magazine assistants committing murder to get ahead, each year thousands of eager college students and graduates do give up compensation to get a job, working in unpaid internships at magazine publishers.  They forego paychecks in return for on-the-job learning and professional opportunities.

But who really benefits?  We may soon find out.

Xuedan Wang, a former Hearst intern, now has filed a lawsuit against the publisher for back wages and overtime, alleging Hearst violated wage and hour laws.  Moreover, Wang and her law firm are looking to make this a class-action suit.

A strategic communications graduate at the time, Wang claims she routinely worked 40 to 55 hours a week at HARPER’S BAZAAR*, most of it doing menial or administrative tasks like coordinating sample pick-ups and deliveries, processing reimbursement requests and maintaining records.

Hearst may have run afoul of labor laws in a few ways, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which outlines criteria for unpaid internships:

* Hearst directly benefited from Wang’s work, instead of the other way around.

* The tasks she handled were essential to the company, and a paid worker would have had to do them if Wang had not.

* The work was not conducted like training in an educational environment, with mentors or supervisors providing constant guidance.

Some are beginning to question if publishers are offering priceless experience to aspiring professionals, or whether free labor from unpaid internships is now built into the magazine industry’s business model.

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One Response

  1. When I hired interns at a national magazine I worked for, I had so many responses to placed ads from young women who wanted to do the internship for school credit, that I would hire 2-3 girls, and distribute the week’s schedule for each girl to have 1 1/2 days of work. It was a true learning and mentorship experience, where each girl had an opportunity to write something for the magazine, and get a byline. They also did a lot of researching for stories and some interviewing. There was, of course some filing and some returning products, but these activities were the least of what they did. And they were always very happy with the time they had spent in my department. I was given the sweetest, most grateful thank you notes when they came to the end of their cycle of internship.
    Not every editor who hires an intern takes advantage of the situation.
    Often, in my experience it can be a very rewarding time for a student.
    I was always very impressed as well with the young women who clearly were making sacrifices to take on the internship. By that I mean
    girls who also needed to be working in the summer to help pay expenses for their next semester of school, and somehow managed to do it all. Kudos to those ambitious and hard working young people.

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