Canceled and unpaid internships can leave journalists of color behind. During a pandemic, there may not be other options.

Freelance journalist Izzie Ramirez, a recent NYU grad, reports in New York City. Ramirez will specialize in science reporting as a graduate student at Columbia University in the fall. PHOTO BY JAE THOMAS
Freelance journalist Izzie Ramirez, a recent NYU grad, reports in New York City. Ramirez will specialize in science reporting as a graduate student at Columbia University in the fall. PHOTO BY JAE THOMAS

MIAMI — Angélica Serrano-Román was in the final stage of interviews for a summer internship when she received an email saying the program was canceled. 

The Universidad del Sagrado Corazón graduate was hoping to spend the summer reporting in New York and getting to know the city before starting a master’s program at New York University in the fall. Instead, she relocated from Puerto Rico during the pandemic and hasn’t seen much beyond the four walls of her bedroom. 

As COVID-19 began to spread across the country, news organizations saw a sharp drop in advertising revenue and sponsorship dollars. Many newsrooms instituted hiring freezes and furloughs. And some with paid internships, like NPR and The Seattle Times, cut their summer programs entirely.

But at a time when calls for racial equity have led to revolts at newsrooms across the country, fewer paid internship programs also mean fewer opportunities to bring diverse voices into the industry.

“Right now in journalism, we’re dealing with a reckoning when it comes to diversity and inclusion,” said Adriana Lacy, an audience engagement editor at the Los Angeles Times. “And I think unpaid internships is a start of where a lot of that happens.”

To amplify marginalized voices and level the playing field, Lacy created Journalism Internships, a website and mentorship program that only includes paid opportunities.

“Usually the people who can’t afford to take unpaid internships are people from under-represented communities — people of color, indigenous communities, first-generation, low income students,” said Rose Lopez, who does research at Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Unpaid internships largely benefit students of affluent backgrounds who can afford to forego a paycheck, Lopez said. They can also force low-income students who take them to go into debt, she added.

Izzie Ramirez worked retail jobs to avoid going into credit card debt during her undergraduate career at New York University. To gain experience, she took two unpaid internships — one in content marketing for a magazine and one doing editorial and social media work.

But paying interns won’t solve all of the industry’s problems as long as reporters of diverse backgrounds are compartmentalized as only capable of one type of job, she said.

Ramirez is a freelance reporter and will soon start at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism concentrating in science reporting. But because her parents are Puerto Rican and Mexican, editors constantly asked her to write about Latino issues, she said, discounting the skills she’s cultivated on the science and climate beat. 

“Unless we have more people of color in positions of power who are paid equally and given the ability to really pursue our ideas regardless of whether it’s just in our community or if we want to expand outside of it, then we’re not having a diverse newsroom,” Ramirez said.

Fewer than 19 percent of newsroom managers identify as people of color, according to a 2019 newsroom employment diversity survey, which was answered voluntarily by less than a quarter of all newsrooms. Overall, people of color make up about 22 percent of those newsrooms’ salaried workforce.

Kiara Alfonseca, a producer and journalist at HuffPost, described herself as the ‘internship queen’ in college. She landed five internships, but three during the school year were unpaid. Alfonseca said a lack of pay symbolizes that students’ work is underappreciated and undervalued in the industry — which it shouldn’t be. 

“Internships are free labor if you’re not getting paid for it and you’re doing the same kind of work that staff employees are,” she said. “It’s free — should be illegal — labor.” 

Alfonseca said she could take the unpaid internships because her parents financially supported her and she had an on-campus job, but the lack of pay demonstrates a lack of respect. 

“It really damages communities of color and other marginalized groups that are trying to break into an already inequitable environment.” 

As a first-generation, low income student, Josee Matela couldn’t afford to take unpaid journalism internships. So she took internships and jobs in marketing and public relations instead, and gained journalism experience at on-campus news outlets at Boston University.

The one summer she did take an unpaid internship, she also worked 35 hours a week at a Vietnamese food truck.

Internships are crucial for most career paths, Matela said. But taking them at the same time as a full-time job shouldn’t be the only way someone can feel like they’re able to move forward. And as someone who has to be financially independent, it’s not something she can do. 

“It’s not a pretty nine-to-five,” she said. “And the fact that students are putting in all of this effort and all of this time to do that without getting paid is an issue because yes, you gain a lot in terms of skills, and yes, you can make a lot of connections. But there is a disadvantage because that could have been time you needed to work.”  

Professional experience is critical as a journalism student, said Samantha Nissen, a career adviser at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. 

Since the pandemic started, her team has helped students facing challenges this summer as they create projects, such as podcasts or portfolios, and given them guidance on entering the freelance world. Nissen also encourages building relationships with professors and community members who can help guide students as they start their careers.  

“If we can’t change the institutional barriers within our capitalist society, hopefully we can use tools to navigate these spaces and create some grassroots change,” said Nissen, adding that Northwestern and Medill both have initiatives to financially support students who accepted unpaid internships. 

“We try to make up that gap,” she said. “Unpaid internships are creating a pipeline into the newsroom, and we want to make sure that it’s inclusive as possible.”

April Rubin is a rising junior at the University of Florida, where she is majoring in journalism with a concentration in print and minoring in Latin American studies and anthropology. She recently finished a summer internship at the Miami Herald. At her school’s newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, Rubin has worked as a copy editor, a staff writer and university editor. Next academic year, she will be a managing editor. Reach her at aprilmariane [at] gmail [dot] com and on Twitter @AprilMRubin.

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