Shortly after The Nation announced it would soon begin paying interns minimum wage, journalist Jim Romenesko spotted a listing for an unpaid internship in the latest issue of Harper's. He wondered if the magazine would follow suit (and, debatably, the law). So he asked. Here's what a spokesperson told him:
No. We’re very proud of our record of intern placement (former Harper’s interns appear all over the mastheads of the finest publications in the country) and many of them are hired here. One even rose to be editor of the magazine
When The Atlantic Wire contacted the venerable literary publication, a publicist repeated the argument in slightly different terms. "We honestly consider the Harper's Magazine internship to be a learning experience that is the equal of J-school," she wrote via email, "and our placements (including at Harper's itself, which uses the internship as a job-training program) reflect that."
It's simple logic: Harper's interns do well. One became the editor! Thus, who needs pay?
But it misses much of the point on why unpaid internships have become such a contentious issue to begin with. Of course, scores of former Harper's interns have done well for themselves. They could afford to live and work in New York City for a summer or two months in the first place; many, presumably, arrived from a position of privilege to begin with. But what of the hundreds or thousands of talented candidates who couldn't afford that? What of those too busy paying off student loans?
As The Guardian's David Dennis argued in May, the system merely reproduces a "privilege-based upward mobility."
Then there's the question of legality. Harper's spokesperson is right to point to the educational nature of the internship. Were it purely educational, it would be legal by the Department of Labor's criteria.
But to fulfill this test, the internship must be "for the benefit of the intern." The employer must receive "no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded." According to the magazine's own online listing, Harper's interns are put to work in the area of "critical reading and analysis, research, fact checking, and the general workings of a national magazine"; according to one recent intern, they also take turns answering the office phone, a task that proved less onerous when that intern happened to field a call from one Don DeLillo.
Doubtlessly, these tasks are educational for the aspiring writer or journalist. But they also provide an immediate advantage for the magazine itself. Presumably, Harper's operations aren't being "impeded."
Apparently unsatisfied by the answer he received, Romenesko also glanced at compensation packages for various other Harper's employees to explain the lack of intern pay:
* Associate publisher/sales Peter Kendall – $242,479
* Treasurer, VP/general manager Lynn Carlson – $227,309
* Editor Ellen Rosenbush – $177,916
* Former literary editor Benjamin Metcalf – $109,799
* Secretary Barbara Andreasson – $79,689
At press time, we're still awaiting Walmart's commentary on Harper's labor practices.