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Will Intern for...Free?

What good is an unpaid internship if it leaves you in the dark—literally? A former magazine intern explores.

The office of the magazine—let's call it Scribe—occupied the second floor of a rattletrap 19th century building on Magazine Street in New Orleans. The publisher was the son of a deli owner; the circulation director was his sister. The editor in chief was a tall, handsome and sinister pen-and-ink artist who'd been hired when he stopped by to submit his drawings for publication. He kept a human skull on his desk and a puppy with a rope for a leash tied underneath it.

Then there was me, 15 years old, at my first summer internship. Shyness hobbled all my efforts, from assembling press kits to fetching iced café au lait to fielding calls from writers who hadn't been paid. I wasn't getting paid, either, of course. Neither was the electric bill, as we learned when the power went out one day.

Although I couldn't have known it at the time, that summer turned out to be an enormously useful initiation into the media industry. Show me a publication that doesn't involve a group of eccentrics and egomaniacs alternately smoking, kibitzing and hunched frantically over keyboards, all under gathering financial storm clouds, and I'll show you—well, maybe Time magazine. Certainly no place I've ever worked.

Which brings me to the contested value of internships. This spring, I argued in an op-ed piece that the growth of the unpaid internship as an institution shouldn't be uncritically celebrated. My major argument was that unpaid internships potentially shut doors on the kids who can't afford to work for free, but I also suggested that a free job might sometimes be worth exactly what you get in your paycheck.

Of course, I felt like a heel when I got an e-mail from a friend in her early 20s right after the piece was published. She'd just quit her secure reporting job at a small East Coast newspaper to take an internship paying 94 cents an hour at a nationally read West Coast magazine. The last time we'd talked, at a writing conference, I'd been cheering her on to take whatever risks she needed to get out of a career rut, and now she was doing it—and loving every minute.

Likewise, when I implored other journalist friends and acquaintances to share their internship horror stories with me, they all reported boringly positive experiences. The value of connections, experience and entrée into the business seemed to outweigh any resentment. And that's for the best. Besides, these days, just about everyone aspiring to the ever-more-competitive writing trade must put in an internship or two, even if they have to bartend nights to afford it. So the trick becomes finding a post that's worth your time and effort.

A prestigious name is no guarantee of a sublime experience. It's entirely possible that you'll gain more practical knowledge and even more useful connections at a less-well-known outlet—and you'll also be more likely to be paid. The summer after my sophomore year of college, I specifically looked for a paying internship so I wouldn't have to go to my folks for money and ended up working at McCall's Magazine, the then-150-year-old housewives' bible, for $6.14 an hour. It was a great time, and I even got to write. I've known people who completed Ph.D.-like applications in order to qualify for post-graduate stints at Harper's Magazine and The Atlantic, and they're no further along in their careers than others who cut teeth at their hometown papers.

When you do land an interview, pay attention to your interviewer and anyone else you can meet before you take an internship. The people you'll be working with are just as important as the work you'll be doing. When I think back on the four internships I served during high school and college, it's not the subtleties of answering reader mail or operating an Atex terminal (an antique publishing technology) that come to mind. It's the brilliant, capricious, kind of intimidating personalities with whom I had the pleasure of working, who taught by example how to evaluate ideas and how to tell stories.

Finally, refuse any internship at an outfit that literally couldn't operate without you. This was my mistake at that first internship, where I was the only person on staff resembling either a receptionist or assistant. Sometimes I became a hauler, too, borrowing my father's car to deliver copies to the French Quarter. It's nice to be needed, but any publication that depends on the faithful contributions of a diffident child is probably doomed by outside factors.

Other than that, try not to take it all too seriously. As a college friend of mine, now a successful documentary producer, used to say (while sweeping both hands up in a gesture of powerless relinquishment): "Repeat after me: I'm only an intern!"

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