In the midst of COVID-19, many students have had their time at the school newspaper interrupted as universities shut down their campuses. These students are also losing opportunities for internships and pre-professional experiences critical to their success in the field, as newsroom after newsroom suspends their fellowship and internship programs.
For some students, being left out of these critical training opportunities isn’t new at all. Low-income students have been excluded long before the pandemic.
One example is Kathy Chan, a Temple University student and aspiring journalist. She was working four jobs when she decided to take a fifth: assistant multimedia editor at her school newspaper, Temple News. It made sense for her desired career, but she was only being paid US$40 every two weeks — sometimes for more than 30 hours of work. After just one month, she stepped down from the position.
“It was literally eating up all of my time,” says Chan. “It’s not an ideal job for an average low-income person.”
Chan is a Cambodian American student majoring in film, which was her second choice for a degree. The journalism degree would have been too expensive. She has built up her resumé through freelancing gigs, and hopes that this will lead to more work following her expected graduation in May 2021.
In a time of job scarcity, it’s a question many young people are asking themselves, “How am I supposed to get five years of experience for an entry-level job, when every entry-level job requires five years of experience?”
Media fellowships and internships, most of which require some previous experience, are supposed to be a way into more stable positions. On the surface, getting involved at a student paper seems like the perfect first step into a journalism career. Student newspapers offer the opportunity to build a portfolio of clips and gain professional experience, while also spending time doing an activity that offers students a social home.
The reality, however, is that student newsrooms exclude just as much as they boost aspiring journalists. They are often time-intensive activities that do not pay well — if they pay at all — which excludes low-income students who need to work. Being excluded from the newspaper at the college level has far-reaching effects on young journalists’ careers.
Sometimes just participating in the school paper isn’t enough. Analyses have shown that internship programs at top professional newsrooms tend to draw from a small circle of selective colleges, making those opportunities difficult for most college students — even those with student newsroom experience — to access. The selective schools also tend to have a student body that is whiter and wealthier than the average U.S. population, an inequality that is replicated in their student newsrooms.
In March 2019, Theodore Kim, director of fellowships at The New York Times, sparked outcry after tweeting his opinion of which U.S. schools produced “the most consistently productive candidates.” The four schools that Kim named best were Columbia, Northwestern, University of California-Berkeley and Yale. Their student newsrooms released demographic data for the 2018-19 school year that supports the criticism that these schools are not economically inclusive, and their main journalistic extra-curricular even less so.
Last year at The Daily Northwestern only 11.8% identified as low-income, compared to 26% of all students. The Yale Daily News surveyed only its 2020 Managing Board, and around half came from families with over US$200,000 in annual income, with most students’ falling between US$250,000 and US$500,000, compared to a median family income of US$192,600 for most students. At the Columbia Daily Spectator, 16% of staff as of March 2019 identify as low-income, compared to 18% of the total student body at Barnard and Columbia. The data also points to a lack of racial diversity.
Even when low-income students are able to land internships, against these odds, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to afford it. Internship opportunities can be just as limiting as the school newspaper, as many of these positions are unpaid or underpaid. Some groups like Pay Our Interns advocate for emerging professionals in sectors known to offer unpaid experience. The organization began with a focus on political internships, but has also worked with nonprofits, and will soon be adding media to their focus.
“We want to really start tackling the root causes,” says co-founder Carlos Mark Vera, who started the organization after struggling financially during an unpaid internship in Washington. The same economic barriers exist for those looking for media experience, he says.
Some schools offer college credit, stipends or scholarships to mitigate the economic barrier of pre-professional opportunities. However, these options are not always available, and if they are, they aren’t widespread enough.
Andrew Crain, the director of experiential professional development at the University of Georgia (UGA) Graduate School, observes that extracurricular activities have become more competitive and pre-professional over his time at UGA — sometimes requiring interviews just to be accepted.
“If you’re going through college and you have to support yourself in some way, you have to choose how to allocate your time,” he says, acknowledging that low-income students are at a disadvantage. “Having stipends or scholarship resources allows students to do that.”
Izzy López is a writer and recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the schools that Kim gave an “honorable mention” in his tweet about schools that produce the most productive fellows. She wanted to join the school paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, but was quickly put off when she heard the commitment was 20 unpaid hours a week.
López supported herself in college, and had three jobs when she graduated. She still remembers her interviewers for a magazine internship noting that she had a lot of experience writing personal essays, but not the newsroom experience they were looking for.
“I am interested in essays, but the reason why my major published writing is in the form of essays is that I could afford to do it,” says Lopez, explaining that essay writing allowed her more flexibility than reporting would. “I wish I could’ve been granted the opportunity to explore the world of journalism without such a heavy financial burden. It really stung that there was a price tag on that.”