Class Of 2009 and Unpaid Internships in Publishing

When graduation rolls around every Spring, I start getting career guidance questions from a new crop of English Lit majors seeking editorial jobs in the New York City publishing scene. This year is a bit different, because the Class of 2009 will be competing tooth-and-nail with the last 20 or 30 years worth of graduates, who have decades of experience and bigger bills to pay. History teaches that those new graduates who fail to get work in their chosen field will lag students with better timing for the rest of their careers. But new graduates with deep pockets (ie, families who are desperate to keep them from returning home) actually have an advantage over publishing staff with years of experience. It's called the "unpaid internship", and it's a legal way for employers to get slave labor in return for supposedly useful job experience. Just don't take an internship at a newspaper or a magazine.

Despite the overly optimistic outlook of young people doing their best to sound jaded, they are still a more realistic group than former trade authors and other trade publishing casualties. While the Class of 2009 may be willing to work for coffee and a place to go eight hours a day, at least they're in a position to see any publishing work as a step up. The funny thing is potential "employers" can pretend that they are doing the kids a favor by taking advantage of them, because you never know, it may just lead to a great paying job. New graduates who want to become editors could do worse than getting any sort of editorial assistant or gopher work in a publishing office, and those who want to become agents are right to accept an unpaid guy or gal Friday spot with a real agent if their parents can afford it.

Experienced publishing staff and authors don't have that flexibility, though they often pretend that they do in conversation. They have mortgages and insurance premiums holding them back, not to mention the need to support their own children in publishing internships. But they struggle to overcome the lack of interest on the part of any manager to hire overqualified personnel. After all, hiring an assistant who's better at your job than you are is a good way to lose your job. Ownership is always keen on cost cutting in tough times, and the best cost cutting method of all is to replace senior positions with junior positions. In other words, the senior editor you hire as your junior editor will keep her new job doing your work (at junior editor pay) when your senior editor position is eliminated in the next cut.

I've made it a point over the years to hire college students as proofreaders on my books, primarily to give them something to put on their resumes, and I'm happy to let them stretch the description to copy editing. The only thing sadder than a new graduate's resume with no relevant work experience is an experienced employee's resume with thirty years of history. The reactions of a potential employer seeing a resume detailing a full career in publishing run the gamut from, "This person will want too much and always be looking for a better job," to "Why did this person get the axe when their former employer is still in business?." And that doesn't even touch on the issue of age.

The only patent medicine I have to peddle for the for these issues is self employment, but our accelerating tendency to big government solutions and the growing need for tax revenue means self employment is likely to trend in the direction of freelancing. Simply put, it will be easier for the government to control a small number of large outsourcing businesses, in terms of monitoring revenue for tax purposes and mandating "benefits", such as health insurance and retirement savings. Once a high quality and social acceptable freelancing system is in place, large publishers will be able to eliminate the majority of their non-management positions, replacing those employees with temporary telecommuting staff. It may even be a boon to those employees who have the means and the desire to work part time, meaning that new graduates will also have to compete with retirees trying to rebuild their cash piles or just keeping busy.

When I see the useless template content being churned out for massive websites by freelance writers who think it will lead to trade publishing work down the road, it makes me cringe. The only skill they're learning is how to write keyword spam, which in the long run is about as valuable as being able to arrange names in an alphabetical list. Of course, it's probably not a bad job match for those who went through school "repurposing" articles from encyclopedias. You can fool the search engines, if that's your goal in life, but you can't fool the readers. And don't get caught up in thinking that boning up on the latest technology will give you an edge in the workplace. Publishing and content exist in opposition to each other, and it's the content that always wins in the end.

Post Script:

A few hours after posting this I thought to check Craigs List for Manhattan writing and editing jobs. The very latest posting happened to be:

Unpaid Internship - Literary Agency - (Gramercy)

"One of NYC finest literary agencies is looking for an intern..."

There were 71 internships posted in the past month!


Anonymous said...

Oh golly, you are jolly.
I suspect there is just too much truth to what you say.
I have often wondered what exactly the vast majority of people are doing to 'earn' their keep.
What's your guestimate as to the number of people hanging on to the shirt tails of the truly productive person. My guess is 1,000 to one.

Morris Rosenthal said...


1000:1? You do make me look jolly:-)

I'm on the record guessing that 1 out of 2 people in small businesses are overhead whose actions cancel out the postive contributions of the working half. But fortunately, the 1 out of 2 who only do harm also punch the clock, while the productive folks tend to work a lot of free overtime. So the net effect is that the businesses can survive.

I think large corporations, while they'll often hide or promote useless employees for internal reasons, are actually more efficient at getting rid of the dead weight than small businesses. In small business, everything seems personal to the owner, and too many try to play family in addition to playing business. Large companies can establish quotas for work, billable hours, etc, and blame "the guys upstairs" for culling the herd.


Anonymous said...

Ah yes, I might agree - I was also adding in the people not directly 'employed' in the same business. (PR, marketing, SEO - all that other 'overhead' that often doesn't noticably contribute to the bottom line).

Anonymous said...

The job market has gotten so bad that students are actually being asked to pay money to get guaranteed unpaid internships, Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2009,one place charges only $800....

Morris Rosenthal said...


What a rip-off. I'd never charge an intern a dime more than $500 :-)