A first-generation U.S. college student sat in my office the other day and asked whether listing her work as a shift manager at McDonald’s in her hometown was OK on her professional resume. She then explained that she’d be going home for the summer because she couldn’t afford to take an internship in Washington, D.C.
Tanzina Vega has helped spearhead a conversation about media diversity through her reporting and social efforts. A social media conversation she started in 2015, #mediadiversity, reflects the challenge that diverse students face in trying to break through newsrooms—particularly economics that are not in their favor. The hashtag has become somewhat of a rallying cry for journalists of color, but that’s not enough.
Having a ready answer to my student’s dilemma—beyond applying for the limited number of scholarships designated to support summer work or big time, highly competitive paid internships—is crucial to the future of journalism and its relationships with its readers.
What should you tell a student like mine?
Plug into some sort of local news ecology over the summer. But, this might be impossible in some places for journalism students. For one, local news in many is pretty paltry—especially now. Research from Rutgers University has shown that poorer places (often ones that are majority minority) simply don’t have as many sources of local news than richer ones. Moreover, there are entire areas of the country (“news deserts”) that don’t even have local newspapers or local TV, a particular disadvantage to students who come from rural or exurban communities.
If there is coverage in local places, it’s often online outlets with clickbait coverage, with sponsored content masquerading as news, and aggregated crime news. Weekly papers are often throwaway circulars, if they even exist in communities. Good commentary and reporting would likely be welcome, though there would likely be little mentorship or editing.
Work for a college publication over the summer from home. Some students may be able to working for a college publication from home—perhaps editing from afar or reporting on issues that could be covered via phone, data, or documents. In this day and age though, professional internships often “count” more than school activities.
Write for a national college news startup. Another option might be working for a college news startup—these are national in scope and students can write from anywhere. Fresh U, College Fashionista, Her Campus, Spoon U, The Odyssey, and other millennial-focused publications provide platforms (but no real editing).
But I have real problems with these. Some, like Spoon U, require payment to simply be part of the platform and subject matters covered by these outlets reek of class privilege. (There are exceptions: Fresh U is paying some contributors now and working on a “fair compensation business model,” while FlockU pays up to $60 per story, based on traffic.) Beyond this, most of these require you to build and to promote your own work, providing free labor so that the companies can profit from digital advertising without paying content creators.
Blog and make your own content. The best answer I can offer to a student who is from a news desert and can’t find quality journalism experience at home is to blog as if he or she were working for a large, prestigious outlet. Building a portfolio of digital journalism—including content that is unedited and original—provides a different kind of opportunity. The digital and social skills required to do this well will serve any young journalist and the unfiltered, not-professionally edited journalism will give an employer a real sense of a journalists’ talents. Even publishing on Medium can provide an inroad to a larger audience. I have had a few YouTube stars in my day as well.
All of these options are problematic. These suggestions are likely unpaid, free labor that generally comes without the mentoring and the structure of a traditional internship program, meaning that poor students lose out before they even start their journalism careers. And after a day at McDonald’s, it’s a bit unreasonable and unfair to ask a student to start actually reporting and making phone calls, much less blogging about their food, shopping, or cooking adventures (which may not exist).
Restructure the Internship Model
Fund students to take unpaid (or moderately paid) internships. Right now, a hunt for paid summer internships reflects that only some of the most competitive offer what approximates a living wage. To get these paid internships means that a young journalist has to have had previous internship experiences or significant demonstration of published work. ProPublica has chronicled the abuses of the internship economy, and journalism is no exception—and in today’s news environment, that’s unlikely to change at most publications.
Schools can provide summer stipends to students in need (GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs, where I work, has begun soliciting alumni to help sponsor some of these. Syracuse University’s Newhouse School offers some funding for summer magazine interns.). But the stipends need to be large enough to cover rent and food, which may vary depending on the city.
Provide a supplement and mentorship to students who still can’t make big city internships work. Students from lower socioeconomic-status families may have demands placed upon them that keep them closer to home—ones that other students do not. A stipend to defray the necessity of working at McDonald’s to focus on freelance and independent journalism would go a long way. Pairing these students with mentors –even if remote—could help make up gaps in the editing and professionalism experiences that they might have received at a traditional internship.
Create MORE Diversity Internship fellowships. I find it hard to believe that a news organization that is, on average, 87 percent white, can’t come up with $3k to spend on a student of color or who has other structural disadvantages. The bottom line is simply inexcusable – certainly one internship, perhaps funded by an advertiser or city partner, is within the realm of possibility. Over 1,300 diverse students have come through the Chip Quinn Scholars Program for Diversity since 1991. METPRO, Tronc’s two-year fellowship, has been one of the most successful programs in bringing diversity to newsrooms and keeping it there. But there need to be more of these-particularly programs that are targeted at students who are trying to get that first internship.
Facilitate partnerships with larger “local” news outlets. For students who have to be home and live in areas where there isn’t a lot of local coverage or news infrastructure, it’s likely that their major news outlets have suffered considerable retrenchment in coverage. Journalism schools can help these students facilitate partnerships with professional journalists in the big city who can guide content coverage and reporting from remote locations.
If journalism wants to be more diverse (and it should), something has to change. If the structures and economics of the industry prevent the possibility of a diverse pool of interns, the pipeline to newsrooms is non-existent. The current state of newsroom diversity is inexcusable, so we need to ask ourselves what we can do outside of traditional structures that haven’t budged the needle on diversity in decades.
Nikki Usher, Ph.D, is a professor at The George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Her most recent book is Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code.