Condé Nast, the venerable company that owns publications like the New Yorker has decided, after being faced with lawsuits from former interns who claim they were dramatically underpaid, has decided not to reform the practices of the program, but to axe it. As Women’s Wear Daily, which itself is part of the company, reports, “The end of the program comes after the publisher was sued this summer by two former interns who claimed they were paid below the minimum wage during internships at W and The New Yorker.”
Let’s be clear about what this means. As of January 1, 2012, minimum wage in New York was $7.25 an hour. In 2014, it will rise to $8.00. If Condé Nast was to pay its next summer interns minimum wage, forty hours a week, for ten weeks over the summer, that would cost them $3,200 per intern. If each of the 26 publications in the Condé Nast brand, which run from Allure, to Golf World, to Wired, hired ten interns for the summer, paying them minimum wage would run the corporation $832,000 for the entire summer. That’s a tidy sum, to be sure, but it’s also worth remembering that running a full-page ad, once, in Vogue, just one of the publications in Condé Nast’s roster, will run an advertiser $181,286: in other words, you could pay the whole corps of Condé Nast interns by selling 4.59 full-page ads in a single issue of Vogue.
And beyond that, the reason Condé Nast’s internship program and others like them may be deemed illegal is that the publications in question get real work out of the interns in question, rather than providing those interns with educational experiences that don’t provide anything of value to the publications. Interns do real and tangible work for the publications for which they intern. When interned at The Atlantic, I transcribed interviews, fact-checked stories, and did research that helped editors make decisions about which stories to commission and reject (and that ended up in one editor’s book and as part of another editor’s decision-making process about which book project to pursue). I wasn’t paid for that work, but it was work that, at least in some cases, would have been performed by paid staffers if there hadn’t been interns to do it, and in another case, I was paid to continue doing it after my internship. That disjunct–as did the decision of The Atlantic to give some intern classes, though not mine, back pay, and to begin paying interns going forward–suggests that the magazine knew that the work had a non-zero value.
I suspect that Condé Nast knows that the work its interns did has value, too. And if they do, it means they’d rather sacrifice a part of their operation that had value than pay for work they used to get for free. I’m not sure what the company thinks that says about the resources it provides to writers, or the backstopping and research support it used to provide. But it’s an unattractive decision, and it’s not just the interns who won’t get to work for Condé Nast publications that lose the opportunity to get valuable training and professional connections. In addition to the labor they get over the summer, Condé Nast also get the opportunity to pre-screen potential employees and freelancers. Finance and consulting firms, which get the same kind of actual work and pre-screening opportunities from their summer interns, tend to pay their interns handsomely. The cancellation of the internship program is a defeat for everyone, and the numbers suggest that it won’t necessarily be a financial game-changer in an industry that faces much larger challenges.
This calculation doesn’t solve the equity problems posed by low-wage internships, and that contribute to the whiteness and wealthiness of the origins of so many writers at prominent publications. $2,900 isn’t a living wage in New York, and it’s certainly not a wage that can cover living expenses and lodging and leave savings behind that can cover books and contribute to tuition. If you’d literally rather cut part of your editorial operation and your safety net for writers than make a commitment that would be one of the easiest ways for you to diversify your pool of potential staffers and writers, that says a great deal about what Condé Nast values.