Why We Started Paying Our Interns

It all began with a disastrous job interview.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

To support our work, please consider making a donation. We’re a nonprofit that relies on reader support, and from November 1 to December 31, your contribution will be doubled by NewsMatch.

On December 18, 2014, I sat down with the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly and had the worst job interview of my life.

I met Paul Glastris for lunch at the Daily Grill, D.C.’s finest restaurant that also shares a building with the Monthly. Over a pair of the cheapest lunch specials on the menu, we never got into my qualifications (years of reporting experience, plus digital production and strategy), my greatest weakness (perfectionism?), how I dealt with adversity in the newsroom (mostly by quitting or getting laid off), or any other typical interview questions. Instead we talked at length about the state of the journalism industry and the magazine’s place within it.

That’s how, picking at French fries as the last lawyers and lobbyists disappeared from the dining room, we ended up discussing internships. I mentioned that I couldn’t imagine working somewhere that didn’t pay interns. Paul smiled and gave me a look like I had told him I couldn’t imagine working somewhere that didn’t own and operate a spaceship. 

“First of all, I was an unpaid intern,” he said. “Second of all, we give interns a better experience than almost any other place because we’re so small. You can go spend $50,000 to get a master’s degree, or you can spend zero and we’ll take care of you.”

We argued for the rest of the meal. This wasn’t a good-natured policy debate, either, at least not on my end. It wasn’t until I was walking back to my apartment, sliding into the adrenaline hangover from being Mad in Public, that I realized I had spent half the interview fighting with my would-be boss, raising my voice like we were a bickering couple. I got home, sent a halfhearted email thanking Paul for the “great conversation,” and told my roommate I didn’t even expect a rejection.

Teenagers’ brains aren’t fully developed; they have trouble making rational choices and recognizing the long-term implications of their actions. One dumb decision can have dire consequences that last well into adulthood.

When I was seventeen, for instance, I decided to go to journalism school.

So began an era of internships, none of which were adequately compensated and most of which were completely unpaid. One of them was set up by my university as a requirement for my undergraduate degree—meaning that I paid tuition for the privilege of working for a news outlet. (That outlet shut down in the middle of my internship, costing a dozen reporters their jobs and giving me more insight into the journalism industry than I ever got in the classroom.)

A three-month unpaid internship in a big city can cost as much as $6,000 in rent, food, and transportation. As Saahil Desai—whom I’m proud to have hired as one of the Monthly’s first-ever paid interns—recounts elsewhere in this issue, unpaid internships select for people who can afford to work for free until they get a full-time job. This ultimately affects the composition of newsrooms. As another former paid Monthly intern, Mel Jones, wrote in “The Second Racial Wealth Gap” (Washington Monthly, November/December 2015), white Millennials are much more likely than their black or Latino counterparts to get small but continual financial assistance from their parents, allowing them to weather periods of little or no pay rather than give up on journalism entirely. A rent payment here and a medical bill there can be the difference between moving to D.C. to spend three months writing for a well-respected progressive policy magazine and staying home to find something that actually pays minimum wage. All this narrowing of the talent pool isn’t just bad for aspiring journalists—it’s bad for journalism. 

I had done most of my internships while I was a student; after graduation I held down two at once so the paid one could offset the unpaid one. After I was laid off from my first reporting job, I took a fellowship (a word derived from the Old Norse term félag, which I assume means “to trick people into working full-time for a stipend”) that paid less than minimum wage. By age twenty-four I was advising anyone younger to turn down un- and underpaid positions on the spot. 

Unpaid internships select for people who can afford to work for free until they get a full-time job. That isn’t just bad for aspiring journalists—it’s bad for journalism.

Not long after all those feelings spilled out over lunch at the Daily Grill, I was shocked to get a phone call from Paul offering me the editor job. I reminded him over the phone about the internship program, and he assured me we’d work something out. I happily accepted.

When it came time to hire interns, though, the magazine’s budget was tighter than expected. Paul asked if we could go one more year with unpaid interns, and fund-raise specifically to pay the next year’s crop. I asked him to cut my salary and use it to pay the D.C. minimum wage, at least part-time. He refused, so I went home calculating how much it would cost for me to pay my interns under the table.

Luckily for our collective IRS standing, fate intervened, as it often does, in the form of Monthly vice president of circulation and business Claire Iseli. She combed through the budget and found a stash of unspent money originally meant for freelance digital content. In 2015, the Monthly welcomed its first-ever cohort of legally compensated interns—the first of many who would go on to do great work at the magazine and elsewhere.

As I was writing this, I gave Paul a call, both to get his side of the story and to needle him about his frequent claim that younger reporters are afraid to use the phone. He remembered our lunch dustup well, although it turns out that the worst job interview of my life wasn’t much of an interview at all.

“I totally remember the argument,” Paul told me. “But we’d already decided to hire you at that point.”

He owns up to his earlier blindness. Between social media, web production, fact-checking, writing, and all the other work Monthly interns do, he says he can’t imagine the magazine functioning without paying them. He called his change of heart instructive for other organizations, journalistic or otherwise, that don’t pay their interns. 

“I was really on my high horse about it,” he said. “I sleep better now—it was totally the right thing to do. You just adjust your budget. You make it work.”

Before I said good-bye, I laid a little trap for him. I had agreed to write this piece for the Monthly’s fiftieth anniversary, but we hadn’t talked fees at all. We had just discussed at length the importance of paying for journalism, an inverted image of our first conversation. So, on the record, am I getting paid for this article?

“Absolutely,” he said. “If you want a better kicker, though, you can donate it instead.”

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Matt Connolly

Matt Connolly works for a labor union in Washington, D.C. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2015 to 2017.