Sunday, July 10, 2011

Interns | A N.J. paper spotlights tricky labor law

Unpaid summer internships are a wonderful opportunity for would-be journalists to get on-the-ground training for a profession we all love.

But after cutbacks in Gannett's human-resource staff, many supervisors may not have the guidance needed to avoid violating federal wage and hour law on unpaid vs. paid work.

The U.S. Labor Department applies a six-point test to determine whether those hired are truly interns that do not have to be paid. Point No. 3 is especially relevant to GCI newspapers that have undergone layoffs. It says: "The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff."

In other words, a newspaper using unpaid interns to do the work of laid-off employees would almost certainly violate federal law. (To be sure, this is largely a non-issue if interns are paid.)

This leads to a weekly newsletter Asbury Park Press Publisher Tom Donovan sent Friday to employees at GCI's N.J. newspapers. Among them, it mentions the Daily Record at Parsippany. In February, the daily was among three N.J. papers that, combined, eliminated nearly half their newsroom employees. I have X'd out the names of the interns mentioned in his newsletter:

"Interns [XXXXX] (reporting), [XXXXX] (photography) and [XXXXX] (video) hit the ground running this summer, serving up solid coverage on all information platforms. They’ve handled all assignments with substance and style, and their enthusiasm and skills have allowed us to happily expand the local report."

I do not know whether these interns are paid, or not. I do not know whether the paper was able to "expand the local report" without touching areas once covered by employees displaced via layoffs. I welcome any additional information from Donovan, who in January promised what seemed impossible, given the severity of the job cuts:

"We still have a very significant number of local reporters full-time in those markets. . . . We're not ceding any of those markets from a local content standpoint."

Is your site employing summer interns? Are they paid, or unpaid? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.

[Image: today's Daily Record front page, Newseum]

24 comments:

  1. If they are paid, this is a non-issue. Paid interns are the same as temporary workers as long as they have a start and end date declared. Newspapers likely will get creative -- as they have in circulation -- about contract and temporary workers. Unpaid can't "replace" but they can do the work for experience as long as they are receiving college credit in return (as part of a documented agreement) in many locations. The newspaper has to accept some liability in the situation.

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  2. 7:37 Categorically disagree. This is a big ethical issue involving interns, paid or unpaid. They are in the newsrooms as part of their university training, not to be preyed upon either by other young and lecherous staffers, their supervisors, or an avaricious company like GCI. Ethics rules are guidelines, but they are sometimes backed up by laws or legal cases that emphasize they are very important.

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  3. The sad thing is the interns get great experience out of all this, but because of Gannett's questionable labor practices, even that gets caught up in all this suspicion and distrust.

    Another unintended consequence of trying to be a billion-dollar company on the cheap.

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  4. Given that I and fellow managers have had to attend three, count them three, online sessions on this and other labor law topics, as well as had to listen to in person presentations, I'd find it hard to believe they'd be violating the law.

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  5. Jim, I think this is an important issue to keep an eye on. There are more interns working now across all of NJ's papers than I've seen in years, and it's unclear to me which are being paid and which are not.

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  6. Wow. Talk about foot in mouth disease. Certainly not the first time Donovan has made a big time gaffe - but maybe the first that could cost his company millions in a lawsuit. Nice job, Tom.

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  7. So, newspapers don't only violate independent contractor/employee rules? What a shock. Hate to see what happens if ever someone takes them to task.

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  8. I know for a fact that if a motivated lawyer dug into my local paper's free intern hiring practices they'd find a gold mine of evidence. They've taken advantage of college interns for years as they shed FTEs.

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  9. Geez all of you newsies begged companies for internships when you were in college but now it's a horrible thing. The company didn't take advantage of you when you were an intern but now Gannett does. What a bunch of hypocrites. All this string will do us punish the kids. Find another issue haters.

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  10. 5:42 That's not true. Internships only of recent creation, perhaps last 15-20 years. Newsrooms used to draw from a much broader population of blue collar workers. First paper I worked at featured a former taxi driver as an editor, an accoountant as news editor, and a librarian who was an ex-con. Great newspaper. J-school had a reputation as a place were those who couldn't make it elsewhere could get an easy degree, and it wasn't until after Watergate that they were transformed.

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  11. 5:42 wrote: "The company didn't take advantage of you when you were an intern but now Gannett does."

    Gannett wasn't laying off thousands of employees back then, so there were fewer issues around unpaid interns doing the work of displaced employees.

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  12. So what's your point Jum? Should the internship program be cancelled around the country?

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  13. 6:42 I never suggested they should be cancelled.

    Again, my point is: Amid HR cutbacks and more layoffs, Gannett is at greater risk of violating federal labor law in how it runs internship programs. That means Corporate must be in the lookout for problems.

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  14. Usat is relying heavily on summer interns and gannett copy. More so this year.

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  15. The really sad thing is that the interns aren't getting "great experience." They're getting training in a dying field that has never paid well and will very likely pay even less in the future. Essentially, they're working free to be trained for a trade that probably shouldn't even require a college degree (not because it's easy, but because the pay scale will be about the same as fast food restaurants ... and considerably lower than many professions that require only short-term trade schools).

    Unless things change significantly, most people working in journalism in the next 50 years won't have careers. They'll have jobs.

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  16. This link is just a frickin sad commentary on the state of affairs in NJ Gannettland:
    http://www.app.com/article/20110711/NJNEWS/307110051/Shooting-Wall-leaves-one-critical-condition?odyssey=tab|topnews|text|Frontpage

    This points to three bylined graphs about a shooting on SATURDAY night in a community that is less than seven miles from Asbury Park's headquarters. This is a middle-class neighborhood, not one prone to violence at all and certainly not shootings. This is news. Couldn't they send a reporter (or an intern) to the area, make some calls to neighbors, work their sources to report something? They have no reporters. They have no sources. This poor kid probably doesn't even know if Wall is in their coverage area.

    This is the bread-and-butter stuff that people are interested in. Putting an incomplete report on your web site isn't going to change the opinion of the former Press subscribers that this company has just plain old given up on its mission.

    Saturday night? And this is what gets reported 36-hours later? Good lord, it's time to turn out the lights.

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  17. I was an unpaid summer intern at our local newspaper almost a half-century ago. I took the internship almost as a favor to a family friend. I had no intention at the time of becoming a newspaper reporter or editor.

    However, that summer's experience turned me on to what became a rewarding career in journalism. I am forever grateful for it.

    The difference between then and now is that, during my summer in the newsroom, I worked under the guidance of experienced professionals who taught me more than I ever learned in a classroom. I am afraid that today's interns are used as free or cheap slave laborers, filling gaps created by Gannett's unwise layoffs.

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  18. 11:30 Newspapers have been dying for years, but they ain't dead yet. Looking at newspapers here and overseas I am seeing some world-class journalism, labored efforts to get at tough stories, and professional reporting. I think good journalism will be rewarded, but if you take a defeatest attitude, we are all destined for extinction. Look at the NYT and see how a newspaper I once felt was drowning in its debts, is now bouncing back. If you go to community journalism and freebie contributor columns, it is a death knell, that's for sure. Read the L.A. Times, which in bankruptcy but still fighting on.

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  19. If people here are really this concerned, why not file formal complaints with state employment bureaus? The attitude of sitting on your hands and waiting for someone else to do the dirty work is pathetic.

    Stop complaining and take action.

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  20. I've worked at several Gannett newspapers, and I've never heard of an unpaid intern. They're all paid, they all have start dates and end dates. They may or may not get college credit, but without a couple internships on your resume it's very hard to get hired anywhere but the smallest papers.

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  21. Maybe they are waxing Mr. Donovan's company car, the big BMW sedan.

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  22. 1:49 -- I'm glad you still have faith. I don't. I don't disagree that there are still good journalists working. That's indisputable. I just think there will be very few journalists making a livable wage in 10, 15, 20 years. As you mention, if papers go to purely community journalism and freebie columns, it's the end. And that's exactly what the majority of papers are doing. Sure, the New York Times and L.A. Times are great, but only so many journalists can work at those two papers, and they've been laying people off as well. If only 15% of the people in a given field make a livable wage, it's not really a career one should pursue in school ... unless they are convinced they'll be terribly unhappy doing anything else.

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  23. ANONYMOUS SAID. AT MANY SITES AS REVENUE NOSEDIVE AND JULY QUARTER ENDING. LOOK FOR MORE LAYOFFS AND DOWNSIZING IN SEPTEMBER.

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  24. @1:39 p.m., that parallels my experience exactly, although for me it was "only" a quarter century ago. I learned from some of the best, who took me under their wing and taught me the ropes. It was the best of times. And now we're soliciting slop from community columnists and freelancers. Ouch.

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Jim says: "Proceed with caution; this is a free-for-all comment zone. I try to correct or clarify incorrect information. But I can't catch everything. Please keep your posts focused on Gannett and media-related subjects. Note that I occasionally review comments in advance, to reject inappropriate ones. And I ignore hostile posters, and recommend you do, too."

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