For a Former Atlantic Intern, Payback is More Than Just Personal

By Katharine Rust

The recent news of the Atlantic Media Company’s decision to not only pay their current interns, but retroactively pay those who interned in their first “academy” — a six-month, full-time, unpaid internship last fall — is not only fantastic on a personal level, but on a higher level, as well.

I was one of those interns, toiling away 10-12 hour days for six months, surviving off whatever I could garner bartending in the fratastic D.C. neighborhood of Adams Morgan on weekends. Did my friends and family think I was crazy to work for free? Of course, but I loved it and relished every opportunity offered to me while I was there.

Besides, I knew going into it that I was going to struggle, but from my experience as an editor at a magazine in New York and as an intern at various magazines before that — all of which were unpaid — struggle, I’ve learned, is a part of the business of journalism. It’s a creative field, it’s competitive and because of both, I’ve found that employers have the upper hand in every way possible. (I may come off as bitter, but it’s hard to swallow two title promotions in four years with no increase in income and a boss telling you to ask your parents for money.) So my decision to take an unpaid, full-time internship was conflicting, yes, but coming from a place where I was already struggling with the amount I was being paid, it was easier to justify the work without the monetary compensation when I could solidly say I loved what I was doing.

That said, I hold a very high regard for the Atlantic Media Company. They fully understood the sacrifices we interns were making in order to be there and they truly took care of us. So, while it’s surprising to hear that a media company is going to retroactively compensate interns for our work, it’s also very gratifying to be able to walk away from an internship in media with more than references (granted, they are stellar references) and a few bylines. Add that to the fact that it’s a private company, likely struggling somewhat in its own right, and it makes my view of the media world, especially at a time when everyone is teetering a bit on the brink of going crazy, a shade or two brighter.

Unpaid internships are the dues that journalists have traditionally had to pay in order to get to an esteemed staff position. But just because a company can get work for free, does it necessarily mean they should? I suppose it’s as simple as supply vs. demand, but I, for one, applaud any company that can recognize the human element in it.

(And three cheers to the Times article that inspired The Atlantic‘s decision!)

Katharine Rust is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.