"Internships," the headline in the New York Times’s opinion section read, "Are Not a Privilege." The op-ed was by Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation, and it discussed what he called "America’s internship-industrial complex" — the way unpaid internships effectually lock out diverse, talented young workers who cannot possibly afford to work for free.
It got media types talking about journalism’s unpaid internship economy and why it’s insidious. I figured it’s a good opportunity to tell you a little bit about my experience with unpaid internships, because I am, improbably, a member of "the media," and I'm kind of tired about only ever seeing white colleagues sound off about this nonsense whenever a fellow person of color addresses it on a platform as big and white as the New York Times.
It’s a matter of optics: While it is presumptuous to assume my white colleagues are all privileged (they’re not), collectively it looks like a bunch of people who have benefited from a messed-up system merely shrugging and saying, Hey, ain’t that some bullshit?
I had to be told I could go to college, any college, anywhere, and study anything
After five years of working in this field — previously for publications like Fast Company and Entertainment Weekly, currently for GQ and Vulture — I remain confident that the biggest reason I have the career I do can only empirically be called "dumb luck." My parents would call it the grace of God, which honestly feels much more true when you do the math and see how stupid unlikely it all is.
In between my junior and senior years of college (and oh, man, COLLEGE — another big grace-of-God/dumb luck moment in my life), I took an unpaid internship at Gawker Media. This is something I could only do because my parents — poor, blue-collar Hispanic folk with three other kids to feed after my skinny brown geek ass — bent over backward to stay in Bergen County, New Jersey, in an old-ass apartment building where none of the walls were straight and a fuse blew out if we ever had the hubris to run the microwave and the air conditioning at the same time.
They crammed the six of us into an apartment meant for four people, because I got into a good magnet high school they wanted me to stay in and because they wanted to be near the family church. They believed faith came first, and they wanted a better life for their children.
Even if they didn’t know what that better life looked like. I barely did.
Anyway, my parents were able to keep us in this nice, white New Jersey neighborhood — just a river’s width away from the Hispanic neighborhoods where, based on our income and culture, we "belonged" — and I went to a high school with a faculty that worked hard to make sure its students all knew everything there was to know about college and internships and that I, specifically, could have those things.
Don’t gloss over that last bit. See, I had to be told I could go to college, any college, anywhere, and study anything. Before that, I just assumed it wasn’t for me. I would’ve gone to a community college — Bergen County had a good one — and studied something "sensible." Accounting, or IT. This would have been enough — enough to make everyone proud, enough to help my family out, enough to have a better life than the one my parents led. Sure, I was good at writing, but the hell was I going to do with that? That shit’s for white people.
Then I applied to Syracuse University — to the Newhouse School, a school whose reputation I was entirely ignorant of, a school I only knew about because it had partnered with my local paper to bring brown kids like me out there for a weekend to learn what studying journalism was like. I applied because it was the first honest-to-God college campus I had seen with my own eyes and thought, Damn, wouldn’t this be nice?
I mentioned applying to Newhouse to a local Syracuse recruiter, and he scoffed at me. "Oh," he said. "The hard one." He then told me about the school’s reputation, its relatively low acceptance rate, how I should consider applying to the less stringent College of Arts and Sciences and maybe transferring later.
I got in anyway, and became the first in my family to go to college, on a grant. I wouldn’t have been able to attend otherwise. I still think about that guy. I hope he isn’t recruiting anymore.
I took an unpaid internship — and needed two part-time jobs to make it work
All of college was a culture shock for me, a surreal experience I never stopped feeling like I wasn’t supposed to have. But most bizarre to me was how necessary the school’s career development office stressed unpaid internships were, how chill we all were supposed to be with doing immense amounts of entry-level work for free.
They said a lot of things, but most of what I heard in my head was, Whoa, this shit really is for rich white people. I could not comprehend how I, had I not lived walking distance from a train station minutes away from New York City, would have ever pulled that off. Everywhere, kids were moving to other states to do unpaid gigs for this network or that publication. I was stuck where God planted my ass, and even then it barely worked out.
I applied to an unpaid internship at Gawker’s video game blog Kotaku on a lark. Thinking I couldn’t possibly get it, I wrote a wise-ass application email I wouldn’t have otherwise sent. I got it.
I had to work two other part-time jobs and fight my father tooth and nail to keep it. See, an unpaid internship was foolish to him. He was right, but if I wanted to make the most of this education I was getting, I had to play a game we were never allowed to even see. A game people of our stature didn’t have any business playing.
My pops was just looking out for me, but he was using a math that was meant to keep us where we were. Things got heated. He threw me out the house. Having pissed off the guy who drove me to work, I walked two miles to one of the part-time jobs that paid me money to afford the train tickets to my unpaid gig, furious but hoping he didn’t mean it. I came home that night, because of course he didn’t.
Media feels like a different planet from back home
I never took an unpaid internship again. Didn’t have to. A Gawker line on my résumé and Kotaku bylines in my clip file did a lot for me, because media hiring is an image-driven game of six degrees of separation and I had lucked my way into a reason to get people to just look at my writing.
When they did, I got to sit in newsrooms populated almost entirely by people who were nothing like me, empowered by a privilege that, until a few years ago, I hadn’t even known existed. And they were fine. Nice people who were smart and talented and whom I learned a lot from.
But they might as well have been from another goddamn planet. And I was writing for them, and people like them. Nobody back home cares about startups, and all the writing and reporting I did for the Hacker News set couldn’t be any more removed from the reality of my family’s life.
Today, my work is a little more relevant to the lives of the people I grew up around — I write about entertainment — but for publications that serve audiences that are overwhelmingly college-educated, no stranger to this strange machine I’ve slipped my way into. No one back home knows about Vox.com.
The story of J
Before we’re done here, I want to tell you about J.
Remember that program I told you about? The one that took me to my alma mater for the first time as a high schooler? I went back last fall —this time as a chaperone, escorting a bus full of bright-eyed brown kids hoping to go to college, be journalists, tell stories.
J kept to himself most of the trip, a small Latino kid who looked both fiercely intelligent and fiercely committed to hiding it. At one point, something happened to J. He shut down entirely, seemed to hate everything. It took me a whole dinner’s worth of shooting the shit about sports and girls to get him to tell me what bothered him. Turned out a current Syracuse student had asked J where he was from, and when J told him, the student was taken aback.
"What are you doing here?" the prick asked.
And so I told J about the quiet fury I’ve lived with since making it Out, since achieving the dream my grandparents had for us all from the moment they set foot in this country and struck out on their own. I told him that he’s going to feel like all this isn’t for him, that it’s going to feel like he cheated his way in, that he’s going to have to endure the casual, painful ignorance that comes from privilege, that he’s going to see the casual wealth and opportunity of all the nice white people around him and feel like he can’t possibly have a chance to compete.
And then I told him how far he’s come just by sitting in that dining hall with me, about how many of us don’t even get to know what that’s like, that, yes, the game is rigged, but our very presence brings it a little bit closer to being overturned entirely. How he’s going to prove to the world that it’s wrong, that he can’t be kept down.
Because that’s what all of it does, somehow — prestigious degrees from private universities, alumni networks, unpaid internships, and stupid, ignorant comments from the beneficiaries thereof: keep kids like J out.
Back in New Jersey, as the kids all got off the bus we took upstate and into their parents’ cars, J came over to me and shook my hand. Told me that conversation made a trip he would’ve otherwise written off entirely worth it. I hope he meant it. I hope he’s out there, applying to schools, schools that he’s been conditioned to think aren’t for him. Causing trouble. Like a journalist.
Journalism has been making headway in areas that help bolster newsroom diversity, that will help kids like J — unpaid internships are virtually extinct at major publications, and editors are slowly working toward making their roster of writers less homogeneous. But journalism is also hamstrung. Dependent on advertisers and their customers or on the fickle, unknowable workings of a social media algorithm.
This is a problem that is bigger than journalism, but it’s one that is paramount for journalism to solve. Journalism speaks for those who cannot. It is the clear, level voice broadcasting the message of people with voices too raw from shouting on their own for far too long. And journalism is doing it half-blind.
I don't ever want to have the kind of conversation I had with J again. I want it to be unnecessary sometime in my lifetime, and soon. But I know it won't be. The problem is too big, involving too many institutional policies and systemic injustices to be solved anytime soon. Change is slow, and I am young. But that’s okay. I’ll keep having those conversations. Keep on swinging.
Because despite media’s best efforts, I’m media now.
Joshua Rivera is a freelance entertainment journalist and critic whose work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Daily Beast, and Entertainment Weekly. You can currently find his work on GQ.com and Vulture, where he writes about pop culture and video games. That is, if he isn't tweeting about it all at @jmrivera02. He does that a lot.
This article is adapted from a post that originally ran on Medium.