Making money and being a journalist can feel mutually exclusive these days. Between the people who openly tell me not to go into the field and those who suggest we learn to code or marry a doctor –– I’ve no illusions about amassing wealth as a journalist. I would be doing this work even if money didn’t exist.

Nonetheless, no matter how I feel about journalism, money does exist, and when you’re a student and you’re away from home, juggling school, work and the responsibility of living alone –– taking time off to participate in an internship or apprenticeship for free isn’t as simple as just going for it. 

Robyn Best, a third-year journalism student and one of my peers, said to me that she decided not to apply for internships this past year because the financial impact would be too great. Her options were take one in the middle of a semester, or do one immediately after, which is when she goes home to her family in Lindsay, ON. 

“There’s a lot of factors I’m finding I’m having to weigh, like, what are the pros of taking an internship and does it outweigh the multiple cons there are to it?”

The cons were missed income from her part-time job, and missed time with her family. Best moved to Ottawa to study journalism at Carleton. She ultimately chose to go home for the break, as she doesn’t see her family often during semesters.

Despite many student placements being unpaid, Carleton’s journalism school avoids sending students out to work for free. Their approach is to offer students a $150 per week honorarium to offset undertaking a full-time work placement. 

Best, however, says the honorarium is a “slap in the face” that wouldn’t cover her monthly expenses. 

I feel like you almost need an internship to get anywhere in this field, (to) prove you know what you’re doing.

Robyn Best, third-year journalism student

In taking on an internship, Best said she would’ve lost about 30 paid hours a week from her job. She noted a division between student journalists who can afford to take time off of work to complete a placement, and those who cannot. 

“It’s very frustrating,” said Best. “I feel like you almost need an internship to get anywhere in this field, (to) prove you know what you’re doing.”

The sentiment is echoed in a 2023 study on unpaid journalism internships. More than 75 per cent of student respondents said they would complete an internship to gain “real world experience” and mentorship from practicing journalists. At the same time, almost 65 per cent of the same respondents said they would be less inclined the internship was unpaid. 

The same study included input from newsroom leaders. Sixty per cent of those respondents believed interns should be paid and a quarter were unsure. Cited difficulties ranged from budget troubles to frustration in having to train and pay interns at the same time – when in their view, the internship is supplementing course work. 

Joanna Smith, editor-in-chief of Kathari News, said that full-time unpaid internships are exploitative and create a certain standard for what it takes to get into the industry. Smith said a key difference between an internship and an apprenticeship is the length and responsibilities. 

On a longer internship, she said, a journalist is essentially a full-time reporter. For shorter placements, Smith said that in her experience working with short-term apprentices, the focus was teaching how the newsroom worked and getting bylines.

“It was really important that whether they’re full-time interns or really short-term apprentices, that there be mentorship and training and clear priorities and to-do lists and goals involved to help support people’s professional development and that they never just be viewed as filling in for other people,” said Smith. 

Early-career journalists can hone and develop skills from experience with an outlet bigger than the university newspaper is incredibly valuable in developing skills. Not to mention the doors those bylines can open. For the outlets and publications, It can take time to acclimate emerging journalists into a newsroom where the deadlines are quicker than those of j-school assignments. 

In October, I spent two weeks in Toronto as an intern with National Post. It was unpaid, though I did receive an honorarium from Carleton. I learned a lot about the pace of publishing with a major outlet and it has continued to open doors for me since. 

Make no mistake, my experience is steeped in privilege. I live at home in Ottawa, and had family to stay with in Toronto. This shouldn’t be what determines who gets to break into the industry. New journalists should not have to choose between career advancement and financial stability. 

I imagine the issue of unpaid work in journalism as a tug of war happening on a hamster wheel. 

What underpins it is the money problem. 

For Best and other emerging journalists who are having to shoulder their cost of living, taking on an unpaid internship or apprenticeship is a barrier to entry in our profession. Meanwhile, outlets don’t always feel that they should be shelling out when they’re already doing a lot for the journalist.

Who has to take the hit when it comes to learning the ropes? Honorariums are a good place to start, though what about those that fall through the cracks?