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By not paying their interns, some Bay Area publications may be violating the state labor code

Wednesday, Feb 28 2007
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San Francisco serves as the Bay Area's lifestyle bible for senior executives and trophy wives. Each issue of the monthly magazine seduces readers with plush images of exotic food, haute couture, and upscale home decor, along with party photos of VIPs looking absolutely fabulous. It's a publication that attempts to define the good life, at least for those dying to know where to find a $2,100 tote bag.

It's also a publication that assigns the epically dull task of fact-checking to its interns. They verify the accuracy of every detail in the magazine: the address of Bar Tartine, the spelling of Salma Hayek's name, that the Louis Vuitton shop on Union Square sells a $2,100 tote bag. The job requires them to work the phones and troll the Internet for 30 to 40 hours a week. In return, they earn the charitable sum of bubkes.

The practice of magazines and newspapers stocking their staffs with unpaid help befits an industry that still hews to the business model of plantations. Editorial managers rationalize that the "hands-on" experience gained by interns makes up for the lack of a paycheck. Meanwhile, however, editors and publishers fail to realize — or choose to disregard — that denying wages to non-student interns violates the California labor code, according to state officials.

The state classifies an intern as a registered student who earns college credit for time spent with a company. Anyone else is designated an employee entitled to no less than the minimum wage. But several prominent Bay Area publications, including San Francisco, 7x7, Diablo, and the Bay Guardian, routinely fill unpaid internships with non-students, most often recent college graduates. Other magazines, among them Benefit, Dwell, and Yoga Journal, offer monthly stipends that fall well below the minimum-wage rate.

"If you're not a student getting [academic] credit, you're not a true intern," says Stephanie Barrett of the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. "You're an employee and you should be paid like one."

The glut of journalism grads who enter the market each year represent cheap pickings for the media industry. Eager to make contacts and see their name in print, they sign on for a three- or four-month tour of poverty, accepting it as the price of opportunity. "Everybody wants to be paid," says Catherine Cromelin, who landed internships with San Francisco and Diablo after graduating from San Francisco State last spring. "But I didn't feel like I had a choice. If I didn't take the [internship], someone else would have."

Cromelin, 24, relates that she could work for free only because of financial support from her parents. She logged four days a week at San Francisco and one at Diablo, devoting the bulk of her time to fact-checking articles. Yet despite the tedium, she credits the internships with giving her a toehold in the business, and she since has lined up freelance writing assignments with both magazines. "I don't feel like they abuse their interns," Cromelin says. "They're just doing what's always been done in this field."

Nonetheless, one might assume that a company named Modern Luxury Media, the parent of San Francisco, could afford to pay the three to five interns the magazine carries at any given time. Modern Luxury, one of the country's largest publishers of regional lifestyle journals, owns titles in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, among other cities. Three years ago, the investment firm run by the nephew of Walt Disney pumped more than $50 million into the publishing company.

The 140,000-circulation San Francisco generally taps college students and recent graduates for its four-month internships. Research editor Chris Smith, who oversees the program, told SF Weekly he was unaware of the labor statute that categorizes non-student interns as employees. He declined to discuss the subject further, and requests for comment from the magazine's executive editor went unanswered.

Some publications expect their free help to handle duties beyond fact-checking. Interns contribute bite-sized articles to the lifestyle glossy 7x7, which lists them as editorial assistants on its masthead, and assist with copyediting the magazine and its Web site. At Dwell, an architecture and design journal, they research potential stories and write short items.

When informed of the state's intern definition, Anne Spraglin, Dwell's managing editor, pleaded ignorance. But mindful of working gratis at the start of her own career, she limits the magazine's interns to 20 hours a week. They receive $200 a month. "I know what it's like to feel exploited," Spraglin says, "and we try not to do that."

Editors contend that allowing aspiring journalists to report and write articles will aid their job prospects. At the same time, with print and broadcast media alike relying on unpaid interns far more than most industries, the motives of publishers appear less than altruistic. "It's a way to cover the work without hiring someone," says Doug Cuthbertson, executive officer of the Northern California Media Workers Guild. "It's corporate greed."

A number of the region's publications provide above-minimum wages to interns. Wired pays $12 an hour, while the Chronicle offers $650 a week. Interns for the ANG Newspaper Group, which includes the Oakland Tribune and Alameda Times-Star, earn $10 an hour. (SF Weekly offers a six-month fellowship that pays $500 a week.)

Kevin Keane is executive editor of ANG and the Contra Costa Times, properties that belong to MediaNews, owners of the San Jose Mercury News and some 40 dailies nationwide. He asserts that too often publications treat interns as "a crutch to hold up the staff. They should be compensated for the work they do." Yet as mass layoffs batter papers across the country — both the Times and Mercury News took hard hits last year — the demand for low-priced labor amplifies.

"Internships are seen by newsroom managers as a real cheap way to get work done," says John McManus, director of Grade the News, a Bay Area media watchdog. "Other people might see it as slave labor."

Even so, the Bay Guardian, self-anointed champion of the working stiff, makes no apologies for using unpaid help. The putatively progressive weekly augments its small staff with up to a dozen interns, many of them non-students; that figure nearly equals its number of salaried editors and reporters.

The workload of Bay Guardian interns ranges from writing stories and conducting research for reporters to sorting mail. In the absence of a paycheck, however, the odds of earning a byline proved longer than anticipated for one former intern. "It takes a lot of time to get an article written," says the ex-intern, who finished a four-month stint at the paper without publishing a piece. "But you can't spend that much time on it when you have to work another job to pay the bills."

Questions about the internship program drew a typically voluble response from Bruce Brugmann, the Bay Guardian's editor and publisher. He insists the paper obeys the law as interpreted by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, an industry trade group that disputes the state's legal analysis that only students can be classified as interns. "We're helping young people by giving them vocational training from expert editors and reporters," he says. "It's a wonderful opportunity for them."

Or an expedient fix for management, Cuthbertson counters. The Guild official contends that the Bay Guardian's dependence on unpaid interns contradicts its persistent advocacy of workers' rights. Recalling Brugmann's quashing of efforts to unionize the paper in the 1970s and '80s, Cuthbertson says, "For all his liberal talk, he hasn't matched it with his actions."

Still, nothing suggests the state will begin forcing employers to pay non-student interns. The labor standards enforcement agency has investigated only three wage complaints involving interns since 1999. And notwithstanding the obscurity of the state's rule governing such matters, it's likely few interns would file claims even if aware of their rights, for fear of stunting their career progress. In the short term, anyway, getting ahead outweighs getting paid. "That's the way the system works," Cromelin says. "There's really no alternative."

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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