The Weird Legacy Of Condé Nast's Unpaid Interns

Conversations with former interns reveal their role was a strange one that will be unique to fill. A director allegedly offered a room of unpaid interns $100 to whoever could come up with “a good idea” on the spot.

When the news broke last week that Condé Nast would no longer continue to hire unpaid interns, staffers knew that only one thing would cure the pain of the end of free labor: alcohol. One GQ editorial intern was jokingly presented with a bottle of "coping whiskey" by her bosses. It was quite an old-media gesture for a time that seems particularly modern.

Condé's decision to close off its unpaid internship program comes after a lawsuit from two former unpaid staffers, part of a bigger picture of lawsuits against large companies that have previously employed young people in unpaid positions. It's what New York Magazine has dubbed "the Great Unpaid-Intern Uprising."

Condé Nast has not released a statement about further action so far and did not return repeated requests for comment. Current interns will finish out their terms; the ban starts in 2014.

In several conversations with former Condé Nast interns and employees, the same thing has come up in almost every one: The effort to fill their shoes — presumably without a fleet of willing upstarts — will be interesting to watch.

One former intern said that she once overheard a editor telling an underling, "Don't send a messenger, always send an intern. It saves money."

John Surico, a former web intern and freelancer for Condé property GQ, called interns the "backbone" of the company. He said that editorial interns were more likely than web interns to do errand-based tasks, and that the worst tasks for editorial interns were lengthy interview transcriptions — some of which took over eight hours to complete.

"You can have an amazing Zach Baron story, but there's no story without a transcription," he said.

Another source described mixed feelings in the legal department where interns were not paid, but were sent on expensed trips and were given rooms in nice hotels. Allegedly the legal department's training program started with the director telling a room of unpaid interns that whoever could come up with "a good idea" on the spot would get $100 cash.

A 2007 Condé intern who wished to remain anonymous said one of the most important lessons she learned while working without pay is that breaking into the world of print media requires a steady cash flow from somewhere else besides work.

"A few years later," she said, "I interviewed for a job as a features assistant at Vogue, during which an editor asked me what my parents did before telling me how much money I'd make: $25,000 a year."

Jerry Donahue, the assistant director of career services at Northwestern's Medill program — whose son is a journalist — said unpaid internships are a personal choice and should be considered carefully. "It's up to them. ... In a lot of cases, it comes down to job description. What are you actually going to be doing at that job?"

Still, Kelly Brown, director of career services at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Communications, said that there was "a lot of disappointment" in her program when Condé's decision became known.

She advised students to become more aggressive networkers. "People like to say, 'It's not what you know, it's who you know,' but I like to say, 'It's who knows you,'" she said.

Julie Hartenstein, the associate dean for career services at Columbia University's journalism school, said that her program's students — who are usually rooted in solid careers at the point of enrollment — aren't necessarily in the market for unpaid internships but she still applauded Condé's decision.

"It's the right decision legally and ethically," she said.

Hartenstein acknowledges that a student couldn't survive on a paid internship — the inevitable new first step for a young journo in the city — but she's happy it's a step up from the alternative.

"At least it's something — where is anyone going to live on minimum wage in New York?" she said. "At least you'll be sleeping on someones's couch instead of digging yourself into further debt to get your foot in the door. It's not an easy question."