Millennial Circles of Hell Pt. 2: The Internship

I signed a contract to work with Oregon Bride, a magazine owned by Tiger Oak Media, on 8/17/17.

The issue to which I contributed came out on January of 2018.

Today’s date is 01/20/19, one year and five months after I signed that contract, and I still have not been paid for an ounce of work I did for Oregon Bride.


Who Is That Sad Little Person?

In the summer of 2017, I had just graduated with an MA in English, and had also just embarked upon the heinous job search that I discuss in detail here. Last November, Longreads editor Aaron Gilbreath wrote about about my job-search piece in an article called “The Humanities Marketplace as a Circle of Hell,” an apt description of my post-graduate life. The name of today’s post is a nod to Gilbreath’s title, and an introduction to one of the finest traditions of millennial living: the unpaid internship.*

During the Summer of My Job-Hunting Discontent (TM), I knew that my resume contained more experiences in academia than it did in editing or publishing. So, when the opportunity presented itself, I decided to take on an internship at Oregon Bride, a bridal magazine that my friend had just starting working for that summer. My friend explained that, historically, the magazine has not paid its interns; however, she could assign me to write freelance articles and serve as her editorial assistant for a stipend of $500. The magazine approved the arrangement, and I accepted the terms. I was sincerely looking to forward to the opportunity— not simply to boost my resume, but to learn more about how print publications get made.

I want to begin by stating two things. Firstly, I do not at all intend to blame my friend (who no longer works for the magazine) for any of the events I describe in this article. She is a kind and talented person who, like me, did not know the character of the magazine’s parent company until she began working there. And secondly, (because, according to some of the nastiest commenters on my job search article, I need to articulate this more emphatically), yes, I do realize and take responsibility for my own mistakes in this matter.**No, I am not asking anyone to throw me a “pity party”.*** I am simply here to write about something that happened to me with the hope that someone else might find it helpful. I am also here to roast some higher-ups for not paying the hard-working Americans that create their product. So take that, Trump-supporting malcontents.

The requirements of this internship, for the most part, were not unreasonably work-intensive. Beyond assisting the Senior Editor, I was charged with proofreading, writing a series of brief articles, and updating digital materials (such as the magazine’s Vendor Directory). I was also asked to attend a few days of October photoshoots for the magazine’s Spring/Summer issue.

Although taking several days off of my minimum-wage retail job was not my best financial decision, and I could not stop calculating and recalculating how much losing that take-home pay would affect my partner and I that month, I was sincerely looking forward to the photoshoots. To me, they represented a chance to learn about the process of creating a print publication from a new perspective. I had worked on proofreading, formatting, and editing in the past, but this week would allow me to learn about the real-time creation and design of magazine content– something that higher-ranking editors typically do.

To save money on the October trip, I crashed at a friend’s place, where I was momentarily calmed by pink wine and a (nostalgic, but definitely not ironic) viewing of the Disney Channel Original Movie Cadet Kelly. However, the next morning, anxious about the week’s busy schedule and the high price of food in Portland, I also made a really horrible decision called replacing my meals with high-protein shakes. Friends, family, colleagues: please don’t do this. Unless, of course, you want to wreck your bowels; in that case, be my actual guest.  

Florals? For Spring? Groundbreaking.

I will spare you the details of my “professional” experiences that week, mostly because they primarily consisted of me feeling like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada: getting coffee for the crew, writing down the names and style numbers of various gowns, and feeling insecure about my cheap clothing and frizzy hair. It was a slightly more fast-paced and considerably bougie-r work environment than I was used to, but it went relatively okay. At one point during the first day, I felt pretty sad watching PAs feed one of the models pistachios like she was a tiny, underfed bird, but c’est l’industrie, I guess?

Everything went okay, that is, until the next day– when my 24-year-old car broke down in the middle of a busy Portland intersection while I was transporting hundreds of dollars worth of flowers in the backseat. Within the hour, I found myself ugly-crying in the Portland rain, knowing I probably didn’t have the money to get the car fixed, and calling my friend/editor thinking that someone else would have to bring the flowers to the set. Except, of course, there was no one else. So I called an Uber from the tow truck driver’s phone (mine had died at that point), placed the flowers in the backseat, and rode to my friend’s house, where I borrowed her car to drive three hours to deliver the flowers.

On my way to the photoshoot location, I was asked to pick up lunch for the crew again: a catering tray of Subway sandwiches, chips, fruit, and a few other things. Unlike the last time I picked up food for the crew, no one gave me a company credit card or mentioned anything about paying for the meal. Knowing that I was already late to the shoot, I was too nervous to call and talk about reimbursement– the people I was working with had made it very clear that they were not to be bothered about little things like that– so I emptied out a large portion of all of the money I currently had in my checking account to pay for lunch.

When I finally reached the set– a plateau somewhere in the Columbia Gorge– I was told that I wasn’t really needed, and that, given what had happened to my car, I should go home and deal with it. I gave a staff member my receipts for the food I had bought, and she said she would reimburse me later. So I promptly drove the three hours back, where I spent a good deal of time plotting to sell my plasma and/or my 1970s Peugeot street bike in order to pay for my fruitless attempts at career-building.

Is There Some Reason My Coffee Isn’t Here? Has She Died or Something?

Interestingly enough, as I look back on this period of time, it isn’t actually the fact that I never got reimbursed for my purchases that frustrates me; instead, it’s the fact that the amount I spent on food and coffee for everyone was such a negligible amount of money to that person that she did not think of how much that purchase might impact me (a definite pattern during those days of photoshoots). I wondered if she, along with the other higher-ups at the magazine, knew what it was like to be making minimum wage with an undergraduate student loan–and, if they did, why they couldn’t transform that empathy into an acknowledgement that it might be difficult for an intern to pick up the check.

As I noted earlier, the issue to which I contributed came out in December of 2017. For the “freelance” portion of my arrangement with the magazine, I ended up interviewing several different winners of our “Real Weddings” feature (a portion of the magazine devoted to describing Oregonian weddings that actually happened, as opposed to those staged in the magazine for advertising purposes), and wrote about them. Was this the most compelling work I have ever produced? Absolutely not. But I did…do the work.

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My attempts to contact the magazine about payment resulted in extraordinarily vague and noncommittal responses from several Tiger Oak staff members. I realize that it is not the responsibility of an editorial staff to deal with accounting issues, especially for employees that they have never worked with. But the fact that these employees, by way of a justifying their business practices, continued to emphasize how “transparent” they are about their failure to pay freelancers in a timely fashion angered me to no end. I was also angered by the fact that several staff members blamed my friend for not being emphatic enough about just how late “late” really means for Tiger Oak Media. While I’m a big fan of transparency, transparency is not the issue at hand. Here’s a hot take: being transparent about an unethical practice doesn’t magically make it an ethical one. 

After doing some digging online, I have discovered that this is not the first time a freelancer has been utterly stiffed by this magazine, a fact further supported by comments on job review sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed. According to my research, Tiger Oak’s failure to pay its freelancers has been going on for at least a decade; in fact, this 2010 (2010!) article states that “The situation got so bad that the Minnesota Attorney General sent a letter to Tiger Oak asking about the delays.” Another article published in 2010, this piece by Oregon Live columnist Steve Duin, questions the legality of Tiger Oak’s internship program a.k.a. its propensity to rely on unpaid labor that does not clearly benefit its often-desperate interns.

Look, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on finance or even the publishing industry, so can someone explain to me how the hell a company like Tiger Oak continues to stay in business without paying those that create its content? I mean, ostensibly, each magazine’s salaried employees continue to make something; otherwise, I’m sure the company would have gone under a long time ago. My guess is this: that the powers that be at Tiger Oak Media know that very few freelancers are going to take them to small claims court when the cost of doing so, in most cases, will end up being more than the freelancer is owed. But you would think that at some point, they could not sustain these business practices. You would think.

But hey, then again, maybe not? Since this has happened, I have started reading a lot of material online about freelancers who simply never get paid by their clients. Even in my own town, this has happened to a group of freelancers who wrote for The Corvallis Advocate. According to the article, they are owed thousands of dollars in back pay. And yet, I still see that paper going out to local newsstands.

According to their website, Tiger Oak Publications publishes “more than 27 magazines” (So… 28? 29? The fact that they aren’t forthcoming about the number of publications they have itself seems a little sketchy…). Because I have come to learn that many of Tiger Oak’s publications take over a year to pay their freelancers, not just Oregon Bride, that means that–potentially– freelancers for 27 (28? 29?) magazines, most of whom are probably already not doing so hot in the finances department, are having to wait a unreasonable amount of time to get paid for their work. In what other industry is this okay?*

Do you want to know what’s particularly funny about Me, Myself, and my Mistakes? Despite having learned some important lessons from this whole situation, I began another unpaid internship this year, this time with Sundress Publications. But I love it, and here is the difference:

* At Sundress, I was told very explicitly that working for the publication was a volunteer opportunity. I was provided with a specific and thorough contract that defines responsibilities on both my part and the part of supervisors. I was also given a very manageable workload (10 hours a week), which respects the fact that when someone who is not a trust fund baby does an internship, they might also need to work a paying job during the day.

* The editors at Sundress have made it clear that they are invested in supporting interns. They created social media posts to introduce us, for example, and collected our bios in order to give us more exposure. The editor that I work with directly created a detailed handbook to help us navigate the publication’s day-to-day processes, and has made herself very available to support us when she assigns us tasks. Did I mention that everyone who works at Sundress is a volunteer? Undoubtedly, that fact contributes to the healthier workplace culture of the publication, but it also reminds me that the editor I work with does not have to do nearly half of the things she does to be a great supervisor. I have already begun to learn about working for a publication of this size and type because of her commitment to mentorship. And isn’t that pragmatic sort of learning supposed to be what an internship is really about? Not just paying for catering platters and crying?

But what do I know? I’m just an overeducated twenty-something who has more degrees than I do positive work experiences. And if the responses to my blog posts are any indication of what life is like for today’s debt-ridden and often-exploited young folks, then I can confidently discern that I am not alone. At least I am not like my brother, whose own “paid” post-grad internship at a large L.A. nonprofit ended up compensating him in a handful of Starbucks gift cards. 

Afterword:

The very day I intended to post this piece, I received a letter in the mail from Tiger Oak. I was momentarily excited. Perhaps today, I thought, perhaps today I can finally address that “check engine” light. Or get some sensible orthotic shoes.

But OH LOL, fam. It’s Tiger Oak peddling some swill about how we “may have noticed” never getting paid for our work, and using some fancy corporate rhetoric to suggest that this event is a fluke– an isolated incident that was caused by mistakes in this year’s accounting– instead of a business practice that has lasted for at least ten years. Oh, and don’t worry, they have worked out a solution that is fair for the both of us. Oh, happy day.

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Notes:

* Or perhaps, in this case, the “late-paid internship”?

** For example, not signing a contract that stipulates a specific payment date. Way to go, amateur Athena!
*** A real-life piece of textual evidence from a reader like you. Thank you, empathetic reader! Cheers!

**** This is a serious question. I would like to know if you work in an industry in which this is okay. Enlighten me (kindly please, for the love of God) in the comments.

All subtitles courtesy of The Devil Wears Prada (2006), directed by David Frankel.

3 Comments

  1. My friend used to work (actually work for, she was the office administrator which basically means the male boss expects her to be a secretary and bookkeeper) for a tennis magazine, and she said several advertisers owed them like $10,000 in backpay for ads that had run in previous years and when she would pester them for payment they’d be like, Sorry, we’ve closed the books on that fiscal year so we’re just not gonna pay you. Doesn’t make shitty intern policies any better, but I guess in this industry, everyone is constantly trying to screw each other over?

    Liked by 2 people

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