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The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. (Photo: Lindsay Palmer)

Why we pay our interns a fair wage

But $15 an hour is only a small step in the right direction.

By Jocelyn Bell

One of the things I’m most proud of here at The Observer is our internship program. For 12 weeks each summer, a journalism student joins our team and learns the ins and outs of publishing a magazine.

This is no coffee-getting job. Our intern writes, edits, proofreads, posts digital content and participates in editorial meetings. It’s a fully immersive experience. We benefit too. Interns bring fresh eyes to old problems and inspire us to keep innovating. They help everyone breathe easier around deadlines. And when they continue to work in journalism, all of us at The Observer feel proud to have played a small part in their success.

We pay our summer interns minimum wage and have done so since 2007 when the program started. At that time, we could have called our interns “trainees” and been exempted from paying them at all. Many Canadian magazines have taken that route, offering only unpaid or underpaid gigs.

In late 2017, when the Ontario Liberals passed reforms intended to help the province’s lowest-paid workers, those magazines were forced to start paying their interns minimum wage. Some publications couldn’t afford it and cancelled their internship programs altogether. For us, it was business as usual. We firmly believe that people contributing to our workplace deserve to be remunerated.

But there’s another very good reason to pay interns: it helps to foster equality and diversity within the magazine industry. Not everyone can afford to work for three months for little or no pay. Narrowing the pool of applicants to those with healthy bank balances rules out all of those talented, hard-working young journalists who may be living paycheque to paycheque.

Last January, the provincial Liberals raised the minimum wage to $14 an hour, and we increased our internship payment accordingly. Their plan was to give the hourly rate another bump in 2019 to $15. But then Doug Ford’s Conservatives swept to power and announced plans to freeze the minimum wage at $14 an hour for the next two years. Workers across the province rallied in protest.

I’ve decided to ignore Premier Ford’s wage freeze and bump up our hourly pay for interns to $15 in 2019. Over the course of a 12-week internship, the difference amounts to $480 — not a huge expenditure, but an amount that could mean the difference between attracting a stellar but financially disadvantaged student, and forcing that person to choose between opportunity and survival.

Let me be clear — $15 an hour is only a small step in the right direction. According to Living Wage Canada, the living wage in Toronto is $18.52 an hour. With the high cost of rent in this city, our summer students typically live with roommates or family members. They can afford the basics and a few small comforts, but it’s tight. Paid internships gave me my start in journalism. And Muriel Duncan, the former Observer editor for whom our internship program is named, gave me my first paid freelance assignment. It feels good to know that I can help another young person get their start — regardless of the size of their bank account.

Wishing all of our readers hope, love, joy and the peace of Christ this season. Merry Christmas from all of us at The Observer.

This editorial originally appeared in The Observer’s December 2018 edition with the title “Giving interns a fair start.”

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Author's photo
Jocelyn Bell is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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