Intern Nation: How Intern Magazine Succeeds–and Where it Falters

When the Kickstarter campaign page for Intern magazine was loading on my computer screen a few months ago, it was hard to not see it as a punchline—a parody, even, seeing how interns have taken over the pull-quotes and centerfolds usually reserved for their editor and designer superiors. In the short span of three years since I entered college, “intern” has become a hashtag everywhere in the media: think pieces and trend articles on the subject are published left and right; a movie about Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as under-qualified salesmen battling for internship spots at Google came out earlier in the year; Intern Nation, the first comprehensive book-length examination of the intern economy was published the year before; in Girls, by now an indisputable representation of the milieu of a certain over-educated and under-empathized post-Manhattan generation, Hannah Horvath is perpetually in transition between internships and underpaid positions, to the point where her audience is never positive about the source of income that is keeping her financially afloat. When I read about the spec pilot being pitched to Amazon Studios called “#interns,” I knew for certain that the moment of the intern had arrived—literally minutes ago, my best friend and I just titled a Google Doc “Interns: A Sitcom.”

If there is one word that embalms the intern at the moment, it is “transition”. The internship is never meant to be one’s permanent position in the world, in spite of the fact that it is now possible to find full-fledged resumes, portfolios, and dossiers of experience composed entirely of internships. Documenting this hopefully fleeting transitional stage of life seems to be a precious task, like capturing a disappearing dew at daybreak (or the golden light before sundown, if the prospect of a full-time working life is more like the darkness of endless night). What is there to celebrate about a mere stepping stone and target of exploitation to a bill-paying, title-bearing, auto-vacation-email-enabling, legitimate career?

Intern exists for good reasons. Evidently, there is value in this precarious mode of work wedged on the line between learning and working, otherwise there wouldn’t have been an indignant outcry from high school and college students across the nation when prestigious Conde Nast announced the closing of its internship program in 2014, even though the positions are either unpaid or compensated by a meager stipend. After a year of interning at independent magazines in Britain and Europe, a mission dawned on 29-year-old Alec Dudson. He wanted to create a magazine that celebrate the works and contribution of interns and unpaid talents in the creative industry, and at the same time invite a discussion about the value and labor of interns, when they have now formed an integral aspect of the workforce. As an employer takes on an intern for his or her talent and potential, Dudson sought the funding for his projects by promising pledgers on Kickstarter a showcase of “the best unpaid and intern talent across the creative industries” and a forum for “initiating a debate about intern culture and its effects.”

Three and a half months after the Kickstarter campaign, the first issue of Intern came out in print and is slowly making its way to stockists around the world. Its 140 pages come in a convenient size and substantial paper stock, with a clean layout and quietly playful elements that sustain freshness through a read in one sitting. It is almost a reflex in the digital age to be skeptical of the bravery required to launch a print publication. A visit to the magazine section of McNally Jackson or Spoonbill and Sugartown should dispel any doubts about the viability of today’s print culture and its strength.

Intern magazine’s meta point of view calls to mind Industrie and, more recently, System, both of which have a similar strategy to present the fashion industry from within the industry. One only has to imagine a magazine called Marketing Assistant or Senior Coatroom Attendant to see the comic potential of how a fraction of the workforce warrants the dedication of a publication. But Intern proves a point about the complexity of the issue as more than a meme and an extracurricular activity.

Intern’s philosophy is as paradoxical as the intern debate itself. The magazine pays all of its contributors for the features about either their own unpaid internship experiences or reportage on others’. Dudson has expressed in multiple interviews that his own stance on the issue must not interfere with the neutral grounds of the magazine. Intern succeeds in this regard. The issue is covered by a multiplicity of well-informed voices from the creative industry, for example, a graphic designer whose creative proposal enabled him to intern his way around the world; the heads of a multidisciplinary design collective in Manchester who explains a successful internship from the employer’s perspective; an intern who did not benefit from a corporate talent-search system; a photographer who found opportunities in New York that were unavailable in her native Spain; a Parsons School of Design student who turned a precarious teacher-student relationship into a fruitful mentor-intern relationship; Intern Aware, a campaign for minimum wage for interns in the UK; and a staunch statement against exploitative unpaid internships from the CEO of a British educational charity for design and advertising. Each story presents one dynamic of the internship, and each position is equally persuasive. Read collectively, the stories underline the internship as a personal trajectory and avoid a uniform didactic agenda.

The form of the confabulation is where the magazine falters. Editorial consistency and journalistic professionalism are often sacrificed in favor of preserving the intimacy of the personal voices, an extraneous gesture that ends up working against the unity of the magazine. It is clear that the magazine is a very personal project of its creator, and that the editors strived to maintain the liberty for contributors to have an equally personal claim to their work. The effect, however, is an unevenness of writing that makes the magazine read like a collection of op-eds and interviews. One story starts on an intern’s negative experience with BBC’s futile recruiting method, but ends abruptly about other opportunities at the broadcasting company’s new location in the north. Another hums on tiresomely without grasping onto the most relevant angle. The magazine’s conversational and personable strength especially undermines the quality of its content when it forsakes basic expositions and implicates a feeling of an insider design and art circle that radiates from London to New York.

But one comes away from the best stories with a newly equipped sense of how to approach internships effectively, and an appreciation for the value and significance of internships, though an unpaid position might not be financially feasible at the moment. Money has always been a reluctant subject for artists, but Intern does not shy away from how unpaid interns afford their lives—it varies from working part-time jobs to relying on parental support. One also learns about a variety of attitudes towards the matter from the equally integral but often overlooked component of the internship—employers. Both Mike Perry and OWT set up a rather enviable model of mentorship to their interns, in spite of the lack of monetary compensation for different reasons.

The controversy returns to the question of compensation until it becomes clear that the question should no longer be whether interns should be paid, but rather, what do they earn. The intern remains a problematic job title because it questions the conventional capitalist paradigm of labor and reward, a relationship that has been especially unfriendly to creative labor: How does one put a price on one’s art and one’s words? What is the opportunity cost for forgoing a paid menial job for an unpaid passion project? There are as many answers as there are interns.

Full disclosure: two members of SLCspeaks’ staff, Ella Riley-Adams and Anna Quinlan, worked on the first issue of intern.

Jaime Chu is a junior who likes to talk about books, sometimes even with people. Bare-all memoir-in-progress at @j__mechu.

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