Internships in one of the toughest job markets out there – the communications field – are affectionately known by More magazine intern, Mary Levitski, as a “labour of love.” For the former Journalist for Human Rights (jhr) intern, Laura Bain, they are a baptism by fire. The latter is perhaps the most notoriously echoed, especially in journalism. A post-internship job offer has become rare as a candidate’s chance of landing employment is no longer dictated by mere performance anymore. Internships, in communications or elsewhere, have become a game of stamina and, curiously, timing.
The perfect storm of today’s economic crisis and the digital shift in journalism has devastated the newspaper industry. Not only are job openings scarce, existing jobs are being slashed. In November of last year, Canada’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, offered voluntary severance packages to more than 1,000 employees. That same month, Canada’s largest newspaper publisher, Quebecor’s Sun Media Corporation, offered the same thing to 400 employees.
Despite this, people do still go to journalism school.
Journalism schools continue to stay relevant by evolving with modern demands. And journalism veterans, like Kelly Toughill, director and associate professor at the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, remain optimistic.
“It’s a really fun way to make a living,” Toughill attests. She would know, she has 20 years of reporting and editing at the Toronto Star under her belt. Still, she prefaces with a reality check: “Journalism has always been a really tough market, and always will be a tough market.”
Toughill also finished university in the middle of a recession, much like those graduating in today’s dire job market. To get an advantage over her competition, Toughill worked at the Mill Valley Record in California while in university. To juggle the workload, and resolve a scheduling conflict, she gave up sleeping on Monday nights for two years.
Persistence pays off.
Armed with a degree and job experience in her field, she was a desirable candidate for a reporting job, but employment remained elusive. Toughill spent three months calling the editor of the paper she wanted to work for in Florida, every morning at 6 a.m., to see if they had any jobs yet. This persistence landed her the job and earned her a strong portfolio that won the Toronto Star over.
“At the Star, I did the regular work that new people do,” she said. It was still an uphill battle for Toughill, especially when work for her at the Star ran out two years later. But as it turned out, two days after leaving, someone quit and she was immediately re-hired.
For Alexandra Birukova, a former Flare Magazine intern, sticking around doing the grunt work paid off as well. After Flare, she went on to intern at Rouge magazine. When her term came to an end, Rouge asked her to stay for another month and it was during her extension that she crossed paths with the editor of Pulp magazine. Birukova now works part-time at Pulp as their associate editor, in charge of the magazine’s social media campaign and representing the company in industry events.
Opportunities when you least expect them.
“What you have to do is grab the opportunity while you’re there,” Birukova advises. “Make connections because once you’re gone, that’s it. Nobody remembers your name.”
When all else fails: go where the job is. In the case of Laura Bain, who finished her undergraduate degree in professional writing at York University in 2010, deciding to delay her post-grad education to move to a different country and get her hands dirty proved just the ticket.
“We didn’t have any experience in radio going in. It was a very underfunded radio station,” said Bain, speaking of her internship experience at Kapital Radio in Ghana through jhr.
During her radio internship, Bain was offered an internal position through jhr as a human rights education officer at the African University College of Communications in Ghana. This position opened even more doors for her. She got an acceptance and a scholarship from the University of King’s College School of Journalism, and she scored an interview for the prestigious Joan Donaldson CBC News Scholarship.
Similarly, This Magazine’s new editor-in-chief, Lauren McKeon, started out as an intern at the magazine. But right of the bat, she warns there’s no job opportunity at This Magazine post-internship, just like it was for her when she was an intern there five years earlier. After her internship, she moved to where she could find a job – to the Northwest Territories at the award-winning magazine Up Here Business. Her experience there and the connections she made at This Magazine came in handy when she came back to Toronto to become a section editor for This Magazine. Timing, in this instance, was on her side when the editor-in-chief position opened up and she went from working at the magazine for free to getting paid to run it.
Mary Levitski, who interned at the Canadian literary magazine Descant and More magazine, is now in the same position of chasing after a job that isn’t there post-internship.
“These months-long internships I had, they’re not huge companies looking for you to prove yourself and then they give you paid work,” Levitski said.
It's best not to pigeonhole oneself.
The value of internships is not lost on her though. “A person who works high up at Rogers said it’s all about who you know. And I spoke to someone at Canadian Living and she said it’s all about who you know. It’s like a snowball effect. You keep rolling and you keep acquiring connections.”
In the communications field, it’s best not to pigeonhole oneself. This, advises Sandra McLean, YFile’s communications officer at York University, opens up more doors for students who could acquire new skill sets that all tie in to the interconnected web of career opportunities in communications.
McLean started off with a post-grad and extensive experience in print journalism. She added to her skill sets by going back to school to learn radio broadcasting, then branched out to internal communications at York University. She also predicts that “strategic communications” is where the jobs are right now. “I was able to take my diverse skills with me to York because, now, communications has such an emphasis on multimedia and social media. It’s not enough to be able to write,” said McLean. “I think that’s what a lot of places are looking for right now: someone who’s able to plan out and execute a message.”
The good news is that jobs may be picking up, at least in some parts of the country. Toughill, who is based in Halifax, reports: “We’ve had recruiters calling us unsolicited to come meet with students and recruit students. That hasn’t happened for quite a few years until this year, so there are media organizations that are actually not getting enough applications right now.”