Smith: A Conde Nast unpaid intern’s 2 cents

Leanna Smith, Guest Columnist

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Growing up, Vanity Fair was always a fixture on my coffee table. I knew that September would bring the “Best Dressed” spread, and that the renowned “Hollywood” one would follow in March. This summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in what will now be known as Conde Nast’s final year of its internship program. I was not paid. In fact, it is more likely that I lost money, spending it on kale salads and sandwiches on artisan breads in Conde Nast’s famous cafeteria. But what I earned at Conde Nast far exceeds the value of any unlimited MetroCard, living stipend or hourly wage they could have given me.

I recognize the unpaid scenario. It is not always possible to spend a summer covering living and transportation expenses without pay. My situation would certainly have been more complicated if I didn’t live just a few miles uptown from the Vanity Fair offices. But in an industry where so much value is placed on experience, it is unfortunate that any internships, paid or unpaid, are being discontinued. This eliminates a number of journalism residencies for students interested in learning about news or magazine journalism — particularly Medill students. Yet the opportunity is still extremely rewarding, even for students looking to enter fields other than journalism.

Sure, I got my fair share of coffees and spent a good chunk of time underground, in the subway on various errands, among other intern rites of passage. By the same token, I sat in on a meeting with Reinaldo Herrera and Amy Fine Collins debating candidates to be featured in the September issue. I had an opportunity to stand in on an Annie Leibovitz shoot at her studio on Greenwich Street. I compared the 2012 “New Establishment” to an advance copy of the 2013 piece, scanning the short bios for repetition, and several of them were rewritten at my suggestion.

There is no other way to describe this than plain awesome. When would I ever have the chance to do any of those things, if not at my internship? The simple answer is never. I am not a journalism student. I am a medical school hopeful sophomore at Northwestern with a passion for creative writing. This summer was probably my only opportunity to do something like work at Conde Nast. As Vanity Fair’s first pre-med intern, my colleagues were interested to hear me explain why I thought my penchants for biology and writing were complementary rather than conflicting. I study organic chemistry alongside poetry, and I love it. I believed my internship to be just as relevant and worthwhile for the career I intend to pursue, which is supported by the advent of increasingly popular programs like Columbia’s “Narrative Medicine” that emphasize the blend of medicine with humanities to create more well-rounded health professionals.

My experience was overwhelmingly positive. I did not meet anyone who was not nice and extremely willing to answer all of my (numerous) questions. I noticed that even though I was giving of my time to Vanity Fair, the people I worked with were far more giving of their time to me. This goes for publishing interns in general — regardless of how mundane the work may seem, you are learning invaluable interview tips and listening to confidential recordings from the people whose positions you aspire to, and should feel lucky that they are giving the assignments to you. So you can chalk up face time with editors, writers, researchers and stylists, who are now your personal contacts, to whatever the hourly wage comes out to be, based on your small stipend, or you can accept the experience at its face value: priceless.

I learned how to fact check, do original photo research, and navigate the annals of Conde Nast’s archive because people were generous enough to take the time to teach me and show me. Many of the Vanity Fair assistants were once interns and were hired as a result of promising work during their internships, and it is unfortunate that such a career-defining launching point will no longer exist after this year. Still more regrettable is the fact that these internships are not being replaced with paid positions, meaning that many valuable opportunities for on the job experience are simply being taken off the market. My Vanity Fair mentor herself is an NU graduate, who spent time interning at another Conde Nast brand during her college years. I loved my internship, unpaid as it was, and I am sad for everyone who will not have the same opportunity I was lucky enough to have.

Editor’s Note: A version of this column was previously posted on Huffington Post College. 

Leanna Smith is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at leannasmith2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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