How to Help a Young Person Just Starting Out

It’s about them, not you.

On Monday afternoon, a reporter for NFL Network named Jane Slater posted a note on Twitter — see, that was her first mistake —advertising an unpaid intern position. This led to immediate backlash, with many commenters pointing out that “unpaid intern,” while certainly having a grand tradition in the working world, is another term for “exploited labor.” Slater defended herself on Twitter, which is another term for “inevitably making things much worse.”

This opened the floodgates, and even led into a digging into Slater’s past, where it was discovered that the primary reason she was able to survive on such a piddly salary was because … surprise, in college she was financially supported by her family during those years, particularly her grandfather, who is president of something called Wolf Brand Chili. (Which looks kind of good for canned chili, I’ll admit.) This ended up making her detractors’ point for her: The reason unpaid internships are so fraught and unjust is because the only people who can take them are people who are already wealthy and/or have financial support, thus unfairly, from the get-go, culling the future workforce down to those who could afford to work for free years earlier, something that’s a leading factor in limiting diversity in media because the people who can afford to do this are overwhelming white and well off. It seemed particularly egregious to claim that those who weren’t willing to work for free “don’t understand grind,” which is dangerously close to saying, “if you can’t afford to work for free, you’re not working hard enough and you’ll never make it.”

What was lost in this was that the whole thing started simply by Slater trying to help out broadcast journalism students in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where she lives and works, by promoting an unpaid internship (not hers) that would give these students the industry experience they’re looking for. Slater ran into trouble when she tried to defend herself, and then doubled down, and next thing you know she’s writing “what I learned about Twitter today” posts and being written about by idiots like me on Medium. Social media bites back hard, always.

Now, it’s clear that Slater was wrong in her “grind” comments, which came across (correctly, I’d argue) as implying that anyone who is not as successful as she is must not be working as hard as she does, and is therefore unworthy. But the larger issue is one that many of her detractors pointed out. She wasn’t really talking about helping journalism students. She was mostly talking about herself. As Defector’s Samer Kalaf noted, “this might be a reason why so many people love to weigh in on internships: It gives you an opportunity to talk about yourself.” Slater was, essentially, bragging. I’m good now because I suffered. This has the dual effect of valorizing struggle (albeit subsidized struggle) and framing her success as fully and wholly earned. She has what she has because she deserves it. And she very well might! (Slater is undeniably a good reporter.) But none of that has much utility to the person just starting out and trying to break into the industry. It’s just about her.

But this is true for many of those who lashed out at Slater too. That unpaid internships are exploitive is plainly true, and is worth pointing out at every opportunity; it is certainly not something Slater should have been promoting or acting as if it were okay. (This is a good time to check out the work of the Pay Our Interns initiative.) But it is also true that unpaid internships aren’t just a reality of the media industry (and, honestly, every industry), it’s that they’re just the start. Remember, Slater wasn’t only talking about unpaid internships; she was talking about making $16,500 a year when she was just starting out. Which is also ridiculous! But terrible entry-level jobs with awful pay are even more common than unpaid internships.

One of the most prevalent responses to Slater was some variation of “we should change the system so that people starting out are paid fairly for the work that they do.” And of course that’s true! Who wouldn’t disagree with that? We should totally do that. But that’s, uh, going to take a while, and while we’re in the years-long (or decades-long) process of hopefully pulling that off, the person who is trying to break into the business now is sitting there wondering what to do in the meantime. They don’t need help in a few years. They need help now! They don’t have the privilege people currently working in the industry do, who can sit there and have these high-minded, theoretical debates on what to tell the young people who aren’t blessed with the jobs we all already have. They can’t wait until everything is perfect.

Every person’s circumstance is different. “Grind” is required in whatever field you are in and whatever circumstance you come from, but people are different, young people are different, the business is different, and people are different today than they were yesterday and will be tomorrow. But this conversation has nothing to do with the simple fact that the person who needs the help most is the exact person who isn’t being spoken to. Either we’re offering them help they didn’t ask for (which is really just about ourselves), or, if they ask “how can I break into this industry right now?” the collective response is for two sides to leap into combat, completely talking past the person who asked the question and needs the help in the first place. Meanwhile they still need a job.

I think maybe that is the key here: Rather than making blanket statements that are intended to be “advice for the kids” but are truthfully “here is how I feel about the world,” those fortunate enough to be employed in any particular industry should take a step back, wait to actually be asked for advice by someone trying to break in and then, you know, listen to that person. What are they looking for? What do they want? What is the ultimate goal? Every experience is different. But every experience remains a person’s own. There must be real work to try to change those systemic barriers that stand in the way of those without the means of a chili grandfather to float them until the breakthrough. But the long-term battle can’t distract from the issue at hand: How do I help this kid? Because it’s about them. Not you.

Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

Thanks to Brendan Vaughan

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