Negotiating an internship offer

Mar 5th, 2009 | By | Category: Negotiating Internships


With internships, there is very little room for negotiation. Because an internship is one of your first opportunities to handle a job offer, though, it is a first chance to start learning how to negotiate. This will help you later. Some journalists are notoriously bad negotiators. They ask for nothing or they ask for everything. You likely will not feel very powerful as an internship candidate, but the fact that you get an offer shows you have something that editors want. That shows you have value, and value is the basis for negotiating.

Interns typically have no wiggle room on wages, no health plan and if there are any fringe benefts, they will be the same for every intern.

You may be able to negotiate your start date, specific days you will need off and, perhaps—perhaps—aspects of your assignment.

The trickiest internship negotiations come if you have the good fortune to get more than one offer and must navigate among competing offers. Before we get to that, let’s talk about handling the simpler and more common situation: the single offer. We’ll start with one of my
favorite intern negotiations.

I called a student with an internship offer and instantly regretted it. He was soon asking whether I thought my offer was as good as one he hoped to get from the Associated Press for an internship in a city where his girlfriend lived, or a spot he might get in the MetPro program. It was clear he was not as excited about us as I had been about him. As we talked, I could feel this prospect slipping away. In fact, I was hoping for it. Thankfully, he declined. Before my phone cooled off, I
was punching numbers on my next candidate.

No hemming with this one, and no hawing. As soon as the offer was out of my mouth, she was hooting in my ear: “Yes! Yes! I accept! I accept!”

I really like that kind of enthusiasm, but I said, “Listen, when someone makes you an offer, be excited, be enthusiastic, but ask for a little time to think about it. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s good practice. Tell you what: I won’t accept your acceptance. Think about this overnight. Talk to the people you count on, your professors and family. Maybe you’ll have some questions. At least think of some questions. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

She agreed.

As soon as I got into the newsroom the next morning, my phone rang. I picked it up. “Hello?”

“I accept!”

Sigh. “OK, you’re in. But don’t you have any questions at all?”

“Oh. Yes … is it paid?”

Though I didn’t think much of the negotiating, you can’t beat the enthusiasm. She did a great job with us and ultimately went on to the Washington Post, where, after reporting in Iraq, she was named the National Association of Black Journalists’ young journalist of the year. She is Theola Labbé, and you can find her advice in the internship section of the JobsPage.

When someone makes an offer, they open a window. This is your negotiating time. That window stays open until the offer is accepted, rejected or—rarely—withdrawn.

When you negotiate a start date, get there as soon as you can. Try to be one of the first to get to the newspaper, to learn its culture and its ways of doing things. You’ll catch more assignments as one of the few than you will as one of the many. You could become the one who shows the other interns how to operate. Editors like to see helpfulness in a staff member.

If there turns out to be money in the budget to extend some interns, the editors will follow four considerations:

  • Who is doing a good job?
  • Who can stay longer?
  • How long can they stay?
  • Who will reach the end of their prescribed time first?

So, the sooner you start and the better you do, the more likely you are to get extra weeks, extra work, and extra pay. If you are one of the last to start, you’ll also be one of the last to be considered for an extension. Money for extensions could run out. They won’t know you as well as they know people who started a month earlier. If you’re returning to school at the same time as everyone else, you simply might not have any free weeks at the end of the internship season. Having your internship extended is impressive resume material. No one cares when you say, “I would have been extended, except that …”

If you know you’ll need special days off for a friend’s wedding or Granny’s 100th birthday, ask for those days during your negotiating window.

Do not procrastinate until “the right time” to ask. The sooner you ask, the easier it is for editors to plan. Although it might seem hard to ask, it only gets harder if you wait. Ask early, and you’ll probably find that it is no big deal. Do not expect to get paid for your days away, but do ask for the chance to make up the time later. You didn’t sweat to land a 10- or 12-week internship and then miss the full benefit—and earnings—of that experience.

Don’t ask to have work scheduled around activities that might seem to the editor to be inconsequential. Show that doing great work is your top priority. Treat your internship like a job. We do. You may be able to negotiate some enhancements to your work experience. If you’re a copy editor who wants to spend a week in graphics or a reporter who wants to do a ride-along with a photographer, ask.

Some newsrooms construct internships where people rotate through several departments. If that doesn’t suit you, ask about that. Its unusual for a company that is all the way at one end of the concentrate-or-rotate spectrum to move all the way to the other end, but there are many points in between.

Never try to negotiate everything just to see what you can get. Negotiation implies some reluctance, that you might not accept the position. If you try to negotiate everything, you’ll come off as less interested in the position. Cool, calculating candidates who seem interested only in what they can get send signals that they are not very passionate about what they will do. That is no way to walk into an internship or a job.

One grad weighing offers from us and another newspaper asked if we would increase the salary. We couldn’t because she was coming into a program with a set rate that would be unfair to vary from person to person. I also knew that the other newspaper would offer her less money, but when I asked her how much they were offering, she didn’t even know. She wasn’t saying we were low; she just wanted to see if we would go higher. We couldn’t. She immediately agreed to come, anyway. There was no real harm done and she started on a good note at a fair rate.

Think of this as a free sample. You can find more internship strategies in “Breaking In: The guide to Newspaper Internships.”

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