An economic history of the last three years, interpreted through Slate internships.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
May 26 2011 5:57 PM

Thanks for the Doughnuts

When did interns start buying lunch for the office, instead of the other way around?

A cupcake.
What's with interns and baked goods?

Today is one of those melancholy days at the Slate Washington office when we say farewell to the semester's interns, reflect on how much they've learned, and shove them out of the nest to make room for new suckers. To mark the occasion, departing interns Katy and Jessica brought in doughnuts.

As I'm eating this Boston cream, it occurs to me that the economic story of the past four years can be aptly told by these farewells. When the first intern I met here completed his tenure, in April 2008, we sent him off with a lavish lunch at a nice Italian restaurant down the street. Slate editors who barely knew the guy—and at least one who, I'm quite certain, never exchanged a single word with him—showed up. We filled a table on the second floor and must have racked up $500 on the company tab.

When the other spring intern left a month later, we took him out to the bar across the street and Slate picked up the tab. It was a smaller crowd, which included a few significant others who showed up for the free drinks, and added up to maybe $200.

The skies began to darken that summer, and by the time our next class of interns was leaving, we went down to the corner market and bought two six-packs of beer. But it was good beer—Dogfish, I think.

On Sept. 15, 2008, Lehman Bros. went belly up, and the economy's slow erosion became a cascade. The era of free sodas in Slate's Washington office came to an end. Budgets tightened across the board. When our fall intern left at the end of the year, another Slate editor and I took her out for coffee. I believe the other editor picked up the tab. We made the same offer to the other fall intern when he finished a week later. He politely declined.

I don't know how the next group of interns figured out that the era of free lunches had reached its natural conclusion, but on their last day they brought us homemade cookies to thank us for allowing them to work here.

Since that time, we have received the following gifts from interns, most of whom were working for only school credit: cupcakes, toffee bars, at least four six-packs of beer, a bottle of champagne, and several cakes. The baked goods alone, if sold, could fund a medium-sized church for a year.

When did it become expected of interns to give us gifts for letting them work? Friends tell me this delicious and fattening injustice is not limited to Slate. We have a good internship program here, with opportunities to learn and write, but it's not that good. There's still a lot of Nexis searching and errands to the hardware store to make copies of the bathroom key. (I actually miss going to the hardware store myself.) We take advantage of their access to expensive journals through their college library credentials. And we're all so busy and disorganized that the poor interns get ignored much of the time if they don't make a lot of noise. And yet, at the rate we're going, soon we can expect our interns to treat us to lunch at the Palm, or at least an elaborate home-cooked meal.

I wish we still had the budget for staff lunches and open bars. And there's nothing stopping us, I realize, from taking the interns to lunch ourselves. We should be doing that. But it's a sign of how desperate things are in journalism that today's interns don't even expect a goodbye lunch, or even a farewell six-pack. Jobs are so scarce, and experience is so valuable, that they are grateful for any sort of indentured servitude. Sooner or later, people may start adding baking skills to their résumés, or at least sprinkling flour on their cover letters. The particularly industrious may even do research ahead of time. In that case, you should know that I am allergic to pecans.

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