There's a "certain amount of tradition or even hazing that goes on in these glamour positions," says Mr. Oldman. He argues that in fields like television, unpaid interns are equally as disadvantaged as entry-level employees. "If you want to break in at the entry level, you have to take a vow of poverty," he says.
Creating this kind of environment for interns troubles Gina Neff, a University of Washington assistant professor. She studies media industries, jobs in the new economy, and internships in the communications industry.
"I think there's a tendency to say, 'OK, kiddos, just suck it up!' " she says. "There is this sense that there needs to be great economic sacrifice to get to these kinds of jobs. Sadly, what it means is that you're locking out people who can't afford to work for free."
Reflecting on her experiences interning in publishing, Vanasco is bothered by the lack of diversity among her fellow interns and the publishing industry as a whole. "I don't think that everyone's white," she says. "It's more that everyone came from comfortable backgrounds."
In an effort to boost diversity, a number of universities and organizations have started offering young people internship stipends.
"The concept of finding funding to allow students to take unpaid internships is something that sort of caught fire nationally," says Kino Ruth, director of the Career Center at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
In three years, Hamilton went from offering one internship stipend to 30 and has plans to offer more.
Still, 40 percent of university communications departments polled by Ms. Neff reported that none of their unpaid internships offered stipends. "These [stipends] are a fantastic place to start," says Neff. "But I think it needs to come from companies who have a responsibility to these young people."
If companies in the United States paid every unpaid intern minimum wage, it would cost at most $124 million annually, estimates Anya Kamenetz, author of "Generation Debt," which characterizes student-loan debt as being at a tipping point.