Do not fear the newsroom: Tips for journalism interns

Recently I was asked to share tips as part of a panel at Carleton University for journalism students looking to be interns at a newsroom near you.

I’ve interviewed prospective interns, I’ve managed interns… and I’ve been an intern in TV news,  at a national women’s magazine, and in online news. (Full disclosure: Most of these were paid. The magazine, however, was not –  but they took me out for a nice lunch at the end of the internship.)

I’ve made some mistakes as an intern, witnessed some mistakes, so I have a few lessons to share. And heck, I’m just so impressed by the students I see in school these days I couldn’t say no.

The students gave us  a list of questions they wanted to see addressed. I don’t want to suggest for a minute that any of these ‘brilliant’ thoughts are trademarked, so I thought I’d post some of my key points here too:

Q: What do you look for in your interns?

Of course all media companies are looking for creativity, and energy. I like seeing something different about an intern candidate too, be it backpacking through Europe, owning a business, or being a varsity athlete, I like to know what sets you apart. I had a candidate for an online internship send me a simple email with a link to a Youtube video as a cover letter. In her Youtube video, she sold herself, and her stories, and ended with a link to her blog, which had samples of her work. Her experience wasn’t at the same level of other applicants, but she stood out, so I interviewed her. (Note – if the posting asks for clippings, send clippings, not everyone will be as intrigued as I with a YouTube link.)

For us, daily news experience is a must. But in a smaller newsroom, or a weekly paper, it might not be. Get any daily experience where you can through apprenticeships etc.

We’re also looking for students who are multimedia savvy, and comfortable in social media. If we send you out to a breaking news story, you will be expected to Tweet. But on that subject, remember as you get more comfortable with social media to keep your digital footprint in mind. The first thing I do with my shortlist of applicants is Google them, and then I search them on Facebook. And let’s be honest, we all love St. Patrick’s Day, but that drunken photo of you with a mug of green beer is probably not the first impression you’re trying to make.

Having a blog is a great way to promote you’re not a single-medium journalist, and allows you to showcase the TV and radio clips you may have done for school. Also, it allows you to promote yourself with more than the three required clippings most publications ask for.

I’m also looking for you to be a professional. As soon as you step out of the newsroom, you are representing your news organization’s brand. You don’t need to buy a closet full of suits, but you should look respectable. I’ve had candidates for an internship show up in short skirts and low cut shirts, or jeans and it makes me pause. If there’s a press conference with someone at City Hall? Could I send you? Do you represent well?

Q: How do you not mess up?

You need to be honest, and communicate with your editor. If you don’t understand the story you’ve been assigned, talk to your editor so that you know exactly what they’re looking for before you head out the door. You’ll never be able to report a story if you don’t get it yourself. This conversation continues throughout the day as you update this story, and there are new developments.

Spelling and math errors affect your credibility (we’ve been down this road before). And they make a night copy desk – which is already taxed – frustrated. And no one wants that, trust me.

Be positive, smile, be happy to be there! Maybe you didn’t want to really cover the story about the cat in the tree, but gosh darn it, who knows what will come next… better yet, what you can pitch to your editor.

If you’re sent out on breaking news, take photos with your smartphone or camera. You need to think visually about your stories. When there’s a webhit, there’s a need for photos.

Be ready for anything – I’m not fixating on wardrobe, but you need to have footwear for all types of assignments. Those are really lovely ballerina flats, but are they appropriate footwear for the plowing tournament? If it’s winter, have warm layers. (not to sound like your mom). You never know when an assignment will have you standing outside in the cold for hours.

Q: How can I make the most out of a two-week internship?  A summer internship? 

Suck up every moment of the experience that you can. And that means getting to the office early, and being prepared to stay late. This is not a 9-5 career, and the very best stories will make you lose track of time and forget the last time you went to the bathroom. (Not to be your mom again). You are in this newsroom to learn, so take every opportunity to get as much out of the experience as you can.

This also means being flexible with your schedule. If you are asked to work a weekend or evening shift, say yes! The first daily I interned at had me on the night shift for weeks. This was a bonus – it meant I usually had a story on A1 the next day (these were days before the Internet).

Read papers. Read the web. Know your newsroom’s audience before you get there. Know the names of key contacts in the newsroom – and key players in the city. You want to be able to hit the ground running. Note: This is not to say we don’t expect questions – we know you’re just starting out.

Q: When should interns pitch?

Always. Before, during and after your internship. Never stop thinking of and pitching story ideas.

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What advice do you have for interns? I’d love to hear it.

(blog graphic from Prof KRG’s post on Paid Media Internships!)

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