I don’t pretend to be an expert in many areas, but when it comes to being a journalism intern, I feel pretty qualified to give advice. During my tenure in the field, as a college student and young professional, I’ve had a whopping six internships* — the last of which turned into a full-time job, thankfully marking the end of my career as a professional intern. Time for some health insurance!
Although graduating to employee status gave me all sorts of nice feelings, being an intern was not unpleasant. It allowed me to sample different kinds of jobs in different kinds of newsrooms, with low commitment and, often, high reward. But having a successful internship is more than luck — it’s an active process that depends on how much you, the intern, work toward making it successful. You don’t need to be the most talented, most driven, most charismatic journalist to get the most out of your internship (although some amount of talent, drive and personality are helpful).
What it really boils down to is three things.
- Work hard.
- Take initiative.
- Be a nice person.
The following tips are what worked best for me. But I’m very likely a different person than you, and if some of these don’t resonate with you, do your own thing. Just remember, however you do it: Work hard. Take initiative. Be a nice person.
1. Ask questions when you don’t know what to do.
There’s always a learning curve with a new internship, whether you’re learning the workflow of an organization, new technology or a whole new skillset. Don’t feel like you have to know everything. It’s much better to pester your coworkers with questions in the beginning and do the work well — than to do your work poorly or not at all.
2. Ask “What else can I do?” when you finish an assignment.
Don’t be shy when you’re done with your work, and if your editor doesn’t have anything else for you, find out who else you can help. (In fact, the more people you can do work for, the more people you’ll impress.) Don’t leave early. And don’t go on Facebook during downtime. It looks bad when your editor walks behind you.
3. Read/ watch/ listen to the news. Just be informed.
This seems totally obvious — but you should follow the news, national and local. I used to think that if I worked at a news organization, I was automatically informed by osmosis or something. Needless to say, I felt really silly when I didn’t know what people were talking about during news meetings.
4. Pitch ideas.
Even though you’re probably the lowest notch on the totem pole, you’re allowed to contribute by speaking up in meetings, offering ideas to editors and pitching story ideas. In fact, as long as you’re not shattering the social order of the newsroom, this is the fastest way to impress people, and you learn the most this way, too.
5. Set goals and ask for feedback.
Think about what you want to get out of your internship, and make sure your supervisor is cool with that. (If you want to report and your supervisor said interns can never, ever get a byline, you might want to rethink your internship choice.) Then, ask your supervisor for feedback around the halfway point. Most editors are used to giving feedback about once a year to their employees, so they might not think about evaluating you until you’re leaving, when it’s not really helpful anymore.
6. Shadow other sections.
As an intern, you’re free to ask your editor if you can spend a few hours with a different section (especially if you’re unpaid!), even though it might seem like an uncomfortable question: “Can I not work for you for a few hours?” But these days ended up being some of my most educational. You’re spending 10 to 15 weeks doing the same thing in one sliver of the newsroom — this gives you perspective and lets you explore what else you’re interested in.
7. Ask people you admire to get coffee or lunch.
I didn’t realize that I could do this until internship #5, when a fellow intern told me she had had lunch with her journalism idol. I was like, “You can do that?” As it turns out, you can, and in fact there’s no better time to do that than when you’re under the same roof as they are. Seriously, there’s a lot of knowledge in older journalists, and once you leave the building, it’s much more difficult to pick their brains.
Be A Nice Person
8. Ask your coworkers how they’re doing.
It doesn’t matter if they’re double or even triple your age. In your newsroom, you’re all coworkers working the same hours in the same job. Get a little comfortable. Not only will this make work more enjoyable for you, hopefully, but it will also make people respect you more — because ultimately, no matter how talented you are, people want to work with people they like.
9. Don’t complain in the office.
Your coworkers may have long conversations full of complaints, but try to avoid participating. You never know who’s listening, and it makes you look bad. Or if you must, complain sparingly and in a low voice.
*Here’s a breakdown: three at a print organization, three at a broadcast organization; three at a small/local news organization, three at a large/national news organization; three paid, three unpaid; four in reporting, two in editing or producing; four during college, two after college
Extra, Extra, Read All About It!
My Twitter followers have internship tips! Here are their suggestions. (Please excuse my tweet typo.)
— Steve Haruch (@steveharuch) April 7, 2014
@SinerSays J-wise: Always be the last person to leave the office. If you're the only person there and news breaks, you can get a big byline
— Bobby Allyn (@BobbyAllyn) April 7, 2014
@SinerSays find a paid one
— madeleine the malevolent (@madvalthegreat) April 7, 2014