Monthly Archives: May 2008

Ten tips to make the most of a newspaper internship

This is my favorite time of the year in the newsroom: The annual march of the interns.

In my newsroom, we have four in the various departments, and it’s so much fun having them around. They bring a lively approach to their writing, they haven’t had all the hope squeezed out of them yet, and they make me desperately miss college. Good times.

Having gone through three internships myself from 2003 to 2005 (Centre Daily Times, The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News, The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle), here are some tips to make the most of your summers:

  1. Don’t try to play journalistic dress-up with your writing. Sometimes I see young writers write in the boring style they think newspapers require, and they squelch the youthful approach that newsrooms desperately need. The most important story I wrote as an intern was one of my shortest, but it was the point when I realized I could have fun with my writing. That, more than anything, has carried me to this day.
  2. Find a reporter or two who seem receptive to helping you out, and incessantly bug them the entire summer about anything and everything. You don’t need to impress other reporters; they’re not the ones who will write your recommendations. Ask them the dumb questions you’re afraid to ask your editors out of fear they’ll think less of you.
  3. Speaking of dumb questions, never fail to ask them. Both editors and reporters know you’re inexperienced, and they’ll be understanding if you don’t know something seemingly basic. They’ll be glad you asked, rather than pretending you know and getting caught on it later.
  4. Remember that editors are looking for good stories, but it’s your attitude and behavior that matter when trying to make a lasting impression that will pay off in your recommendation.
  5. Demand as many stories as they’re willing to give you. When I was an intern at The Patriot-News, the managing editor was once dumbfounded when I walked into her office and asked for something to do, because my assignment editor hadn’t yet come in for the day. Someone would come begging for more work to do? She just couldn’t believe it, and gave me an A1 story as payment.
  6. Come up with two or three enterprise stories on your own. Editors love this kind of initiative, and they often produce the best clips.
  7. Leave your comfort zone. I never liked cops reporting, but The Wichita Eagle made me do it for six weeks, and it was hugely important to my development.
  8. Accept that you’re going to screw up. Everyone does, and it doesn’t mean you suck. It means you’re learning.
  9. If you’re at a paper near where you live or go to school, don’t leave the summer without creating a reliable pipeline to your editors. Ask them what you can write when you go back to school.
  10. Have fun. And I don’t just mean that in the carpe diem kind of way — people love having you around because you bring some much-needed enthusiasm to the newsroom. When you’re having fun, the people around you will have more fun, too. And creating connections to your future colleagues is an important part of the experience.

UPDATE (10:47 a.m. 05/31): This one occurred to me while I was in the grocery store, and deserves its placement as 11:

11. Go buy a bunch of candy. Put it in a jar in a visible spot on your desk below a sign declaring “FREE CANDY.” Your fellow reporters love candy, and you’ll probably squeeze a lot of interesting conversations out of them as they come to you for their sugar fix.

How do the Web-savvy engage other reporters?

I’m well aware that there are journalists who simply don’t want to understand the Web and why it’s important.

But I believe there are a lot of journalists who are perfectly willing to learn more Web skills, if only the pitch was made to them in the right way. They don’t want to be forced into extra duties without any explanation, they don’t want to be looked down upon by some snotty recent graduate, and they don’t want editors talking over their head with tech jargon.

So what’s the right approach when trying to nudge your fellow journalists into trying new things online? I’d love to hear some success stories, because this is becoming a bigger focus for me in my newsroom.

A few of my initial thoughts:

  • Ditch the editors and outsiders. The training should come from previously capable reporters who can talk to the less-Web-savvy reporters on their own level.
  • Allow newsroom-wide access to the Web site’s statistics. Anyone who has written their own blog knows how intoxicating it is to see how many visitors you’re getting to your site, and where they’re coming from. It becomes more of a game with a quantifiable payoff.
  • Create incentives to learn new skills. If I ruled the world it would come in the form of bonuses.

Any more ideas, or techniques that have worked?

The newspaper site as community connector

Newspapers have a tremendous opportunity to re-brand themselves as the center of the online community, connecting people to each other in every way possible.

But that window is so enormously small, I fear very few papers will take advantage. It’ll be a fatal blow, and we’ll be kicking ourselves that there weren’t more entrepreneurs inside the industry at this ripe time.

The newspaper site could be the home to all of the forums, the blogs, the social networking, the matchmaking, the businesses, the schools, and the community organization. Right now that’s all fragmented across the Web, and frankly a bit overwhelming for people who don’t constantly consume that kind of media.

Imagine if that were all concentrated in one hyper-local place? A place that has an already-strong brand name in place, a name that’s been a core part of the community since the 19th century?

Sounds pretty ideal to me. Giving people a voice has always been a fundamental mission of newspapers, and the letters page no longer cuts it.

But that role needs to be expanded to connecting people online, and right now a lot of other people are figuring that out much quicker. Someone in Harrisburg could:

  • Read local bloggers, discover local Twitter users or use the forums at blogHarrisburg
  • Find events at Spotobe
  • Find other college students at Facebook or MySpace
  • Try to determine which of the billion dating sites has lured the most potential dates

And Harrisburg area college students might soon have their own local network, if this entry at Ideablob gains any momentum.

All of this is happening outside of the newspaper site. Some of it is happening at newspaper sites, too, but the local entrepreneurs have figured out better ways to do it.

It all could have been centered at the newspaper site if the newspaper site thought of it first. Time to think of something first…and I’ll offer some of my ideas in a post soon.

Learn Web skills, get better story assignments

Reporters ought to be learning Web skills for self-preservation and for the betterment of the community.

But if that’s not enough, how about getting better story assignments?

That was my experience during the Pennsylvania primaries, when I was often dispatched to some of the bigger events in the state. And believe me, I’m no ace reporter at the paper.

It wasn’t because of my storytelling skills (we have a fairly large staff, and there are many reporters much more experienced than I). It wasn’t because of seniority (I’m the youngest in the newsroom, and with only two years at the paper one of the most recent hires).

It was because I was liveblogging the events, and I had established myself as one of only a handful of staff members willing or able to do that. Otherwise, it’s unlikely I would have touched election night at Hillary Clinton’s headquarters in Philadelphia, or a big Barack Obama rally in State College, or a Bill Clinton rally in Carlisle early in the campaign. I also wrote a print edition story for event the following day.

Over in Indiana, a similar thing is apparently happening to Meranda Watling since the candidates invaded her state.

This should be music to the ears of student journalists, who need to find some way to market themselves above their more experienced competitors for jobs out of college.

If you’re applying for a job, ask who at the paper would be the one to liveblog a big event in their backyard. Then produce evidence that you can do it better.

I didn’t believe it, but Twitter is worth a try

twitter-logo.jpgA little over a month ago, I started using Twitter despite a lot of skepticism. I really didn’t think it would have much value for me, despite what a boatload of journalists have said. I said I would give it a one-month trial run and re-evaluate afterward.

The result, which I hope will be taken to heart by other reporters who have been similarly skeptical:

It’s a lot better than I expected, and worth the time for any reporter or news organization.

(For those catching up, Twitter is a blogging tool that allows users to post messages only 140 characters at a time. It’s essentially a blog mashed up with a chat room, and there’s a lot of speculation that it’s the next great medium for reaching young people.)

I’ve previously written about some positive examples of my Twitter use. But let’s go back and revisit the two main hesitations that I had before signing up, and those that are shared by a lot of skeptics:

1) There just aren’t enough local users to help my reporting.

When I first signed up, this definitely appeared to be the case. But this wasn’t completely true, and became less and less true after I signed up.

I found 14 local users in the first day, which was more than I thought but still not a big number. I used a combination of the site’s search feature, Twitterlocal, TwitDir and Tweetscan to find them.

But a funny thing happened: Apparently my presence on the site motivated others to give it a try. After many of the local bloggers made a run onto the site, one of them wrote:

What was this impetus for this local surge in interest? My research has traced it to Daniel Victor, a Patriot News reporter who actually seems to “get it” in terms of the impacts of social media on traditional journalism. He started a all-out “one-month twitter twial” in an effort to see what would happen. Well, so far, so good…

I gotta say, this is a communication tool that is really cool, and I cannot wait for it to expand outward from the small circle of locals who are currently trying it out. So, I encourage you to give it a go, as we see where this grand experiment takes up.

Now, I clearly can’t take credit for bringing Twitter to my area, because there were people before me who are very enthusiastic about it.

But imagine that: Instead of complaining about the lack of users, I apparently helped create more users. This wasn’t an intention of mine, but surely any reporter or news organization could see the value in getting more people in the community connected to each other. Especially when it’s in a place where we can benefit from their knowledge, and let them consume our news if they so choose.

2) There just aren’t enough users to improve my social life.

Well, sort of. I’d maintain that this is a secondary benefit, but it has been slightly better than I expected.

Since the first few days I arrived, there’s been talk of a local “Tweetup” to get local users together.

Even though that hasn’t yet happened, though I don’t doubt that it will, I couldn’t begin to count the interesting conversations I’ve had with people I would have never known otherwise. There have been several times when I’d find a local going to the same bar I was headed to. It led to one party invitation, and I ended up meeting one of the Twitterers in real life through common friends. As long as you’re not using your account to spam innocent people or annoyingly bug them about things they have no interest in, there’s a lot of social potential.

I wouldn’t encourage people to sign up by guaranteeing an explosion on your social calendar, but it’s a nice little perk. If nothing else, it’s fun to participate.

So what should journalists take away from my one-month trial, and why do I think it’s important for every journalist to consider some kind of Twitter use?

1) In communities where Twitter hasn’t taken hold — which is true in most of America — there’s a tremendous opportunity here for digital leadership. Be the trend-setter in your community. For the first time in the digital age, seize an opportunity to place your news organization at the forefront of an emerging conversation medium.

2) In communities where there is already a lot of Twitter activity, there’s a lot of discussion happening without you. It’s an absolute gold mine for sources, information and story ideas.

3) You don’t have to be tech-savvy to appreciate the value of a conversation with the community. This is increasingly becoming a great way to do that, and is likely to become even better in the future.

4) You only have to put as much time into it as you want, so there’s no reason you shouldn’t be giving it a trial run like I did. I suspect that if you give it an honest try, you’ll find it as worthwhile as I have.