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.

  • Hi Daniel. Thanks for this enjoyable post. I haven’t been an intern for 35 years but I do remember making two big mistakes: Being afraid to ask questions and trying to write to the dull daily template. Good for you for encouraging new interns to do otherwise.

  • I have a meeting in two hours to welcome our interns to the News & Record. Thank you for providing me with a handout.

  • Hey Daniel. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed the post. I was a member of Bob Vucic’s Introduction to Mass Media class at Lebanon Valley College (the one with the multiple blogs that he’s been incessantly bugging you with) and although I am not yet looking for an internship, I will definitely keep these tips in mind. I’d appreciate it if you could give my blog a look (it’s the only outlet I’m currently writing in as my schedule conflicts with the meeting times of the school paper) and give me your thoughts and criticisms. You can find it at http://popcornnation.blogspot.com. I have links to the blogs of other members of my class if you’d interested in them as well.

    Thanks and I look forward to your next post.

  • When I was an editor, I made sure all new employees (interns or otherwise) were subjected to “cookie torture.” On their first day, I’d take a big plate of cookies in and put them on the new employee’s desk, then send out a newsroom-wide e-mail introducing the employee (and mentioning those cookies). When folks want a cookie — and who doesn’t want a cookie? — they meet the new person and learn where he/she sits. It worked like a charm!

    (If your new boss doesn’t bring cookies, you can do the same thing yourself — I’ve met a lot of people in my newsroom just by sponsoring the candy jar.)

  • Vern

    Speaking of A1 articles, good work and congrats on the Farenheit article

  • Daniel:

    Outstanding! I’ll be sharing with our summer intern class as well.

    Rick

  • tanuja

    hello daniel,
    i’ll be going for an internship, on newspapers, and i’m really confused that in an internship what we do, since i’ll be going for a week .secondly help me that what kind of questions can i ask to journalists. i’ll be grateful to you

  • Love this article. I especially like #1 – too many journalism interns try to write “old” and end up with a boring piece.