Everything I ever learned as a news intern was the result of humiliation.
I was reminded of this while reading Cory Blair’s story this week on the habits, hopes and dreams of this year’s crop of newsroom rookies.
While much has changed since my days as a trainee (much of it in the early 2000s) – a lot of it is the same.
Back in the day, internships were focused solely on reporting and writing. No one ever asked me to tweet about a story or look at readership data. I never had to pick up a camera or worry about generating a following on Instagram.
But I believe many of the life-changing moments that happen when young reporters interact with editors remain the same. It can be gut-wrenching — that process of putting yourself out there for the first time for the world to see. And criticize.
What I want to tell all these interns is: When you are more seasoned, and with piles of career and family responsibilities, it is sometimes hard to remember what you did two hours ago, much less two weeks ago.
But you will always remember your internships, down to the smallest details, like what your keyboard looked like as your tears dripped on it — and how affirming it was to spend time with your peers on a Friday night, perhaps even guzzling cheap beer with your tacos after a long week of reporting.
News is a tough business even for the experienced, requiring one to approach strangers and ask them sometimes difficult questions, interview people in their darkest moments or most emotional and sell it all to an audience in a clear manner with no names misspelled and every fact checked. Sometimes, all of this is done with clothes dripping from dirty flood waters or feet numb after standing behind police tape in sub-zero temperatures.
Here are some screwups of mine, and the lessons I learned from them as a wee-one, clumsily breaking stories with the help of patient editors who picked me up off the floor at my five internships at news organizations on the western and eastern portions of the country, and the Midwest.
1) If you find yourself getting emotional, remove yourself from the newsroom. My crying place at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau more than a decade ago was the Starbucks across the street, where hopefully my red eyes were mistaken merely for severe caffeine distress. As a person in my early 20s, I had not yet learned how to grapple with the daily grind of highs and lows in a newsroom. A female reporter sitting nearby kindly advised me that if I felt the need to cry in the newsroom – and that was totally ok — it might be a good idea to take a walk or go get some coffee to clear my head.
2) If you are lucky enough to get a source on the phone, ask them tons and tons and tons of questions. Once, as an intern at the Des Moines Register, I was assigned a devastating story about a little boy found dead on an Iowa farm. Trouble is, when I reached the boy’s mother on the phone, I only asked her a handful of easy questions about the farm accident and then let her go. My editor asked me to call the grieving woman back and find out more. And then he asked me to do it again. I will never forget the pain I felt putting a woman through a news interview three excruciating times because I wasn’t detail-oriented on my first try.
3) If you are sick, don’t come to work. As an intern at the Iowa City Gazette, I wasn’t feeling well and I handed in a story from a planning and zoning meeting that was practically incomprehensible, with baffling references to TIFs, plats and easements. It’s the type of story that would send any editor’s fist through a wall. Mine sent me home. He was kind enough to forgive me for the bad story, but I realized that when you have a limited amount of time with a person, like your internship editor, show them your best. When you are not at your best, stay home.
4) Be a vocal advocate for yourself. I thought I was being cute, while as an intern at the Missoulian, in Montana, I confessed to my editor that I had not yet taken a formal college news writing course. He was rightly shocked (how the hell did he get an intern with no journalism course experience?) and my assignments were notably worse after that talk. What I should have been sprinkling through my interactions with him? I spent my freshman year at the college newspaper and had already written for two professional newspapers before I even set foot on a college campus. At age 19, I actually had tons of news writing experience under my belt.
5) Making factual errors can cause serious heartbreak. We’ve all had bad days. One of my worst happened when a grieving family walked into the newsroom in Waterloo, Iowa, for a special meeting with the managing editor due to a mistake I made typing up an obituary. I saw first-hand how damaging a simple error can be – and resolved to take even the most seemingly small tasks in the newsroom seriously.
In a cathartic chat about internships on Twitter the other day, a group of friends with whom I shared time during a political reporting training program called the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, recounted the dozens of bloopers that befell us while in the program, which sent us to report the news in different bureaus throughout DC.
Between the four of us, there was months of work on a database that was never used; heartfelt effort on a feature that was boiled down to a brief; a devastating mistake on a story about one woman’s abortion; a confusing “date” with someone who was actually a lobbyist pitching a story; and numerous, numerous tears and wardrobe errors, including the day one of us, ahem, wore the clothes from the night before to work the next day.
We didn’t let our storm of tweets drag on too long before returning to work. Because these days, our failures have bigger consequences.
All the more reason to cherish the times when the stakes weren’t so high.
I was particularly touched by the tweets from one of the friends I made during the program, Adam Ashton.
He was tweeting his internship memories from his hotel room in Baghdad, where he is on temporary assignment reporting stories that are distributed throughout the McClatchy chain of papers. (His main reporting job is covering the military for McClatchy’s The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.)
Ashton recalled low-pressure days as an intern that revolved around learning.
Being an intern is “not life and death,” he said in a phone call with me from Baghdad. “You don’t depend on it for your income.”
On the day we talked, a conversation we had a few hours after our Twitter chat, Ashton spoke about how, as a young intern, he envisioned himself someday becoming a newspaper editor.
He had ideas of how all of us would end up, too.
And most of us? We’re in very different places.
The industry changed, and it changed us, he said.
“I never thought I would be in Iraq,” said Ashton, who noted this trip is his fourth time reporting overseas. “Opportunities came up because the industry changed. I got to have these wild overseas experiences.”
Even so, as exciting and unexpected as things are now — being thrust in the middle of the world’s biggest news stories — Ashton said it was a welcome break on that day, stuck in his hotel room due to closed roads throughout the city, worrying how he would get his next story, to remember the good old days as an intern.
“This,” he wrote on Twitter, “is exactly the conversation I need in Baghdad today.”
Anyone else have painful lessons they learned as interns? Post below or tweet them to @LisaARossi