Why students who want to land an internship next summer should start preparing now

Whether currently interning for a news organization, taking classes or enjoying a vacation, journalism students seeking some of the best internships next summer need to start planning — now.

That preparation should include meticulously researching markets where you may want to intern and establishing portfolios with examples that show you’ll be ready to start producing professional-grade content from day one.

I talked with journalists from The Columbus Dispatch, The Dallas Morning News and the Indianapolis Star for their insights on what aspiring journalists should be doing this July to give themselves the best shot at an internship next July. Here’s what they had to say…

Get some experience, clips

Even if you didn’t have an internship this summer, apply for a position at the school newspaper and start building an online presence. That means regularly using social media in professional ways and perhaps creating a blog to highlight your skills. Eventually, you could create an online portfolio to showcase your best work — clips, graphics, interactives and whatever other work you do.

Russ Pulliam, associate editor at the Indianapolis Star and director of the Pulliam Fellowship program, said students should embrace chances to hone their skills in smaller markets before working in a larger city.

“It lets reporters really see how things work and is not as overwhelming as major metro assignments,” Pulliam said in a phone interview. “If you don’t see stories in smaller towns, you’re probably not going to see them in larger markets. Great reporters see stories other reporters miss.”

Ben Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch, which typically offers about 25 paid summer internships, agreed and said intern applicants should “look for any opportunity you can to get published locally.”

“If you like sports, cover something for the local paper, website or weekly. That shows commitment and that someone really, really cares about what we do and wants to do it,” he said in a phone interview.

Alan Blanchard, Pulliam Journalism Fellowship field representative and a professor of journalism at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich., said it’s not too late to get some more experience this summer.

“In the ‘Web first’ model, there is an insatiable news hole online that many papers have trouble filling with existing staff. Journalism students, from freshmen on up, can really help them fill it,” Blanchard said in a phone interview. “There are opportunities out there, but students must take the initiative. Don’t wait for a posting on a bulletin board.”

Putting your portfolio together

Once you have some experience, you’ll be better positioned to get internships at larger news organizations — which expect more from applicants.

“Do a lot of work. We’re looking for people with a body of work, not just a handful of stories or photos. We’re looking for somebody who can show us they will hit the ground running,” Marrison said.

The applicant’s portfolio needs to be “legitimate, thick,” Marrison added. “It should show creativity, curiosity, passion, commitment; a strong work ethic.”

Selwyn Crawford, intern coordinator at The Dallas Morning News, said an applicant’s clips should be varied since most summer internships are 10 to 12 weeks and rarely include a specific beat assignment. That variety should include breaking news, features and examples of previous beat coverage, like courts, cops or school board meetings.

“These are things news organizations are going to need at some point,” Crawford said. His paper offers 15 to 25 paid summer internships for college and high school students.

The Pulliam Fellowship offers 20 paid journalism fellowships annually, with 10 interns at The Indianapolis Star and 15 at The Arizona Republic. To be sure, internships at the Dispatch, Dallas Morning News and through the Pulliam Foundation at two of Gannett’s largest papers are highly competitive and require prior experience. But students who applied previously and did not make the cut should not be discouraged.

“We typically hire juniors and seniors. If a go-getter sophomore applies and doesn’t make it the first time around because of lack of experience, I always tell them to apply the next year — and get as much experience and good clips in the meantime as they can,” Ruth Hanley, assistant city editor at the Dispatch, said via email. “We hire lots of [students] the second time around. I find it amazing how much more they can accomplish in a year, if they’re really dedicated.”

Making sure your application is clean & complete

Still, a proactive portfolio loaded with the best clips in the world won’t save students who make almost unforgivable mistakes on their applications.

“My name’s not Morrison,” said Marrison, who has seen that error made many times.

Crawford’s name is mostly spelled correctly, but many applicants get the gender wrong.

“It gets addressed to ‘Ms. Crawford,’” and while he said that is a not a deal breaker, a simple Google search would show anyone the correct answer. “Instead of taking a step forward at the starting line, you’re taking two steps back,” he said.

Pulliam has seen “Indianapolis” spelled wrong and also noted that applicants using a cookie-cutter resume and cover letter quickly become obvious.

“Really study the news organization. Be truly familiar with it in an honest way,” he advised, adding that students may not have the passion to work at the Star if all they know about Indianapolis is the Colts, Pacers and the Indy 500.

Another piece of advice: make sure the application is complete. If it calls for a resume, cover letter, five clips, a short bio and references, include them all. Incomplete applications send the message that “you’re too busy, not hearing well or not reading well,” Crawford said. (You can find some tips from an earlier Poynter.org story here.)

Follow up — but within reason

Once the application is in, one follow-up call to ensure the materials have been received is fine. But that’s enough.

“Our assumption is everyone who applies really wants it,” Crawford said. The one exception would be if the follow-up call is to inform a potential employer of another offer. In that case, students may learn that there is someone else interested in hiring them, he added. (Some more great tips from Poynter on refining your application can be found here.)

When this summer ends and students return to campus, Marrison sounded like equal parts editor, journalism professor and coach with his advice on ensuring the strongest possible internship application.

“Get to work. You can’t waste time. You have to be on it.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct number of Pulliam fellowships at the Arizona Republic.

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