It’s officially summer, which means it’s intern season! It’s also time to start preparing for fall internships.
We’ve given students advice on how to make the most of their internships. We’ve also covered how newsrooms can make the application process more inclusive. But what if you are creating a program from scratch? If one already exists at your publication, how do you strengthen it or smooth out the rough edges?
This week we’re focusing on the ingredients that make up a strong internship program. We spoke with Andy Alford, the director of editorial recruitment, training and career development at The Texas Tribune; Scripps Howard Foundation director of journalism strategies Mike Canan; Tulsa World editor Jason Collington; and Dallas Morning News politics editor Jamie Hancock for their tips.
“The No. 1 factor that determines whether an intern becomes successful or not is the newsroom that that intern is placed in,” Canan said. “It’s the culture in the newsroom. It’s the manager that’s going to be working with that intern. It’s the mentorship program or whatever system is in place to help make sure that the intern learns and grows.”
Here’s some advice for each stage of the internship process:
- Develop relationships with local colleges and student newspaper advisers. Collington says he holds on-campus interviews at local universities. “What I have learned is I want to meet you as a freshman, so therefore I know you as a sophomore, so therefore when you’re ready as a junior, you want to come here (to the Tulsa World) because you know me.”
- Encourage staff to make visits, too. “Your reporters are going to be your best brand ambassadors when it comes to your program,” says Alford.
- Post internships on jobs boards.
- Reach out to other outlets for intern recommendations. “If you’re a smaller publication, call the bigger publications in your state and say, ‘Hey, we’re trying to fill in some interns. Did you have some finalists that didn’t make the final cut that you could send our way?’” advises Collington.
- It’s 2022. Pay your interns.
- Make sure your application isn’t too onerous. Students often apply to multiple internships and jobs while juggling other obligations like classes, Canan says. Make sure your application is doable.
- Be sensitive when reviewing applications. Candidate A might be just as talented as Candidate B but have less internship experience because they couldn’t afford to work unpaid internships, Canan says.
- Get everyone on board. If you’re creating an internship program from scratch, Hancock recommends gathering a committee of staff who are interested in supporting it. “I could not do this job without excellent managers at The Dallas Morning News who support the intern program. From top to bottom, everybody knows how important our mission of mentorship of interns is,” she says. “I think getting a group of people together to be on that same page and share your goals is important.”
- Familiarize yourself with every nook and cranny. Recruiting and hiring aside, Hancock says it’s important to be familiar with payroll and human resources processes.
- Make a plan. It’s not enough to make your interns general assignment reporters and scramble each day to find assignments for them, Canan says. Some questions newsrooms need to answer: Who handles interns on a day-to-day basis? What are you going to have the interns do?
- Give whoever is working with interns the resources they need. “If you are tasking a mid-level manager with leading two interns, you’ve got to find something to take off their plate to help them have time to work with those interns,” Canan says.
- Share the lay of the land. Alford of The Texas Tribune says the nonprofit media organization’s fellows receive a daylong orientation to learn about the Tribune, its history, and different departments. Top leaders also speak with the fellows and stay connected with them over the course of the fellowship program.
- Hold periodic training sessions. Hancock encourages having a robust training program for your interns, with at least one training session per week on a journalism-related topic. You should also give interns a chance to learn something outside of their primary focus, Canan adds.
- Ask your interns about their goals. “Have that one-on-one conversation: ‘So what do you want to do with your life? Where do you want to end up? What do you not know that you want to know in the next two weeks?’” Collington says. And then help them achieve those goals.
- Get your interns acquainted with the city. Give them guides and take them out to local attractions. It’ll help their reporting and could influence them to come back later when they’re job-hunting. “Many times, the person picks a job based on the city,” Collington says.
- Give them meaningful assignments. At the Tulsa World, interns are called summer journalists, and they help cover major stories. They also develop a 10-week enterprise project. “As I tell them in our first meeting, you’re in the big leagues now. You’re one of us,” Collington says.
- Foster mentorship. Pair each intern with a staff member who will meet with them weekly. That mentor should not be the intern’s supervisor. “Maybe you’re not having a great experience at your internship. We want to know these kinds of things so that we can hear about them early and try to address issues,” Hancock says. “So (if) the internship and your relationship with your boss isn’t meeting your expectations, we want you to have someone to go to that you can talk to about that …”
- Survey your interns. “We conduct a survey midway through the fellowship, and at the end of the fellowship,” Alford says. “We’re trying to very quickly capture what we’re doing right and what we need to improve on, from their point of view.”
- After the internship ends, stay in touch. “They’re going to go on to other fellowships or internship opportunities,” Alford says. “If you’re in touch with them, you can say, ‘Hey, how was that Washington Post fellowship? How do we compare? What did they do that we should think about doing?’”
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.