Advice for summer interns: Don't screw this up

Kelly McBride and her daughter Molly in New York. (Photo courtesy of the Kelly McBride)
Kelly McBride and her daughter Molly in New York. (Photo courtesy of the Kelly McBride)

My eldest got her dream internship. She starts next week. Here's the letter I wrote, with help from my friends.

Dear daughter,

Congrats on getting an internship at a place where you already love the journalism. I know you got called as an alternate, after someone dropped out. That's OK. None of us are qualified for our first job. So it doesn't matter how much experience you have or how competent you are on day one. What matters is how open you are to learning new things and how fast you can learn them. You're going to feel stupid and incompetent. Just own that, rather than hide from it. It will give you the emotional resilience to be unassuming and spongy.

For the rest of your life, each job you do will have some relationship to the job before it. You might get recruited after someone sees you kicking ass. Or you might seek out a new job because you end up working for a crappy boss, or in a toxic culture, or maybe one that just isn’t a good fit for you (that’s how you’ll describe the first two situations to outsiders).

So don’t blow it. And by that I mean, don't let your inexperience, or your ego, or your insecurity rule. Instead, go in ready to be productive and maybe look silly.

By the end of summer, you’ll be able to judge your success by two things: 1. The amount of work you’re capable of contributing to this newsroom. 2. The number of people who will go out of their way to help you out by calling in favors and giving you a glowing job reference.

You don’t have to be particularly talented to make this happen. In fact, there are many talented interns who will leave newsrooms at the end of this summer having annoyed the crap out of everyone. Instead, your best asset is humility.

Here’s a tip sheet, not just from me but also crowdsourced from the smart people I know in newsrooms everywhere:

Day one:

  • Be on time. Actually, be early. And then be early or on time all summer long. Even if it seems like punctuality isn't really valued in your newsroom because the boss shows up 30 minutes late, you should be on time. Because as an intern, your time is less valuable than every other person in that organization. So no one should ever have to wait for you this summer.
  • Take notes, so you can remember the name and responsibility of every person you meet. The more quickly you can decode who does what and how stuff gets done, the more opportunities you will have to be useful. It’s hard to help people if you can’t remember who you met and what they do (this means you need to bring a notebook and pen).
  • Take note of the office style of dress. There's always an unwritten code. Pay attention to key markers and respect them. Do you see anyone’s underwear peeking out? How much skin is revealed?
  • Silence your phone when you're not using it.

Every other day this summer:

  • It’s OK to say you don’t know how to do something. Everything can be learned, much of it pretty fast. But don’t bluff. Just ask if someone can teach you that CMS/audio software/copy machine.
  • Do your homework every day. Pay attention to the show. Read the website. Follow all of your colleagues and all of the newsroom accounts on social media. Interact with them on social media. Also, consume your newsroom’s three closest competitors.
  • If you don’t have a Twitter account, you have to start one now. This is where people in journalism talk about journalism.
  • Try to wiggle your way into a larger project in the first two weeks. This might be something you pitch, or something someone else is working on. If your boss says yes, you’ll probably have to use your own time. Just for now. You can work on work-life balance next year.
  • Say yes to every opportunity. Go to all the things that you are invited to, trainings, lectures, coffees, meetings. Ask questions. Offer up your perspective if you have one, pitch your story ideas. Have story ideas. Even bad story ideas are better than no story ideas. Remember, it's OK to look silly.
  • Find the work that needs doing and do it. Make yourself indispensable. Do they need help with Snapchat, scheduling tweets, setting up interviews? Do that. Every time someone says, “We should do…” that’s your cue to do more work if it’s within reach.
  • Ask people how you might be able to help them, or what they are currently struggling with.
  • Be interested in more than just the work. Ask people about their backstories. Do this for everyone from the boss to your fellow interns. Build real relationships through kindness and curiosity.
  • Credit your boss and your coworkers for your success. You're probably going to have a few wins. And people will offer up a lot of praise. Your response should be to name the other people who helped you out.
  • Don't get caught up in office gossip or in the negative conversation. Because you don't know anything. If you're out with a group and people start talking trash about a co-worker, stay silent. Don't ever repeat. Know that you are not getting the whole story. Watch and learn.
  • Find a mentor and meet with her weekly to update her what you're doing and what you would like to do. Don't pick the newsroom star or the top editor. Pick someone who is doing the kind of work you could be capable of in three to five years. You don't even have to call her your mentor. Just ask if she can offer you some guidance on a regular basis.

I wish internships paid a living wage. But most don't. Your side job as a nanny will help you make ends meet, but it will also take up some of your time and energy. But you have to find a way, or else you'll always be babysitting on the side to make ends meet.

It might be hard to justify this level of commitment for so little money.  Keep the big picture in mind. If you are successful this summer, this internship will lead to your next job. From here on out, nothing is random.

Love,

Mom

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.

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