Advice for interns: Go beyond what's required, send handwritten thank you notes and find allies

The Cohort is a Poynter newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Welcome to intern season. The first time I oversaw an intern, my boss gave me valuable advice: Having an intern is actually more work (you need to carve out a lot of time to give feedback), and you are there to teach and guide. It’s not about what they are bringing to you. This doesn’t mean they aren’t useful; many interns provide a lot of value to newsrooms. But I believe it is managers’ responsibility to provide environments that allow interns to grow as journalists and colleagues. 

I asked 10 smart women to give advice to this year’s interns to help them be as successful as possible. Have more questions? Reach out to me on Twitter

How do I fit into the culture?

"This is a tricky one because office cultures can vary a lot, and if it's not a healthy culture, you might not want to fit into it! Use the first couple weeks to be hyper-observant about how staff operate: Is it hierarchical? Do people stay super late? Can you take digital ideas directly to an editor, or should you talk to your direct supervisor first? Is the vibe formal and quiet, or chatty and social? There's nothing overtly good or bad about any of these scenarios, but it's useful to get the sense of the culture so you don't go shouting to a friend four cubicles over if it's not that kind of place. Seek out a staffer who could be a casual role model — maybe the newsroom even sets you up with a mentor — whom you can occasionally ask for advice around these issues when they come up. Whom do you pitch an idea to? Is it OK not to eat lunch at your desk? Having a friendly ally can help figure out how to navigate those culture questions as they come up."
CJ Sinner, digital graphics producer at The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.

What will make my work stand out? 

"Mostly, I recommend going beyond the work that's required. Work on a project that is outside what is assigned to you and also personally fulfilling. It should be something that you want to invest your time into. You will grow tremendously from pushing yourself. The project is a perfect avenue to connect with staffers who will guide you to nurture that work. Also, the great gift of being an intern is that it is designed to be a learning experience. You are not there to show off. You are there to learn and to absorb the resources available to you for a very short time. It's important to experiment, to embrace failure and to learn from your colleagues."
Dania Maxwell, freelance photographer based in Los Angeles.

"Come early, stay late, pick up holiday and weekend shifts, and volunteer for every assignment that's up for grabs. You can demonstrate your strengths — whether it's a bulldog reporting instinct, or a talent for narrative writing — in every story you write, no matter how brief. And if you get to pitch your own ideas, make sure you can finish them by the end of the internship."
Laura Nelson, staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.

How should I deal with sources or colleagues who don't take me seriously because of my age? 

"Find allies. For me it was about finding the youngest senior people and getting them to listen to me. They remember what it was like to be in your place. This also includes allies who are open to and embracing of what you have to offer. Your youth comes with strengths — play those up. You offer fresh perspective, and have newer insights. Use that to your advantage. Your youth is not a bug, it's a feature."
Dhiya Kuriakose, senior director of development strategy and syndication at Condé Nast Entertainment.

"You’re not alone and you do have weapons in your arsenal: Dress professionally for the way you want to feel and carry yourself with confidence — even if you don’t always feel it. Be undeniably good at what you do to silence naysayers. Align yourself with your boss or a newsroom leader who will advocate for you and provide opportunities for visibility. Come up with quips for when your age/experience is brought up. For example, “How long have you been in journalism?” “Long enough to know what I’m doing. 😊”"
Kari Cobham, senior manager of digital content at Cox Media Group.

(For more on this, read five reasons why you should pay attention to the young people in your newsroom.)

What should I do during my internship to prepare for job hunting? 

"Meet with as many journalists as you possibly can. Take editors out to coffee and ask them what they look for in a new hire. Ask your mentors to give you feedback on your resume and cover letters. Spend time updating your personal portfolio with your best work. If you see a hole in your body of work, consider asking your manager for an assignment that could help show your skills in that area. Say thank you (and follow up with a handwritten note) to anyone who spends more than 30 minutes giving you advice or helping you learn something new. Being gracious, as well as professional, helps build your reputation and your brand."
Emma Carew Grovum, product manager at The Daily Beast. 

"Keep a list of the tasks you do and the skills you acquire during your internship. Keep in mind the things you enjoyed doing, and the things you didn’t. Use that to inform what jobs you apply to, but know that first jobs almost universally suck. Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs at smaller organizations outside of coastal media hubs — I’ve found it’s better to do the thing you want to do at a smaller place than to try and fight to do the thing you want at a bigger organization. "
Alex Laughlin, audio producer at BuzzFeed News. 

How can I talk to my boss about personal challenges or mental health? 

"A good boss will want you to be honest with them. Sometimes that may mean sharing a work-life stressor or a more personal obstacle you're trying to overcome. But remember, when you're talking to your boss, you're not talking to your 'bff.' Don't ramble. Be succinct."
Leah Becerra, digital growth editor at The Kansas City Star. 

How can I combat imposter syndrome or competition with other interns? 

"Realize you're here for a reason. Journalism internships are very competitive. You had to prove yourself just to get this one, and you should be proud of that. Go in with the mentality that the other interns are your allies, not your competition. More so than anyone else at the organization, they'll be able to relate to your situation. Go to them for advice, commiserate with them, and grab lunch with them when you can. Long after your internship is over, they'll be valuable contacts in the industry."
Rubina Madan Fillion, director of audience engagement at The Intercept. 

"I loved reading about the Shalane Flanagan effect after she won last year's New York City Marathon. She's one of the premier elite runners in the U.S. — a position she's earned not just from a decade-plus of training and hard work, but also through mentoring and elevating her fellow teammates. She's supportive, but not submissive. The article specifically describes the Shalane effect as a type of feminism, but I think it's a good principle to keep in mind when any colleague might also be considered a competitor. As the article says, 'It’s not so lonely at the top if you bring others along.' If you build a support network for others, it will support you as well."
Ryann Grochowski Jones, deputy editor for data at ProPublica. 


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Do your homework

This week I'm asking for advice: How do you prepare for a big interview? How do you stay calm and make sure you get what you need? What if it's a celebrity or big industry name? Reply to this Twitter thread, and I'll share the advice. You get bonus points for sharing your advice with colleagues, too.


Focus on the work

When Joni Deutsch joined WFAE last November, her colleagues couldn't stop talking about their idea for a podcast based on Sarah Delia's year-long investigation of a woman who was sexually assaulted by a stranger in Charlotte, North Caroline. The more Deutsch learned about it, the more she knew it could be great, and she pulled together the right people from across the organization to figure out how it would sound and be published.

The first episode of the She Says podcast launched on May 31. It's the story of a woman named "Linda," who was sexually assaulted nearly three years ago and has had to act as her own advocate and detective to try to solve her case. She recorded her conversations with the police, and those recordings are featured in the podcast. New episodes are available every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, NPR One and on other podcast apps, as well as on WFAE.org/SheSays.


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