Internships cause plenty of hardship and woe

Bad internships are like ill-fated summer romances: You go into them with an open heart and all the hope in the world, only to find out after three sizzling months they were using you the whole time.

I've been fortunate in my fledgling career — and my love life — to steer clear of these summertime abusers. But like almost everyone working in journalism, I endured my fair share of harrowing situations while I was still figuring out which end of the pencil was up.

In the hopes of finding comfort in shared misery, I sent out a few tweets yesterday looking to hear about your worst internship stories. Here's what you wrote back, on Twitter and through email:

Steve Rhodes wrote in with this story about receiving a cold welcome when he arrived for his first day of work:

When I arrived from Minnesota for an internship at the New Haven Register in the summer of 1988, I did as instructed and walked up the city desk on my first day to introduce myself. "Hi, I'm the new summer intern," I said. The editors looked at me and each other and then one said, "What intern?" Apparently the managing editor of the paper, who hired me, hadn't told anyone I'd be arriving. I was dispatched to a bureau in the middle of nowhere to basically rot for the summer. At least I survived longer than the managing editor, who was fired midway through my stay there.

Poynter reader Robin Roger sent these stories from her business reporting internship at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

I was so nervous/excited on my first day, that I got to the parking garage 30 minutes early. I walked around the building a bit before realizing that I was supposed to park in another garage to get reimbursed. When I made it back to the original garage, I realized I had locked my keys in the car, and my car had been blocking the entrance to the parking garage for 15 or 20 minutes! Needless to say the guys at the garage weren't happy with me. I called a locksmith, and they were there in minutes to extricate my key. I ended up being only 5 minutes late to my first day on the job, but I was a sweaty, nervous mess, not the calm, cool collected intern I was when I first arrived.

This one is more directly related to reporting:

I was sent out to interview customers of a locally owned pharmacy that was being bought by the Eckerd chain. The Eckerd folks didn't want me interviewing in the store, so I was approaching people in the parking lot. I didn't get a lot of cooperation, and one woman who seemed very suspicious even asked me "How do I even know you're with the newspaper?!" I realized at that point I had rushed out the door, forgetting to bring my hangtag ID, so I had no proof that I worked for the paper. I never left the office again without it.

And one more:

When China changed the way it links its currency to the U.S. dollar, I was sent to a Walmart parking lot to interview customers about how this might affect them. I had to take this very complex economic concept, explain it to people in a Walmart parking lot and then ask them how it might affect their purchasing decisions. It was a longshot at best. I got comments like "I buy all my underwear at Walmart, and I guess I'll have to go somewhere else." I got stuck in rush hour traffic for hours, and ended up having to call in the quotes I had gathered. I was also asked to purchase items made in China for a photo to go with the article, and when I came back with a wide variety of items, I was told by the editor that that's not what he was looking for. He wanted me to bring back the "cheap plastic crap" that they make. I had to tell him they make a lot more than that! I ended up getting to share a byline on the front page for the story, so that made it all worthwhile.

Former Buffalo News intern Brandon Schlager wrote in with this stemwinder about driving through a blizzard to interview for his internship:

My story takes place in January 2014. To appreciate the importance of the setting in relation to the narrative, you must first understand that January in Buffalo inherently means lots of ice, plenty of cold and, well, you know ... snow. Buffalo sometimes gets a worse rap for its weather than it deserves, but this particular winter lived up to (and probably exceeded) the stereotypes — two blizzards in a two-month span, the first of which made its way into town late on Jan. 6.

The next morning, Jan. 7, is when I was scheduled to interview for an intern position. I remember waking up, ignorant to the warnings heeded by weathermen the night before. And with no one having called to postpone the interview, I stubbornly set out on my trek to the newsroom in downtown Buffalo (I am from a Buffalo suburb about 15 minutes away), paying no mind to the 30-50 mph winds and the minus 28 degree wind chill that came along with it.

The snow is hardly a deterrent for Buffalonians when it comes to driving. Navigating the flurries becomes second nature in time. So no big deal. The drive was a bit trickier than usual, but I made it to One News Plaza with 15 minutes to spare, proud of my punctuality. I won't soon forget the look I received when I told the receptionist I had arrived to interview for an internship.

She said something along the lines of, "You could have been two hours late and I don't think anyone would have blamed you for it."

When I met with my interviewer, he was quick to share that the newsroom was particularly hectic because many of the reporters couldn't make it into the office that day. They were stuck at home.

Twelve to 18 inches of snow fell before Jan. 7 ran its course. The Sabres-Hurricanes hockey game scheduled for that night was cancelled. It was the first technical blizzard in Buffalo in 20 years, since 1993. Another one followed in March. We had a great run.

Long story short, the interviews went well, I got the position and enjoyed a great (and sunny) summer with The Buffalo News.

Do you have any terrible internship stories you'd like to be included here? Send me an email at bmullin@poynter.org, and I'll add it to the article.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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