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Are news internships the best way to start a career in journalism?

April 4, 2011

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By Alex Braun

This morning, I came across an intriguing column by Miami Herald contributor Ed Wasserman — republished on his personal blog — questioning whether news internships were really the best way to train the next generation of writers.

Having dedicated four years of undergrad school, several internships and my first job out of college to the field, I’ve seen plenty of things that could have swayed me to either side of the issue. Journalism is pretty unique in that it’s a professional occupation that requires no formal certification to enter. In America, where a free press is a critical part of our Constitution, the idea of a licensing entity determining who can and cannot be a watchdog seems wrong.

Though I never had to pass a specific test to publish an article, I spent huge amounts of time on experiential education as an undergrad at the University of Missouri.

The impressions you receive at the start of a career can be very powerful, influencing the way you approach work for the rest of your life.

I’ve always believed that Missouri’s model — in which journalism students work at real local news outlets that are partially funded and staffed by the university — taught me much more than I ever learned in a lecture.

I may have been able to write passable articles when I first arrived in the Columbia Missourian newsroom, but I had no notion of how to effectively collaborate with photographers, editors and the copy desk to produce great stories with efficiency. I had no grasp of newsroom politics or mundane tasks like manning phones on the circulation desk. I had to learn to work with people, or I would have drowned.

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I spent a lot of my college days in this newsroom at the Columbia Missourian. (Credit: Angela Hamilton)

And yet, I feel that there’s something credible about Wasserman’s assertion that internships can distance journalists from the people they’re really supposed to be serving: the readers. Our professors always told us that great journalism happens outside the newsroom, but spending hours cooped up on a computer under close supervision sometimes created the sense that our facility was just like any other office — where you’re rewarded for putting in a lot of hours in plain sight of the boss. Maybe it would have been better if I worked a summer job between those Missourian semesters, just to meet more people in my community and hang around people who didn’t think about life from a journalist’s point of view.

There’s a reasonable argument here that this approach could have made me a better writer. Would it have made me more hirable? That’s more difficult to say.

The experiences I had interning through Mizzou-affiliated programs — most importantly, a brief stint at the Associated Press’s London bureau, where I became published all over the world and got to interview former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell — were unforgettable and make awesome resume bullets. I can’t say I’ll ever regret them.

Maybe the issue isn’t so much with journalism internships in general, as Wasserman says, but the culture of newsrooms that use developing writers as office assistants instead of letting them branch out and write from the road. The impressions you receive at the start of a career can be very powerful, influencing the way you approach work for the rest of your life. If that big-paper journalism internship you’re considering sounds too much like an office job, maybe you should consider waiting tables this summer. Or, better yet — maybe you should intern at a smaller publication that offers you more freedom.

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