By CALEB O’BRIEN
|While he was a student at the University of Missouri, Caleb O’Brien, right, filmed a short documentary about sweet potatoes and drones in Mwanza, Tanzania. Making the film helped him get subsequent fellowships and internships. Photo by Bill Allen|
For aspiring environmental journalists, getting an internship can be a potential career-maker. Internships offer real-world experience, contacts, clips and opportunities to develop new skills and deepen subject-matter expertise — all if young journalists can survive the gauntlet.
Will the gig be paid or unpaid? Is there more to it than getting coffee? Will it help land a job later?
Have no fear. I surveyed SEJ academics and current and former students to get tips on finding the best internships — and making the most of the experience.
Step 1: The job hunt
When searching for internships, it’s important to get your priorities straight. What kind of experience does the newsroom offer? How much does money matter? Is getting experience at a top publication worth working for free?
Doug Struck, senior journalist-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston, suggests first that students avoid internships where they work remotely. “We encourage internships in newsrooms where students will learn the machinations of journalism production, feel the beat of the deadline pulse and will, we hope, be under the eye of some veteran editors,” Struck says.
Struck also insists on either pay or credit. Getting neither “sounds like slavery to me,” he adds.
But for Andrew Norman, the unpaid job was worthwhile.
Norman graduated in 2000 from Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. As a student at MSU, Norman passed over a paying internship at the U.S. EPA in favor of an unpaid internship covering environmental legislation for Congressional Quarterly.
For him, the lost income was outweighed by the challenges and opportunities for professional development at Congressional Quarterly.
Now Norman is in a position to hire his own interns as the Executive Director of Hear Nebraska, a nonprofit publication dedicated to the Nebraska music and arts scenes.
“What I always encourage students to do is focus on skills and experience growth, while they’re in the position to do so, instead of pay,” he says. “Focusing on the long game is a much smarter play than taking an internship that might pay well or might just be easy or comfortable.”
Finding the best fit was important for Paige Blankenbuehler, a 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri journalism master’s program.
When searching for internships, she identified a few newsrooms whose missions dovetailed with her interests. She then focused on the quality, not the quantity, of her applications.
The gamble paid off: She landed at High Country News and will stay on this year as the editorial fellow. “An editor, or intern program manager, can differentiate between young journalists that are putting out several lines and applying everywhere,” Blankenbuehler says. “I think it’s better to home in on a specific goal or place or beat and start working toward that.”
Step 2: Getting the (right) job
There’s a broad consensus that clips and cover letters are both important factors in obtaining an internship interview.
“The reality of journalism now is that there’s not a lot of handholding that takes place in these internships; they’re quite intensive,” says Dan Fagin, director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and Pulitzer-Prize winning author of the book “Toms River.” “Showing clips, or otherwise establishing your credibility, is really important.”
A cogent cover letter can showcase writing and storytelling skills as well as demonstrate that an applicant is suitable for the position. Fagin advises his students to develop a sharp, brief résumé, and a website as a convenient showcase for their work.
Before an interview, students should do their research. “Take a really close look at the publication or the site to make sure that you’re familiar with what they do,” Fagin says. “The most obvious way to screw up an internship application is to display ignorance of the site.”
To really wow a potential employer, interviewees can develop specific story ideas or coverage suggestions to illustrate how they would benefit the organization.
Should a journalist be talented and lucky enough to be offered more than one internship, the next challenge is selecting among the potential options. Fagin encourages his students to evaluate their options using five criteria:
- Clips: “There’s no underestimating how important those clips are,” he says. “Getting published is not difficult… but getting published in a good place is incredibly important.”
- Résumé power: Having a name-brand internship on a CV can help an applicant stand out to time-strapped editors desperate to cut through the onslaught of applications.
- Contacts: An EJ internship should offer opportunity to beef up one’s Rolodex — both with sources and journalism-industry contacts.
- New knowledge: The ambitious journalist can use an EJ internship to acquire new skills, burnish old ones and deepen his or her knowledge of the beat.
- Decent compensation: “One very positive development in recent years is that more of the legitimate internships are offering money,” Fagin says. “Something like two-thirds to three-quarters of internships my students take pay.” The change, he thinks, is due to competition for top students and regulatory pressure.
Step 3: Making the most of it
Although getting an internship is hard enough, the real work begins after accepting an internship. “Don’t show up on your first day without a handful of story ideas,” Blankenbuehler says. “A sharp thinker that can pitch stories frequently is a really valuable member of a team.”
Establishing effective communication with supervisors is key, Fagin says. “You do not want to be in a position of them expecting something from you that you’re not prepared to deliver,” Fagin says. “Remember that your supervisor is really busy, and you’re not going to be their top priority.”
Interns occasionally get buried in less glamorous duties, such as fact checking and phone duties. Although “it is really important that you do the core work,” Fagin says, it’s also important to remember that “your agenda is not identical to your supervisor’s agenda.” It’s up to the intern to take initiative, pitch stories, ask to attend meetings and grab coffee with coworkers. After all, supervisors “want to see what initiative you show,” Fagin says.
Blankenbuehler made the most of her internship by embracing HCN’s demanding editing process. “A magazine-ready story is a hard-won accomplishment, and during my internship, I realized how critical it is for young journalists to go through a rigorous editing process,” she explains. “With each story there are growing pains, but the lessons are invaluable, and every time I put a story in print or on the web, I walked away from it a stronger writer, a more critical thinker, a more astute reporter and with no doubt, a thicker skin than I had before.”
Ariana Marini, now an associate editor at A Plus magazine, held internships at NOVA and Mechanical Engineering magazine while studying at Emerson College. Following her advice would challenge even the most resolute intern: “If you have downtime, don’t use it to check Facebook. Instead, think of things you could be doing that your supervisor hasn’t thought of yet.”
In my own experience interning in Washington, D.C., I learned to be open to unexpected opportunities.
I worked for Resolve, an environmental NGO that partnered with Mongabay to launch WildTech, a news site covering emerging technology in conservation. Although it wasn’t purely a journalism job, working at Resolve taught me about the intricacies of running a nonprofit and the challenges of bringing new technologies to market — and it gave me fodder for future stories.
Step 4: Don’t let them forget you
After an internship, shrewd journalists maintain purposeful contact with their former bosses and coworkers. “You don’t want to keep in touch in a mindless way,” Fagin says. Rather, pass along information that would be useful for stories you know they’re working on, or pitch a select few worthwhile story ideas.
And let them know about professional changes such as new jobs and graduations. “Don’t lose interest in someone when you get a job somewhere else,” Fagin says. The new position “will make them more interested in you, not less.”
Above all, keep the faith. Environmental journalism internships may be challenging, but they can make a young journalist far more competitive, Fagin believes.
“Given the reality of the journalism marketplace today, what editors are looking for are journalists with specialized knowledge,” he says. “Storytelling, reporting, multimedia — that kind of skills work is really important. But to distinguish yourself from the pack: know something.”
A 2015 grad of MU’s journalism master’s program, Caleb O’Brien has had a few internships, including one at WildTech, a vertical of Mongabay. He’ll spend 2016 reporting from Paraguay. Jajotopata upépe. (That means “See you there!” in Guarani.)
* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Spring 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.