9 things I learned at my newspaper internship

As some of you know, I spent the past spring at The Washington Examiner as a local news reporting intern. I came home tired every day but thankful to be doing what I loved. Life isn’t bad at the bottom of the journalistic food chain when you have great coworkers and a fascinating city to cover.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that experience, and I came up with this list of 9 things I’d tell someone starting a reporting internship. I’ll forgo the general tips about dressing professionally and not being annoying. This list is all about the journalism side of things. Here’s what I learned:

1. Follow your curiosity. You won’t always get to choose your story topics, but never stop looking for those opportunities. Read as much as you can about the topics that interest you. Read local blogs and location-specific Twitter lists. Read national news, and look for ways to make those stories local. Dig into the history of the places and issues you care about. Start conversations with strangers. There are more stories around you than you’d imagine — and if you’re interested in them, readers will be, too.

My curiosity led me to some unusual stories at the Examiner, including a few features I wrote in my spare time. I’m interested in the criminal justice system and reentry programs for ex-convicts, for example, and I stumbled upon a great feature story about a local nonprofit that works with juvenile offenders.

2. Everybody will talk about what they love. I regularly sought out everyday people for a short daily feature called the “3-Minute Interview.” I interviewed a poet, an expert Scrabble player, a first-time novelist, an award-winning teacher, an 8-year-old entrepreneur and a man who makes his own telescopes. When you get people talking about what they love — in this case, their hobbies and opinions — they will open up and give you really great quotes. Just ask a few good questions, and they’ll take it from there.

3. Call people in the morning, even if you won’t need to talk to them until the afternoon. Like you, your sources are busy, and they get busier as the day goes on. You don’t want to be tracking down a government employee at 3:30 or 4:00 when your deadline is 4:45. I learned this the hard way.

4. Own up to your ignorance. When you’re an intern — especially working on multiple beats, as I was — you don’t usually have enough experience or background knowledge to ask masterful questions. Do as much reading as possible before interviewing sources, but then swallow your pride and be willing to admit that you’re an intern and a beginner. It’s better to ask for clarification during an interview than to send your editors a vague, patchy story about something you still don’t really understand.

5. A good spokesperson or public information officer can work wonders. Be kind to these people. Say “thank you,” early and often.

6. Lead with the interesting stuff. In many cases, you can start your article with the most unusual detail you’ve found in your reporting. In one of my first stories, I wrote about the closure of an upscale D.C. grocery store due to health code violations. My editor took one look at my story and moved the phrase “rats and roaches” — the most colorful of the health code violations — to the very top of the article.

7. Math matters. Once, when I was reporting a story, I paused to add up the numbers in a press release. It turns out that the press release had failed to account for about $3 million of the funding that had been set aside for regional projects. I called a public information officer, pointed out the error and found correct numbers for my story. Don’t ever assume.

8. Write as much as you can as soon as you can. I struggled with one article early in my internship because I thought I should finish all of my research before I started writing. I was soon weighed down with statistics, facts and half-transcribed quotes, gasping for a lede.

But I learned. I wrote nutgrafs and background paragraphs on the bus before covering an event. I scribbled first drafts on my notepad during long government meetings. I even tried transcribing interview quotes on the Metro, with mixed success. This all made deadlines less daunting.

9. Digital distraction is the enemy of good writing. Twitter is a blessing and a curse, and I was sometimes tempted to keep it open all day as I worked, bouncing between blogs and looking for the latest updates to stories. My generation has gotten used to multitasking, and we’re convinced that we’re good at it. But on my better days, I used Twitter as a tool to listen in on what people were talking about, but then I shut it down and got to work on one thing at a time.

Journalists, former interns and current interns: Would you add anything to this list?

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The ballad of the misunderstood English major

In just a few weeks, I’ll don a doofy blue cap and gown and graduate from Wheaton College with a B.A. in English. Right on cue, USA TODAY published an article titled “What’s a B.A. in English worth anymore?”

The article picks up on the familiar tug-of-war between liberal arts  and specialization:

There was a time when college was a place where young adults could expand their horizons. But as tuitions increase, student debt mounts and job prospects for recent grads remain uncertain, Timm and his alma mater represent increasing rarities in higher education: students and schools whose primary goals center on a broad-based education in the arts and sciences. Today, students and parents say college should prepare students for a good job.

The writer, Mary Beth Marklein, notes that some business schools are going the other way by incorporating liberal arts components into their programs. Still, the onus apparently rests on liberal arts colleges to justify their existence — to tout their strong internship programs, for example, or the career success of their alumni.

So, what’s a B.A. in English worth, anyway? Allow me to share my perspective as a soon-to-be English B.A. holder. True, I have not locked down a six-figure post-graduation job to stir the envy of my pre-med or pre-law peers. I’m following my passion into a career in journalism. But after four years at Wheaton College, I’m still immensely grateful for my English major, which has trained me to love learning for its own sake. (Just try putting a price tag on “a love of learning.”) 

I’m a fan of the liberal arts model (not without some reservations — more on that below). But first, here are just a few of the reasons I’m holding high my B.A. in English as I approach graduation:

  • I know how to write an email. I know, you were probably expecting something more impressive at the top of this list. Who goes to college to learn how to write emails? But in journalism — or any job, for that matter — email is the lifeblood of daily work. Knowing how to write a clear, concise email gets you farther than you’d think. And English classes teach you how to write clearly.
  • I’ve encountered some of the currents of thought that have strongly shaped my culture. I learned about postmodernism, feminism, civil rights movements, theology, consumerism, naturalism and transcendentalism in the pages of novels, essays and poetry. And now that I have thought deeply about those things in the classroom and the library, I’m better equipped to discuss them in “real life.” Literature is supremely practical.
  • I’ve been called out on my B.S. Some people say that it’s easy to write essays or fiction for English classes because you can make yourself sound smart without having to know what you’re talking about. Though I understand that opinion, it’s not my experience. I had excellent professors at Wheaton College who cared deeply about every word and sentence of my essays. I read my work aloud to 20 peers. I argued passionately for my interpretation of a novel over lunch with English major friends. I sat through writing workshops where my short stories were picked apart. These people were hard on my words and ideas, and they made them better. My halfhearted thesis statements and muddy arguments couldn’t survive.
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the beauty of language. As a journalist, I now spend my days knee-deep in words, wading around for the sharpest, most evocative descriptions of our world. It doesn’t feel like work when you love language.
  • English has been my portal to every other discipline. English is the most liberal-artsy of all the liberal arts degrees, and it was easy to draw connections from English to my history, philosophy and science classes. My beloved novels, poems and essays in English classes lit up the world and made me a better student overall.
  • I believe that writing well is synonymous with thinking well and speaking well. What job does not require critical thinking and strong communication skills? After taking college English classes, I think more clearly and speak with more confidence. That helps me in every area of life, not least in job interviews.

But here’s the catch: My liberal arts education in the classroom wasn’t enough. I gained invaluable “real-world” experience at the student newspaper and three off-campus internships. I traveled and worked in Europe. I networked with alumni and attended journalism conferences. Without those experiences, I would be ready for graduate school or academia but woefully unprepared to begin a professional career. And those were all things I had to seek out on my own in addition to classes.

More specifically, as a journalist, an English major is not really enough. Journalism favors strong writers who also have technical skills and subject expertise in government, education, business, politics, religion or science. In journalism, knowing how to write is just the common denominator. If I had to do it all over again, would I have still chosen to major in English? Yes. But I would have added to my major by focusing on one or two other disciplines, like sociology, Spanish, computer science or education. Those would have served me well.

The good news for me — for anyone, no matter what kind of college they attend — is that my education isn’t over at graduation. I’ll learn more at every place I work; I’ll read books at night and on the weekends; I’ll travel across the U.S. and around the world; I’ll teach myself new technical skills by playing around with programs on my computer and phone. Heck, maybe some day I’ll even go to graduate school. But I am convinced that I will never — no, never — regret the excellent education I received at my little liberal arts college in Illinois.

Related:

Humor website McSweeny’s recently posted a delightful, satirical essay called “The Only Thing That Can Stop This Asteroid Is Your Liberal Arts Degree.”

Some of my English professors attempt to answer questions about “marketability” of the English major in a page on the Wheaton College website called “Why pursue an English major?”

Politics and a few loose screws

Pop quiz: What’s the difference between news media and a rumor mill?

Last week, there didn’t seem to be much of a difference: Rumors flew after a picture of an asymmetric screw was posted anonymously on Reddit with a vague reference to Apple. Within 12 hours, the rumor — Apple’s trying to lock you out of its products! — had been posted and dissected on tech blogs, including Wired.

Yesterday, a Swedish design company confessed that they started the rumor just to see what would happen. Their whole explanation is worth reading, but I thought this analysis was interesting:

The blogs and newspapers that reported on the screw all fell back on that this was a vague rumor, unconfirmed, but yet discussed what impact the screw could get for the Mac world if it was in use. However, we noticed a difference in the discussions from the readers… Either they perceived the news as truth, or called it fake, no grey zone in between.

Readers don’t react to what might be news. As a rumor spreads, there’s no room for nuance. The Swedish pranksters found that when people commented on posts about the fake screw– and especially when they posted about it on their own social media accounts– they evidenced no sign of critical thinking.

Let’s transfer this to the world of political reporting, shall we? Yesterday, Garance Franke-Ruta posted a piece for The Atlantic called “What to Do With Political Lies.” Candidates continue to repeat half-truths and lies that have already been debunked by fact-checkers in the media. The article argues that news outlets need to quickly parry these lies as often as they are told:

Every story lives an independent life on the social Web and there’s no guarantee the reader of any given report will ever see a bundled version of the news or the relevant fact-checking column, which could have been published months earlier. One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.

The solution, according to this article:

Basic, simple, brief factual boilerplate can save an article from becoming a crutch for one campaign or the other; can save time; and can give readers a fuller understanding of the campaigns, even if they haven’t had time to read deep dives on complex topics.

Can we outsmart political spin and rumor mills in an age of 24/7 news? Maybe it’s impossible to shut down a lie entirely. But we can at least make it a little easier for readers to engage uncertainty with their critical thinking skills intact.

Sound advice from 1884

Use concise terms; have a choice of words; be anything but commonplace. If you attempt to describe a horserace, put motion into the article; make it so picturesque and full of life that your readers can see the flying animal, the crowd of spectators, and hear the loud cheers that announce the winning heat. Give strength and beauty to the simplest things you describe; use a lead pencil and eraser, and strike out any sentence that is not a picture. Some of the strongest journalistic work in the world has been done by women…

Indeed, the papers to which women do not contribute, and on whose pages they are not employed, are exceptions to the rule. And there is always room for more…

If a woman is born with a talent to write she will write — there is no possible doubt about that.

— Martha Louise Rayne, What Can a Woman Do? (1884)

I went antique shopping with my mother today and found this book in the upper floor of an old Vermont barn. Luckily for me, the whole thing has been digitized by Google and is available here. I’m thankful to Martha Louise Rayne and others like her who wrote intelligently and winsomely about being a woman and a journalist long before I was born.

Ethical coverage of tragedy

Are we tired of sensationalizing the Colorado shooting yet? The shooter’s face has been plastered across front pages and 24/7 news networks over the protests of the victims’ families. CNN anchors have almost excitedly shared every piece of information that was even remotely related to the story. Now we’re digging into every detail of the shooter’s past.

Yes — people wanted to read about the shooting. Like most Americans, I was glued to my computer last Friday. I came to the point that I had to stop reading — by avoiding the Internet entirely for several hours — because I was so weary, discouraged and numb.

How much information did we actually need to know about the shooting? How much of the coverage actually brought clarity to the situation and helped the nation to mourn while preventing further pain? What good did it do to show what the shooter was wearing or what the theater looked like, even if the facts were true? I’ve been mulling over these questions this week.

Al Tompkins at Poynter offered seven tips for journalists, including this one:

Avoid glorifying the shooter. This was a cold-blooded cowardly act. Lower the temperature of your coverage by avoiding adjectives like “terror,” which feed the motivations of those who would love to imagine themselves doing something similar. Stick to the facts, let the emotions come from the people you interview. There is no need for hyperventilated headlines and breathless copy. The story is tough enough.

I’d also refer you to “How the media shouldn’t cover mass murder,” an informative breakdown of news coverage of the day after the shooting, which includes a video with blunt advice about preventing further violence:

“Repeatedly showing us a killer’s face isn’t news; it’s just rubbernecking.”

I’m not sure what I would have done if I had had to report this tragedy, and I realize that it’s easy to stand in judgment on others.

But when we have a killer who obviously wanted publicity — and we have at least one man now seeking the same level of infamy — we must be careful about how we report. Words are powerful, and human beings are more important than readership or ratings.

Update 8/1:

J.J. Gould at The Atlantic has written a thoughtful post about this topic here. He writes that journalists’ responsibilities don’t fit neatly into a Hippocratic Oath, but “[The media] can be vigilant — and the public can be vigilant — about what’s news and what’s not.”