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?


Tread lightly

There’s nothing eloquent I can say about last week. I’ve tried. At my reporting internship last Tuesday, most of the reporters and editors around me received some terrible news: they will lose their jobs in June as the Examiner becomes a new online political publication.

I stood in the newsroom with the others, in silence, feeling a little awkward as the only person in the room who would not be directly affected. My internship will end before the newspaper shuts down. And I’m only 21 years old, after all. I’ll be OK.

Still, I know I will never forget that moment, when I was blindsided by the reality of making it as a newspaper journalist in 2013. I had heard stories of newspapers dying; I had seen ominous empty desks in newsrooms that had resorted to layoffs or furloughs just to stay in business. I knew that if I wanted to become a journalist, it was going to be tough. I was determined not to let newspaper nostalgia distract me from the good journalism that was happening in the wake of new technology. But it was all hypothetical then — a quiet blue line on a graph.

The same day that my newspaper began its long goodbyes, my friend Melissa wrote that she decided to leave journalism entirely:

I don’t want to spend years chasing bylines (succeeding in journalism by all traditional measures) just to end up drained and unsatisfied—that is, more drained and more unsatisfied than I am now.

Former reporter Allyson Bird wrote a very similar piece on the same day, explaining why she left news:

News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day – suddenly — you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you’ve got to detach. I left news, not because I didn’t love it enough, but because I loved it too much – and I knew it was going to ruin me.

I couldn’t get those words out of my head. Why did I want to be a reporter when my job and my own dreams could betray me? And so it was that I sat on a Metro train on Wednesday morning, reading Allyson Bird’s blog post on my phone, wearing my fancy professional clothes on the way to my internship, and wondering whether this career I had chosen was worth the cost. A woman next to me was reading the Examiner, crinkling back the paper pages to scan the crime section. Tears came, unbidden.

I had believed in what our newspaper was trying to do; I believed in local news, in keeping power accountable, in the relationships we had built. I loved my job, and I came alive when I reported a story. None of those things changed last week. But I did.

I know that I am chasing a career where nothing is guaranteed. It was easy to declare that I wanted to be a journalist when I was sitting in a college newspaper office, with every byline stoking the bravery burning in me. But for a few days last week, I saw my dream like one of those old video games where the character jumps onto blocks that hang precariously in mid-air. He has to keep moving before they crumble beneath his feet.

The ache that kept me awake after last week’s news has stilled. I see that I cannot place my security in the dreams I adopted when I first decided to become a journalist. My dreams and ambitions must grow with me, and I cannot know what forces in my life or in the news industry may come and redirect my path. But as well as I can, for as long as I am able, I will I am going to live out my calling in journalism — if not for the next 30 years, at least for today — and the gift of doing what I love today is enough to sustain me. I am 21, and I want to be a reporter. Come what may.

iPhone video practice

This is the first video I’ve made and edited on the iPhone: an afternoon summarized in a one-minute clip. It’s not a news video by any means, but it was good practice for multimedia reporting.

Wheaton College is beautiful in the fall:

Forgive the slight shakiness — I don’t yet have a way to connect my phone to a tripod, but I hope to get one soon.

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.