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?