Online News Interns Don't Fetch Coffee

By: Steve Outing If my sampling of college students is an accurate indicator, interning at online news sites is a pretty good gig.

As summer ends, an increasingly large number of college students have completed internships at online news Web sites. I took a sampling of students who just completed new media internships to find out what it's like these days. In short, most of these people enjoyed their temporary jobs and were given considerable freedom to do what they wanted to do -- probably more so than had they had traditional-media internships.

The interns I interviewed were not relegated to getting coffee, though in some cases they did have to perform less than exciting tasks -- which is hardly a surprise. But several of the interns I spoke with indicated that they were given significant responsibility to produce content for their employers. That's a change for an industry (online news publishing) that for some time has emphasized the technical side of Web work over content, especially for its youngest workers.

Political duties

Susan Heavey is a politics interns for WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive, where she originally started working last summer while continuing her studies at American University. Her main responsibility is to help cover the 1998 election for, and she covers federal Internet sites for the Post's Federal Internet Guide (adding links, cleaning up HTML code and writing a weekly spotlight piece). She covers four assigned U.S. Senate and three U.S. gubernatorial races, and writes online stories about them as necessary. Last year, she happened to arrive in London to study two days before Princess Diana's death, and ended up being a "special correspondent" for covering the tragedy.

In Heavey's case, technical skills weren't what got her the online job -- it was her content skills and experience, although she did know HTML. "When I interviewed here, the thing that struck me was that they didn't ask what programs I could use or how fast I could convert text into HTML -- they asked where I thought the online industry was headed and what I thought about how media could make the best use of the Web," she says. "I didn't understand then why they hired me -- I'm far from a technical wizard, although I have since picked up a lot. But after working online for a while, I realized that it doesn't really make sense to base your candidate selection on a specific technical skill because in this field technology is always changing, things become automated or a new software program replaces an old one."

Photographer on the Web

Spending her summer at the Chicago Tribune's Web operation was Erin Beach, a student at North Carolina State University. With only one class left to take before graduation, Beach has been on a string of photography internships; the Tribune gig was her fourth, but the first on the new media side of the news business. Working the night shift, she worked with the Web site's night editor and served as the liaison between the print photo department and the Web site.

Much of Beach's work involved photo editing for the Web site and using Vignette's StoryServer (which she was taught how to use when she arrived) to upload content. But over the course of the summer, she also worked on four Web content projects where she shot photos, worked with designers and produced Web special sections.

Beach says the Tribune's Web editors respected that she had previous Internet photo experience, and were open to projects she wished to do. During her brief tenure with the Tribune staff, she was the only photo person working on the online side of the newspaper; now that she's gone, there are no staffers devoted primarily to photos for the Web site. Indeed, chances of her finding a Web-side photo position at a new media operation as a post-college job are slim to none; those jobs simply don't exist yet. So Beach plans to pursue a conventional news photography career, confident in having gained some new media skills for the day when photographers are part of the new media staff mix.

Greg Lindsay, a journalism student at the University of Illinois, landed an internship at Salon, the popular San Francisco-based Web-zine. His duties were primarily reporting and writing for the site's "21st" section, covering the technology beat. Lindsay sees himself clearly gravitating toward a career in the online world. "I just can't see myself working in print," he says. His goal at this point, looking beyond graduation next year, is to work on his own as a freelancer, possibly designing the content for multimedia games.

This was Lindsay's second internship, following a stint last year with The Netly News, which is part of Time-Warner's Pathfinder Web site. He notes the very different atmosphere at Salon vs. Time-Warner; at the former, "the CEO knew my name" and staff cocktail parties and retreats were a nice part of the summer experience. "I liked the real sense I got that we were all doing something new," he says. Salon's editors also gave Lindsay a lot of latitude; sometimes he'd be left alone for as long as a week while he worked on a project.

Repurposing work

Original content is still sparse compared to repurposed content from print at most Web operations, so not all interns get to produce new content. Eric Ulken, a student at the University of Missouri, interned at Star Tribune Online, where he worked as a copy editor with the night content staff -- publishing stories, processing photos and compiling the highlights page for one or two sections a night. He says he was given responsibilities equivalent to what a starting staffer might have, and felt treated as an equal.

Ulken has kind words about the Star Tribune's online staff ("world class"), but "what really bothered me, though, is that this hugely talented staff was stuck doing mostly cut-and-paste work." He previously had interned at the Columbus Dispatch and found the Star Tribune internship to be more structured. "I had clearly defined jobs limited to daily production work. At the Dispatch, I did a lot of odd jobs, and I think I was able to make a bigger contribution to the online product, since I was one of two people on (that) online staff."

Getting an internship

Several students I surveyed said they got the impression that online news internships were a little easier to get than "old media" internships. Nevertheless, "start looking early" is the advice from Jeffrey Lash, a Washington University (St. Louis) student who was an "intern of all trades" at the MassLive regional news Web site over the summer. Students should update their resumes no later than winter break and start sending out letters looking for summer internships. "I sent probably about 35 out and got responses from about half," he says.

Don't limit yourself, Lash urges. "Send your information to anyone and everyone that might offer you an internship. ... Even if they don't offer an internship program, find the right person to send your cover letter and resume to." And follow through on letters, calling to ask if the letter was received, asking who you could talk to and if they could schedule an interview, he suggests. "It took about five phone messages just to get an interview for the internship which I had this past summer."

Alexis Henry, who interned as a Web producer for the Detroit Free Press, agrees that persistence is called for; "nag if you have to," she says. And it helps a lot to know someone at the company where you are applying so they can be a reference or grease the wheels to get your phone calls returned.

Most of the interns in my sampling say that possessing considerable technical skills was not necessary for their summer jobs. Ismail Turay Jr., a University of Illinois journalism graduate student who interned at the Chicago Tribune Web site's sports section, says he didn't have strong HTML skills, nor did he need them. The Web site uses Vignette's StoryServer database publishing system, which he was trained on when he started work.

Other interns said that some basic HTML knowledge helped them get their summer jobs. Also, several said that knowledge of Photoshop was a big plus and helped them do their jobs better.

Fun and work

Overall, this group seemed to enjoy the summer. Turay says he loved the experience, and often went in early and stayed late without expecting extra pay. "It was so much fun," he says.

The interns in my sampling were all paid, from a low of $6 per hour to a high of $15 an hour. Lash, the MassLive intern, has this advice to publishers: "To anyone trying to get devoted, hard-working, smart interns -- pay them well! An intern who works for school credit but no cash will surely not work as hard as the MassLive interns did. I know I sure wouldn't have worked as hard as I did if I wasn't getting paid."


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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