By Julie McCann
On a rare sunny day in early April, Alicia K. Gosselin, an Algonquin College journalism student on a six-week internship, found herself skipping rocks into the Ottawa River with Ottawa Citizen reporter Tom Spears. Divers were searching for a teenage boy who had fallen through the ice and the pair were waiting for some news. Gosselin had been an intern at the paper for several weeks at that point, and had learned to write and think fast. She’d earned bylines for stories about the Sens playoff battles and municipal transit issues.
But this sunny morning by the river, despite the tragedy that brought them there, was her favourite experience at the paper. Spears, a veteran reporter, chatted with her. Sure, he offered words of wisdom too, but mainly they just had a good conversation. The result? She felt like she’d made an authentic connection with a working journalist.
I’ve coordinated our journalism program’s field placement program for the better part of 10 years, and what Gosselin felt that day is always the goal. She’d had bylines on a few dozen stories and videos and received an excellent review from her supervisor, yet the best part of her placement was the opportunity to feel, as one of her colleagues put it, “real.”
Back on campus, we train students. We get them to swap their hoodies for blazers and we send them out to newsrooms ready to produce solid work. In return, we trust that they’ll be provided with the opportunity to demonstrate to their editors—and to themselves—that they can operate as functional members of a professional team.
When it works, it’s magic. For those of you in the newsrooms, editorial offices and communications department across the country who’ve been a part of this magic for our interns—or any journalism intern—a huge thanks. You’ve helped a person take his or her first baby steps into their new career. Without being too over-the-top about it, you may have also helped a person evolve in fundamental ways.
But for those of you who had an intern who didn’t produce as effectively as Gosselin did, nor did they come away gushing about what they learned, feel reassured: the student likely wears much of the blame along with their new blazer. They were too gentle. They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t pitch ideas—and then pitch more. They didn’t listen carefully to instructions. They didn’t read your publication. They, like, just had stuff going on in their life. Many of these students would admit this.
However, in the name of self-reflection, it might be worthwhile asking: did you do all that you could have done to get the most out of your field-placement student? Did you truly open your door to welcome this person into your operation?
There’s no question: when an intern walks into your offices, life is already in progress. You’re busier than ever. You are indeed not there to show them a good time.
However, practically—and karmically—it can benefit you to try to do just that. Although the care and feeding of an intern can indeed eat at your time, how often during your week are you given an opportunity to really have a hand in helping another person become themselves? They may even write a great piece or produce a fantastic video for you.
Based on the feedback from my 2015 grads, here are a few things you can do as a field placement host to make the experience great for both of you.
1) Include them, says a grad who interned at a national magazine.
They love to be invited to your meetings. Or a lunch-time cake cutting for your admin assistant. They know they’re new, and likely temporary. But if you can flashback to yourself wearing their shoes: being the new kid sucks. Make them feel at home and they’ll strive even harder to contribute to the family.
2) Offer honest feedback, says a grad who interned at a daily newspaper.
Read their copy—aloud, with them beside you, alone—and let them know what you really think. Or tell them their pitch sucks, but let them pitch it. Then tell them why it sucks. It’s easier to say the sweet stuff, but do them a great favour: skip the sugar.
4) Say “hi,” says a grad who interned at a magazine.
You’re eager to get to your desk in the morning. You don’t want to engage in lengthy polite chatter. No problem! But taking the long way around the room to avoid a brief greeting is more time-consuming for you than necessary. The additional 45 seconds it might take to call out a “good morning” to your intern will do you both a lot of good.
5) Ditch make-work projects framed as real ones, says a grad who interned at a broadcaster.
They’re a downer. Let the intern play, but don’t make him or her “think” a great video or sidebar will be used and then not use it. If you’re assigning a task that’s for practice only, cool. But say so. They will indeed work for feedback.
6) Give them their individuality—and an email address, says a grad who interned at a trade magazine.
If your IT department can swing this, it goes a long way to helping them feel part of your team for six weeks. A phone is great, too.
7) Offer a few clues about how they can work independently, says an intern at a newspaper.
When they hear, “I don’t have anything for you today,” they feel bad, you feel bad. In the first few weeks of their placement, when they’re finding their feet at your organization, suggesting upcoming editorial-package topics for which they can develop pitches can be great. Or introduce them to other members of the team who have large projects underway who could use support. The goal isn’t necessarily to hand them tasks—just gently point out where they might look to develop their own valuable work.
8) Help them make connections, said a grad who interned at a newspaper.
Because that’s the magic word. Mentor them and they’ll make a connection with you, and your newsroom in turn. When they leave you after six weeks, they’ll hear your voices in their ears, guiding them as they go.
In the spring, when my students came back to our classroom to for their post-field placement reunion and shared these thoughts, they each sat in the same rolling office chairs they’d claimed a year or two before. This time, however, most of them sat in them differently. Straighter, shoulders back or an arm draped easily across the back of them. They laughed louder. And they leaned in to really listen to each other. They clapped a lot too.
Because now, having worked off-campus, they were ready. They were now people who knew stuff and who’d seen things. Yes, some of them were terrifically underwhelmed by what they’d seen. Yet because many of their colleagues were so amazed by their experiences, they were grateful to hear about them. It’s hard to be in a room with energy like that and not feel good about the world. I’ll invite you to join us next time.
Julie McCann is a professor of journalism at Algonquin College. Previously, she was a staff writer at National Post Business and Marketing magazines and a contributor to Chatelaine, Canadian Geographic, Applied Arts, the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen.
Illustration photo by Jack Beauvais, via Flickr.