Monday, August 24, 2009

“Suck it up and get the story”: What I learned from this summer’s internship papers

Another school year approaches, and with it comes more discussion among journalism faculty about how and what we teach. It’s happening at programs around the country and the question we face is how to best prepare students for the world of digital news generation and delivery. This debate sometimes occurs in an either/or framework: should we be doing more in hands-on skills or more basic reporting and writing?

I think about that each semester when I read the 30-40 or so papers written by students who have just completed internships. And after having read this summer's batch, I’m more convinced than ever that students need both hands-on skills AND the reporting, writing, editing, critical thinking and analysis needed to make the right decisions on the fly. The fact that students are now out producing digital media--audio, video and digital images, often without too much editing and supervision, only increases the importance of courses like basic writing, media criticism and analysis, and ethics.

Here’s what else I’ve learned from reading these papers:

Journalism is still an exciting field. Sure, it is a scary time, and the picture, particularly for newspapers, is unclear. But other opportunities are emerging, particularly for the smart, pro-active students who can write and report, and who understand digital media. Every so often, a time rolls around when a smart, hard-working, creative young person can jump the line over those with more traditional experience. This is one of those times.

Journalism education prepares you for careers you probably hadn't thought of. This year’s interns worked on everything from managing captioning and services for visually impaired at WGBH to helping with casting television shows at NBC in New York City. Students worked at weekly and daily newspapers, radio stations and television stations, niche publications, public relations outfits, and non-profits. “Morning Joe.” MTV. Rounder Records. Food Bank of Western Mass. Daily Hampshire Gazette. All used their journo skills in different ways.

What you learn in the classroom really matters in the real world. And not just in hands-on skills, but in critical thinking. A media criticism class gave one student a deeper perspective on the digital challenges faced by the small record company where he was working. Ethics classes helped several students figure out workplace dilemmas ranging from story sourcing to publishing a particular photograph to enhancing sound on a documentary.

Classes with tough teachers pay off. Many students reported how grateful they were at having taken Intro to Journalism or Journalism 300 with a particularly tough teacher of extremely high standards whose name we won’t mention. There were many “aha moments” in which students began to understand the value of the lessons that had been drilled into them about accuracy, AP style and writing structure.

Skills matter. All of them. Not just writing. Not just Wordpress. Not just understanding the impact of the web. Not just shooting video. All of them matter, sometimes some matter more than others, but they all matter sometime: reporting, self-editing, critical thinking, writing and digital production.

At least for now, anyway, students with multi-platform skills have an advantage. Every organization I read about, whether it was “print,” “broadcast,” “radio,” was either ramping up or maintaining a web presence, and several students reported unexpected opportunities because they had web skills, and knew how to shoot video or work with audio and digital images. This leads me to my next observation:

Any organization with a web presence needs a storyteller. Organizations are starting to understand that, to really make optimal use of the web, they need not just "content," but compelling stories. This means they need writers. Good ones. Loraine Burger took my public policy reporting class last spring, and found herself interviewing and writing features about the clients at food pantries and soup kitchens around the region for the Food Bank of Western Mass. Interns who sign on with the US Fish and Wildlife Service this all will tell the stories of people at national wildlife refuges around the Northeast. This is interesting, world-changing work that uses journalism skills. (And pays a whole lot better than a small paper.)

Nobody’s going to tell you how good you are all the time. But. As Nick O’Malley so deftly put it in his paper:
“While the staff at the paper was limited, overworked and had little time to mentor me and teach me, they did teach me one thing that will greatly help me career-wise in the future: Suck it up and get the story. You can’t get lazy and stop because the conditions aren’t perfect and you’ve got to get out, do some work, get in an uncomfortable position and get someone to talk to you. This means tracking down that lottery winner’s address when you can’t get any other information and knocking on the door."

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