The process and importance of journalism internships

I won’t bury the lead – this time.

I’m thrilled to have accepted an offer working as an intern in the sports department of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But the application process and eventual decision-making process of summer journalism internships was draining. Thrilling and exhausting. And it’s left me with some thoughts on the importance of said internships.

My decision was essentially this: Take the offer from the Inquirer, thus building my resume, adding more impressive clips with more opportunities, learning from a more experienced staff, and reaching a larger audience. The drawback? After relocating and living on my own for the summer, I’ll almost surely lose money. Couple that with what I could have made working as a reporter and copy editor with the New Hampshire Union Leader and we’re talking the difference of more than $5,000. My other option, then, was to turn down the Inquirer and return to the Union Leader where I’ve worked the last four years. I’d surely add bylines and learn some new things, but the biggest attraction was the short term revenue

I chose the former.

I’ve been lucky enough to build enough of a savings through the Union Leader to make my summer plans viable. But it got me thinking: What about those who haven’t been as lucky and would have to turn down many of the big summer internships which require relocating?

In today’s industry, accepting internships at large media outlets is vital for those who want to work full-time at large media outlets. (Nothing against those eyeing community journalism, but the route to a full-time job there is often drastically different.)

Judging from the last few years, those who land the handful of internships at large media outlets usually end up working for a large media outlet within a few years (and sometimes months).

Why?

Two reasons. One, they’re good. Editors at these large media outlets often receive more than 200 application packets, each including a resume, cover letter and around 10 clips. Simply put, these editors can choose whomever they want. Two, they’re training the best of the crop to be even better. It’s a competitive advantage that those who land the internship get. They’re already the best college journalists in the country otherwise they wouldn’t have been accepted. Now they are spending 40 hours a week working with and learning from America’s most talented journalists. It’s a recipe for success.

That, in part, is why I felt I couldn’t turn down the Inquirer even if it meant a loss in revenue over the summer. I pitched it to my parents as an investment. “I’m investing my money in my career,” I told them. “Whatever money I spend this semester living in Philadelphia will be made up for in a bigger salary within a few years.” That’s my plan anyway. I said it was the same idea as my pre-med brother taking summer classes to improve his undergrad resume for medical school. Except, of course, I won’t be taking the MCATs.

I cited examples of other college journalists who landed great full-time jobs after completing internships. But the most compelling argument to them was the most direct one.

The two sports interns at the Inquirer last year, Tim Rohan and Matt Breen, have accepted summer internships at the New York Times and Washington Post, respectively.

Internships at large news outlets, like the Inquirer, can set you up for a successful career in this industry. (That’s not to take away the hard work of interns like Rohan and Breen, but more to emphasize the platform it offers talented journalists like them, which they can then use to land positions at aforementioned news outlets.)

But the hundreds that don’t land one of these internships are left to wonder where they went wrong, when, truthfully, it was just a numbers game: more people feel they deserve a big internship than the number of big internships available.

I maintain this industry is one part talent and two parts luck. Unfortunately for many talented young journalists, an editor somewhere decided that a few pieces of paper describing themselves wasn’t good enough.

I’m the last one who should complain about the system – and I’m not trying to. I’ve been extremely lucky to work with such talented people at the Union Leader and equally lucky to land the Inquirer internship.

But the discussion of journalism internships is one that only begins with the points I’ve brought up. The fact remains that those who graduate with a degree in journalism are miles behind those who have completed internships. I’ve seen that firsthand working as an editor at the school newspaper. Even by reading one article from new writers, it’s easy to tell which ones have completed internships, and which haven’t.

Former Boston Globe reporter (and current UNH journalism professor) Tom Haines once told me that he was a big believer in being a big fish in a small pond. The benefit is greater than many realize, he said.

I believe his theory has merit. But right now I’m looking forward to being a minnow in Philadelphia’s ocean.