As spring approaches, a familiar migration begins in newsrooms everywhere: interns start arriving. They arrive with enthusiasm (perhaps, some nervousness too) and the realization that, hey, it's not my professor that I have to impress anymore . . . it's that managing editor who's office is 10 feet from my desk and who's always calling reporters in and shutting the door. Oh oh.
What happens over the next several months is key to your intern gaining valuable experience that will serve them well no matter where they end up in the news business.
Many of these tips are simple (some obvious) but worth repeating:
1. Prepare a roadmap: Sure, you probably covered this territory during the intern's job interview a month earlier, but now that he/she has the internship, it's worth discussing goals and expectations again. He/she probably feels more relaxed and you both now share a partnership that will last all spring and summer so prepare a roadmap for what you both hope to achieve.
2. Remember it's a learning experience: There may be mistakes, there may be issues with story construction, and there may be insufficient reporting, at first. That's the key phrase . . . at first. The sooner you begin mentoring, the quicker issues will be addressed and hopefully solved. If you're still complaining about the same issues three months into the internship, you have to ask yourself: Have I really addressed these topics with the intern? Or have I just talked about them with everybody but the intern?
3. Feedback, feedback, feedback: Yes, it's another no brainer, but don't wait for 15 or 20 stories to be completed before you sit down with your intern three months later and say "Hey, I've gone over your stories and I think you really need to work on fixing. . ." If you are, you've wasted three months of the intern's time to grow his/her skills. Never, ever assign and then forget about your intern.
4. Involve the whole newsroom: One-on-one conversations at an intern's desk about story ideas, potential angles or approaches can be turned into effective mentoring opportunities by including other reporters in the conversation. Ask a reporter at a nearby desk to join the conversation and share their thoughts and experiences. Mentoring isn't just about an editor and intern. It's about reporters and intern too. In fact, if you can successfully involve your reporters in the mentoring process, their on-the-fly advice during a workday can be just as valuable as your guidance.
5. Create a challenge: Once you evaluate the skill level of your intern, hand him/her an assignment that will take them outside their comfort zone so they can grow as a reporter. Interns may be unsure of certain abilities in a new environment like a newsroom, but within a week or two, you should have a general idea of the skill level. Do you have the confidence to send your intern to a fatal hit and run? Or on a 300-mile roadtrip to another state to report on the startup of a Great Lakes ferry service? Or camping on a remote, off-limits-to-the-public sandspit in Lake Erie? If you have confidence in your intern, show it. Challenge him/her. The reward is seeing them beaming afterwards.
6. Assign an obit: Mention the word 'obit' to an intern and odds are you'll have struck fear in their hearts. It's the one assignment many hope to avoid for as long as possible. Of course, we know the reality: as a full-time reporter, you'll likely have to write many obituaries in your career. Don't add to the dilemma of reporters avoiding their first obituary until they're full time. Assign one to your intern. It's worth it for their development (when was the last time you saw a journalism grad show a portfolio that contained an obit?). They'll gain invaluable experience on the need for accuracy, dealing with people, effective questioning and listening, than several other assignments combined. Not to mention, they'll have overcome the dreaded 'obituary fear' before they start their full-time reporting careers.
7. Discover their interests: Perhaps, we don't do this enough; Learn more about the interests of our reporters and apply those interests to assignments. It's one of the quickest ways to get young interns (or any reporter, for that matter) motivated and off and running on reporting. Perhaps, you have an intern who owns a horse and enjoys riding. So, expand the conversation by using news or events taking place elsewhere. Does she have any fears about West Nile virus infecting her horse? She says no. What about other horse owners? Have any horses locally died? "I don't know," she says. "Why don't you look into that?" you reply. Suddenly, you're planting ideas for a story. The intern, who's interested in horses, eagerly embraces the assignment.
8. Enhance the tag along: Don't just tell your interns to tag along with your veteran reporters on a particular assignment. Talk to your intern and your reporter about having the intern do a certain job to contribute to the reporting process. Turn the intern into more than an observer when they tag along.
9. Require drafts: Coaching an intern is about more than talking before or after an assignment. Check with the intern regularly during the reporting and writing process. Ask for a draft of what he/she has so far so both of you -- that's a key: so both of you -- can go over what has been done so far. Ask key leading questions: How do you feel about what you've got so far? What's the most interesting thing you've found out so far? Who else do you need to talk to? What's missing? How do you want to wrap up the story?
10. Avoid gopher syndrome: Some fellow reporters would like to see all interns assigned all man-on-the-street Q&As for the duration of the summer to give the rest of the newsroom a break. Or assigned to work all holiday weekends. Or given all bottom-of-the-pile assignments. But honestly, is that what an internship is about? Doing the things all the other reporters hate to do the rest of year? You can set the tone early: An intern is part of the newsroom, not a gopher. An internship is about compiling a diverse portfolio while gaining valuable experience. Surely, existing reporters in your newsroom can remember the value of that.