How to get a journalism internship

Apr 25 2013

While I have no hiring power and certainly cannot speak for those that do, I want to share my thoughts on getting an internship in the journalism industry. (That includes a lot of thoughts from those with hiring power that I know, like a VP at CNN and a managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

I’m in my fourth internship right now, though I’ve never blindly applied for anything. Let me start by recounting how I got all of my internships (because I love to pick other people’s brains about how they got jobs), then I’ll organize some tips into a list (because I love lists).

My first internship was with the Carteret County News-Times, a tri-weekly community newspaper serving the Morehead City/Beaufort area of North Carolina. A friend of mine with a house in Morehead City had invited me to live with her for the summer because her parents were going to be elsewhere most of the time and she needed company. Live at the beach with a friend for the summer? Yes please! And so I got online and looked up newspapers in the area. I found the News-Times. I found the editor’s email address online and sent him an email that said this:

Dear Mr. ———-,

I am a journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have declared my specialization as news writing, though I am also a photographer. I have just recently been invited to stay with a family in Morehead City over the summer and am looking into the possibilities of an internship or other position at one of the local publications.

I work for The Daily Tar Heel as a writer, photographer and weekend blogger and will likely be taking a position as an assistant editor in the fall, but I still can’t get enough. I love what I do. As you are the editor of the Carteret County News-Times I am hoping that you may know of a suitable summer position at your own publication or another in the area. I would be grateful for any help you might be willing to extend.

Thank you,
Melissa Abbey

He responded asking for more information about me (what year I was, clips, etc). I sent him a little blurb about myself and links to a few clips. I also attached my resumé and offered to send copies of feature stories I’d written for a class that semester. He was impressed with my resumé and clips (and initiative), passed the email chain on the managing editor and told me I could “probably plan” on being there that summer. They hired me to write for the feature section. I also took a lot of photos and wrote a couple of hard-news stories.

Note: My resumé was NOT impressive at that point. I’d never had an internship before. The extent of my journalism experience was three semesters with The Daily Tar Heel. But I had done good work there and I think that — in addition to my boldness — is what impressed him.

My second internship was with CNN. More specifically, the CNN Wire, which is a team of breaking news reporters that crank out news that goes on the website, to the shows for anchors to report on air and to CNN’s 800+ affiliates around the nation. I landed that internship by impressing a certain VP at CNN during his visits to Chapel Hill.

I first met said CNN VP during March of my sophomore year. He was a guest lecturer in my feature writing class and encouraged questions and participation during his instruction. After the class, he asked me and two upperclassmen to stay behind. He asked us if we already had internships lined up for the summer. The other two did, I did not. He asked me to meet with him later that week, and of course I did. At the end of our interview he told me that he was impressed with me, but given that I hadn’t had any internships yet, he wanted me to wait a year and get a little more experience before coming to CNN. He made me promise to meet with him the next year.
(I then proceeded to reach out to the Carteret County News-Times and intern there.)

The following spring I attended one of CNN VP’s talks at the j-school. I asked questions and challenged his statements. I interviewed with him later. He remembered me, liked me, passed my information on to the head of CNN Wire, who did a phone interview a week or so later and offered me the position on the spot.

The third internship required no initiation on my part. A faculty member at the j-school approached me about interning with The Charlotte Observer during the Democratic National Convention (which was held in Charlotte in 2012). The Observer had reached out to the school and was looking for a few extra hands during the DNC. I gave my resumé, a cover letter and maybe some clips to that faculty member, and the next thing I knew I was one of six or seven students chosen to go. (If you’re curious, you can read more about that experience in an article I wrote for Poynter.)

Finally, my fourth internship: the one I currently hold at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I decided in the fall that I really want to start my career in Atlanta. I figured I’d be more successful finding a job here if I was actually here to network and get noticed. So I talked to a friend who interned for the AJC as a digital programmer/designer last summer to find out who I should contact. I emailed the person she named (a managing editor) with the following (subject line: “Interested in a spring intern?”):

Mr. ———,

Greetings from the Tar Heel State! My name is Melissa Abbey and I am a senior in the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I lived with —— —— this past summer while interning as a reporter and writer for CNN and heard great things about intern life at the AJC.

I want to move to Atlanta as soon as possible after this semester and I was wondering if the AJC might be interested in a spring intern. (Though I won’t officially graduate until May I have so few hours left that I can leave and finish my hours online. ) I see that the paper is already advertising summer internship positions, but I’m hoping to move on to something more permanent in the summer. I would be available to start in January and work full-time. I would also, of course, be interested in any full-time positions or freelancing opportunities.

A little background on me: I’ve interned with the CNN Wire, The Charlotte Observer and the Carteret County News-Times. On campus I’ve worked with The Daily Tar Heel and Reese News, where I am now the director of news. I’ve also written a piece for Poynter.org on covering the DNC using solely social media. In case you’re interested you can find my resume and clips on my website. I’d also be happy to send you digital documents, hard copies or anything else you might need.

-Melissa

As a matter of fact, they had never had spring interns before, he said, but were doing it for the first time this year. He then proceeded to attempt to dissuade me from interning because it would be unpaid. I insisted, he interviewed me, he hired me (as an unpaid intern).

OK, so my tips based on experience and feedback from those that hired me:

1. INITIATE, INITIATE, INITIATE! Seriously. Boldness and the ability to initiate are key qualities in a successful reporter and you can prove a lot by reaching out. Lots of people see a posting and send an email with the required attachments. Boring. Stand out by starting a conversation. (Plus, they might take an intern even if they don’t have a posting!)

2. Do your research. Before sending that email, figure out who the right person is. Reach out to the managing editor, no the chief editor. If there is more than one, ask around or look through the website to figure out who is the managing editor over the department interested in. Email that person, and address them by name. Never “to whom it may concern.” Also make sure you know a little bit about the publication (at the very last know what they do, who they do it for and where they are located). Don’t risk getting an email back that says “Um, Thanks for your interest, but we’re located in Decatur ILLINOIS not Decatur GEORGIA, and I’m not the editor there anymore, you fool.”

3. If you have an in, use it. Do you know somebody that works there? Somebody that has interned there? Somebody in the industry that lives in the area? Reach out to that person first and see what they say. Mention that person when you reach out to an editor. You’re building some kind of personal connection, and that’s good.

4. Impress everyone, not just the head honchos. Example No. 1: The managing editor at AJC who hired me called a friend of his who worked for the CNN Wire while I was there. It wasn’t someone I listed as a reference, but it was someone he trusted. That person spoke highly of me, and that was invaluable to the AJC managing editor. I had impressed someone else who worked for the wire, not just the editors, and that made a big difference down the line. Example No. 2: I didn’t know the CNN VP was visiting Chapel Hill in part to recruit interns, but the fact that I impressed him one day in class led to a killer internship a year later. Example No. 3: I’ve always been career/experience over school, but it was an impressed faculty member that ultimately got me my gig with The Charlotte Observer. Your professors have connections that could lead to an internship or job for you, so make a good impression.

5. Drop the BS during an interview. Some people thing it’s smart to try to avoid admitting to weaknesses or past mistakes during an interview. (For example, saying that being a “perfectionist” or “working too hard” is their weakness. Puh-lease.) Don’t do it. Your interviewer is likely weeding out people like that, and wants to find someone who is self-aware. Be honest, but also include how you compensate. (Like: “I’m naturally really forgetful, but I’ve learned to keep a detailed calendar and set reminders to help with that.” Or, “Cold calls are still pretty nerve-racking for me, but it’s a fear I’d like to beat and I think this experience would help.”) If your interviewer asks whether or not you’ve made any mistakes, they’re not trying to find and weed out the screw-ups. They’re trying to find people who are honest and who learn from their mistakes. (Example: I told CNN VP I’d gotten myself fired from a summer job for a certain big mistake and what I learned from that experience. He knew I wouldn’t make that mistake again and that I was going to learn from future ones.)

6. Build a website. Sure, you can attach a resumé and clips to an email, but having a website is so much better. It proves that you’re at least a little digitally savvy. It’s also a great way for potential employers to learn more about you. You can keep lots of clips there (so if they want to see more than the few that you send them they can). You can host a blog that gives them insight into your personality and casual writing style. (Note: If you blog, keep it focused and don’t use it to rant about your personal life.) Make sure your website is professional, but also reflects your personality. (If you can’t afford a domain name, a wordpress.com blog is better than nothing. You can manipulate the site to have multiple pages where you keep clips, resumé, etc.)

Good luck!


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